I love visiting churches, and before I left Alexandria my friend Josh recommended I stop by the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. I couldn’t remember if this was one of the attractions I had seen during my first visit to the city in high school. So much of that trip blurred together. But I figured a church is a church and I would still enjoy looking around.
I parked in the garage, where the first half hour is free. I figured I could be in and out in thirty minutes, no problem. I was so wrong. You don’t visit the National Cathedral like it’s a church, you visit it likes it’s a museum. There are pamphlets and self-guided tours and every piece of art has meaning and history. On either side of the main worship space are small alcoves, labeled as “Memorial Bays” on my map. Each bay has a unique stained glass window and stone features, such as the Kellogg Bay which features a carving of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he preached his last Sunday sermon from the Cathedral’s pulpit, or the George Washington Bay with abstract designs reflecting the search for freedom.
I saw in my brochure that the Cathedral had a “Space Window” commemorating the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The window contained a piece of moon rock brought back by the crew. I located the window on the map and begin walking down the alcoves in search of it. As I passed by the memorial bays, one window caught my eye. In the lower left there was a picture of a woman. She is dark-skinned with large eyes. She looks at you. She walks toward you. I found her captivating and couldn’t say why. I kept walking in search of the space window, only to realize I must have passed it. I walked back, once again stopping at the window with the woman. Who was she supposed to be? I remember looking at the description and not understanding the connection. Later I tried to remember which bay she was in, and went searching online for photos. I could find more photos of her window than any other, but few were labeled for where in the Cathedral the image was taken. Finally I found it – it was the Woodrow Wilson Bay. I can’t begin to guess why, except that she must represent some policy he created. All I have now is her haunting figure, asking me for something. Trying to tell me something. I have no idea what.
Eventually I found the Space Window. I had been looking at eye-level where the memorial bays were, but the Space Window is high above, near the ever-distant ceiling. I walked out into the nave to gaze up at it. It’s a nice affirmation to my understanding that science and religion are not at odds, but in harmony. It’s too bad many of the people who work so close to the Cathedral can’t seem to come to the same conclusion.
There are multiple side chapels, each constructed and decorated to a theme. There’s the Children’s Chapel with a figure of Jesus the size of a six-year-old child. There’s the War Memorial Chapel with images of soldiers and valor. Saint John and Saint Mary each have a chapel as well, and after circling through each one you end up back at the front of the very long High Altar space, where you can see the three rose windows to the north, south, and west.
I had already passed the half hour mark, but figured I could still finish my visit in an hour and only pay the minimum for parking. Then I turned my map over. I hadn’t been downstairs.
Few and far between are the churches with publicly accessible crypts. The crypt at the National Cathedral holds an additional four chapels. All of them are as beautiful as the main nave above, if not more so. The Bethlehem Chapel has dozens of hand-stitched prayer cushions depicting the birth narrative of Jesus. In the Resurrection Chapel, mosaics line the walls. The color and shine bounce off the art in such a way that the whole room glows. I’ve never seen a windowless room be so bright.
The anachronistic feeling in the Cathedral gift shop made me giggle. In order to maintain the beautiful gothic exterior, no additional buildings have been added on to the Cathedral. This means the shop must be incorporated into the existing structure. And when the existing structure happens to contain 100 years of religious practices, it means that occasionally someone’s burial tomb is directly above the “My First Communion” books.
Like seemingly all significant churches on the east coast, the National Cathedral is an Episcopal church. I beamed with pride upon seeing the table of paraphernalia dedicated to the Episcopal church. Would you like a T-Shirt of Robin Williams’ “Top Ten Reasons to Be an Episcopalian?” How about a pocket-sized Book of Common Prayer? They even had the book written by current Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. I feel like it gives me a lot of denominational cred that my church’s highest office is held by a woman – not to mention a licensed pilot.
All told I spent over and hour and a half visiting the National Cathedral, and I didn’t even get to look at the gardens outside. Unfortunately I had places to be and battlefields to see. Had I known I suppose I would have tried to get an earlier start on the day. But the Cathedral wasn’t the first place I visited where I wished I could stay longer, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get. Maybe next time I’ll get to see the Darth Vader gargoyle. I may even find the time to pray.