Imagine walking into a Gothic cathedral. Maybe it is Chartes Cathedral in France or the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. These are impressive structures from the outside, often towering over their surroundings. Yet, in some ways, the exterior of cathedrals can be a bit drab. Often worn by years and weather, they can lose their luster and sense of greatness. The stained glass, itself, is always dark and lifeless from the outside. For many in the world where secularism has become the dominant cultural disposition, some of these cathedrals merely function as inconvenient truths of a culture’s once Christian past. They have become more museum than house of worship; or worse, symbols of oppression rather than liberation and faith. Impressive in their physical design, yet ultimately meaningless to the enlightened or postmodern mind. But there is something this vantage point of the cathedral cannot communicate: the beauty illumined from within.
When preaching at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI made a point about the interior of the cathedral through the image of stained glass: “From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive. . . It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit.” In other words, it is only from the inside of the cathedral that the light shines through and brings to life its beauty. So it goes with the faith of the Church. The truth and beauty of the Catholic faith can be seen only from the inside when we set aside preconceived notions and desires with a willingness to run the experiment of faith. It is a lived experience—from within illumined by the light of grace—that communicates something that a person could never see as an outside bystander.
I often encounter people who only see the darkened windows or the worn exterior of the Church. There is little that attracts them and more that disturbs them, from the sins of her members to her seemingly outdated moral claims. This is a great difficulty to overcome as Pope Benedict says: “this is no easy task in a world which can tend to look at the Church, like those stained glass windows, ‘from the outside’: a world which deeply senses a need for spirituality, yet finds it difficult to ‘enter into’ the mystery of the Church.” But the great summons that we have as Christians is to open the door of the cathedral to the spiritually hungry: “It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.”
Where so many people get stuck is on the intellectual level, as if the faith is only about knowing and believing the right things. However, as Pope Benedict has pointed out elsewhere, being a Christian is much more than an intellectual affair. It is an encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. What living the experiment of faith requires is that the spiritually hungry come willing to see things differently; to see things from within the Church’s communion. This practice is a willingness to say “yes” to a truth and ecclesial community that precedes us and the need to take a risk of entering into something unknown. Only from within with the light of grace do things of the faith truly make sense. When we reach that point, we begin to see everything in a new way: “flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit.” As C.S. Lewis points out: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
People want to be alive in the light. The exterior view from the outside has proven fatal for so many. The spiritually dead are among us. Now is the time to call people to the inside, where the light truly shines and Christians truly live.