Jerry Earl Johnston: Cathedrals have their own unique personalities

Published: Sunday, Aug. 9 2009 12:18 a.m. MDT

I am not an authority on cathedrals. In fact, pretty much everything I know I learned from David Macaulay's pen-and-ink picture book "Cathedral."

But I am an authority on how cathedrals make me feel.

And each one calls up different emotions.

Like people, they each have their own personalities.

There's the airy atmosphere of Winchester Cathedral in England. Songs seem to rise forever there. Then there's regal wonder of St. Peter's in Rome. It's like visiting another planet.

Latin American cathedrals have a busy feel to them — not only because of the bustling crowds, but because every nook and cranny is filled with icons, images and other small delights.

But just as no cooking tastes like home cooking, no cathedral can ever compare to the one at home.

And for Utahns, that would be the Cathedral of the Madeleine.

My mental scrapbook is filled with dozens of memorable moments I've spent there. I remember a midnight mass one Christmas Eve and a production of Benjamin Britten's "Prodigal Son." There have been many other events there filled with interfaith sharing and profound devotion.

I remember all the controversy when the cathedral was "renovated" instead of "restored." The candy-colored pillars, the beardless Jesus in the paintings for the stations of the cross — paintings filled with unusual symbols and composition. The newness of it all caught many folks off guard.

But just as the abstract Picasso sculpture in downtown Chicago went from being a lightning rod for complaints to a point of local pride, Utahns — too — have embraced and accepted the innovations found at the Madeleine.

The motives of the makers are no longer in question. In the words of Mother Teresa, they simply hoped to "do something beautiful for God."

And in my book, they succeeded.

For the truth is, contrary to the scuttlebutt going around, modern artists are not the spawn of Satan. Aspects of modern art are simply tools. And as with knives, fire and technology, whether modern art is a "positive" tool or "negative" tool depends on how it's put to use. And those who had a hand in the renovation of the Madeleine added a freshness of vision and style to a wonderful sacred space at the heart of our capital city.

I'm not a Catholic, but I do visit the Madeleine often. I once rented an apartment across the street from it. I enjoyed being close its grandeur and warmth.

The great cathedrals of the world have made me feel an array of emotions.

When I visited St. Paul's in London I felt I was going to be spirited off to heaven.

When I stopped by the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, I felt small and vulnerable.

But the Madeleine has given me a feeling that I have found nowhere else.

When I step through its massive doors, I feel I've come home.

e-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com

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