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Take a closer look at Catholic cathedrals.

Cathedrals, like cars and clothes, dot the landscape in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and styles. As we Americans gear up for one of our favorite pastimes -- summer travel -- cathedrals will be popular destinations for the pilgrim's progress on the tourist trek.

Among my favorite cathedrals is Chartres, off the beaten track, a few hour's ride southwest of Paris. Many visitors to France satisfy their cathedral urges with the mighty Notre Dame in Paris. I recommend otherwise. What catches my eye and captures my imagination at Chartres, and there is a lot to gaze at and ponder in this most elaborately decorated cathedral, is the iconography around the Royal Portal -- the west entrance to the cathedral. The signs of the zodiac and several pagan personalities are among the sculpted figures there.

In today's world the signs of the zodiac reverberate with things New Age. What's so new about New Age? Why all this Christian fuss about New Age things? Here, in one of the most venerable cathedrals of Christendom, secular images stand in testimony to a wider, wonderful world. So, too, do the people also etched in stone there, among them Aristotle, Cicero, Euclid, Pythagoras, and Ptolemy. These are pagan peoples, not Christians, memorialized in the cathedral's stonework.

Maybe the division between who's Christian and who's not, who's in and who's out of the church is not so extreme after all. Might the veil that divides believers and nonbelievers be far more porous than currently portrayed by neoparochial purveyors of myopic Catholic identity?

What might a contemporary cathedral's iconography include if modeled after the vision that motivated the builders of Chartres? Imagine Georgia O'Keeffe, Albert Einstein, Jane Austen, Jean-Paul Sartre, Betty Friedan, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Golda Meir, and Thomas Jefferson carved into the stonework of a contemporary cathedral. Even more astounding, imagine the spirituality etched into the consciousness of contemporary people by such iconography.

Whether pilgrim tourist or tourist pilgrim this summer, keep your eyes peeled and your mind open to the myriad of messages cathedrals hold for the observant. if you go to Chartres, pause before the Royal Portal in the west facade of the cathedral, see the signs of the zodiac, greet those great pagan thinkers, and say a prayer for all the world. Happy travels. Holy pilgrimage.

"Odds and Ends" columnist, Peter Gilmour, is faculty member in the Institute of Pastoral Studies, Loyola University. He can be reached in cyberspace at
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Author:Gilmour, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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