Yvonne Hawkins, our Washington, D.C.. Correspondent, shares insights from her recent visit to The Washington National Cathedral. If you are visiting the DMV, this landmark is one to see!
I visit D.C.’s Cathedral historic district a couple of times a year to attend interfaith services that the Washington Hebrew Congregation hosts. The temple sits a stone’s throw from the Washington National Cathedral. And I love seeing the cathedral’s spires as I near the temple.
I’m still learning D.C.’s neighborhoods, though. And because the interfaith services are held in the evenings, I didn’t realize I was driving straight through Embassy Row each visit. But during a Sunday morning tour of the cathedral, a spry docent confirmed as much.
Originally, I planned to take a nighttime tour of the D.C. monuments as a Valentine’s Day treat. I really didn’t expect February’s temperatures to pose any problems. As a native Midwesterner, the DMV’s winter feel more like intensive fall to me. But this year’s V-day weather would’ve made Chicago proud.
So I headed indoors.
And since it’s Lent, joining the cathedral’s Sunday worship followed by a docent-led tour was a great blend of spiritual nourishment and personal getaway.
As the nation’s cathedral, Washington National Cathedral simultaneously is home to both an active Episcopalian congregation and official national events. Tours run daily. Even on Sundays.
Our docent joked about how boring young students seem whenever they visit. But the next time you’re in D.C., here’s what you do: Make sure to attend a Sunday lecture or worship service. Then do one of several tours. I had no idea how amazing this one-of-a-kind combo would be!
The cathedral obviously draws high profile guest speakers to its pulpit regularly. The list includes towering figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Graham and Desmond Tutu. Bryan Stevenson, a nationally acclaimed social justice lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, happened to be the guest lecturer and preacher that weekend. The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, a prominent womanist scholar, served as a canon.
If ever I picked an amazing weekend to drop in, this was it.
The cathedral is astonishing. Hand-carved from Indiana limestone. It took more than 80 years to build. Though, a docent can tell you much better than I about the architecture and layers of symbolism throughout the cathedral.
You don’t have to be Anglican—or even religious—to appreciate the cathedral’s beauty. But worshipping—even just for an hour—in such grandeur is significantly better than simply taking a tour. I didn’t take any photos during the service so that I could worship, but I did record a snippet of the pipe organ postlude.
After worship, take the tour. I felt more grounded in the experience by combing worship with the tour. And as with most things D.C., I felt the juxtaposition of the wonders as well as disturbing parts of our national history as I learned more about how this sacred space is built.
That’s because the cathedral’s Gothic architecture tells two stories: The story of God and God’s relationship to God’s people, and the story of the United States of America. As the docent lead us through the cathedral’s highlights, I couldn’t help but notice whenever those two stories blend into a wonderful crescendo and whenever they diverge painfully at odds with each other. As a minister, I was reminded of the principle that a person’s theology—what she or he believes about God—dictates that person’s anthropology. That is, how that person views other people.
And a person’s anthropology then dictates her or his sociology. That is, how the person relates to other people. In many ways, the cathedral’s architecture tells the story of the nation’s theology dictating its anthropology dictating its sociology. Riveting and sad at the same time. I understand, though, if students on tour in D.C. might not get into that much.
D.C.’s 5.8 earthquake in 2011 left the cathedral badly damaged. Because Washington National is a regular church, the government doesn’t support any of its operations, including earthquake repairs. Like all churches, Washington National depends on its congregants for sustenance. Imagine being a congregation responsible for repairing rare earthquake damage to a hand-carved limestone building.
Yeah, they need money. About $32 million.
Our docent said the congregation is committed, as the faithful do, to completing all repairs, no matter how long it takes. I only had a few bucks in cash with me, but I left it in the collection plate. Seemed the least I could for such a magnificent building.
I left that day falling in love in the cathedral. What an amazing jewel. Beautifully flawed and wonderful. Valentine’s Day didn’t disappoint after all. I know I’ll be back.
But one of the times I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll check out Embassy Row, too. Now that I know where it is.
Yvonne D. Hawkins is an ordained minister, former newspaper journalist, and church leadership consultant who specializes in pastoral care. She currently lives in Northern Virginia. She went to college and seminary in Evanston, Illinois, so she deeply misses Lake Michigan. And the Taste of Chicago. She definitely misses The Taste. Her newest blog is www.artistssaw.com.