Our final stop in Washington, D.C., the day after the annual March for Life was at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. The priests who’d traveled with the high school students whom I was chaperoning conducted Mass surrounded by colorful murals and intricate statuary. Those of us who received the Eucharist in the center aisle did so over the words, “Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the requiem Mass, November 25, 1963.”
From the edge of a chapel on the right side of the cathedral, a bust of Saint Pope John Paul II looks out of the corners of its eyes as if the saint is stretching his neck to see the gracefully gesturing statue of Our Lady in her own chapel on the other side of the rear pews.
The iconography around the building is endlessly meaningful, and visitors could spend hours trying to take it all in and a lifetime contemplating it. The craftsmanship not only of the artists whose work is on display, but also of the artisans who constructed their setting is impressive. In its sheer beauty, though, the marble — with the polished stone swirling around itself in a broad palette of colors — is what took my breath away.
A process of chemistry and tremendous force over centuries fashioned the material, awaiting human hands to collect and polish it, fashioning it into columns, railings, or just tiles and slabs to finish the floors and walls. In some places, the natural designs are suggestive of images. Between a confessional and a mural of the calling of St. Matthew, a dark shape in one slab gives the impression of a robed figure in a cavern or a wooded area. The imagination of a viewer awaiting his or her turn behind the curtain must provide the details.
The real story of natural materials, in other words, is essentially the subject matter of religion. Creation came into being through an awe-inspiring sequence of events and produced artifacts by which we humans can communicate the inarticulable. People brought the stone out of the Earth and the beauty out of the stone, and somebody decided to put this piece here and that piece there because doing so somehow seemed right — as if it struck some chord in the soul. But the raw stuff and the purpose, those are God’s.
Just so, somebody wrote the songs that the students sang during Mass, and of course the students practiced and performed them, but God designed the echo that lent a holy mystery to the tune. God inspired the sentiments about which we all were singing. God created the singers in the womb.
Just so, a biological process fashions us over nine months until human hands draw us into the air and help to shape the lives that we will lead. Then, the broad palette of humanity is meaningful most especially because we are free to strive after our own patterns and choose the uses to which we’ll put our lives.
A massive pipe organ below a mural of the martyrdom of St. Matthew remained silent during our Mass, but as the singers’ echoes filled the space between the bits of marble, I thought of the musical compositions of J.S. Bach, who laid notes along the page in full consideration of the way the organ’s sound would resonate back and forth across a church.
Just so, our Divine Composer must have contemplated the echoes of His martyred apostle, as of the sainted pope who died in testimony to grace in suffering, as of an assassinated president who had inspired a generation, as of every child whose deaths our nation tolerates even before their cries and laughs can impress upon their mothers’ ears.
In modern sonograms, we can see the beauty even of those little ones whom we cannot see with our own eyes. But, oh, the breathtaking beauty of which we deprive the world when we stop them short of designing their own patterns in the spaces between us.
A convert to Catholicism and father of four, Justin Katz is the research director of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and writes for OceanStateCurrent.com.