As a self proclaimed Episcopal agnostic one would not think I’d have any interest in going into a church or a cathedral. But, the fact of the matter is I find them genuinely fascinating. Most people who talk about traveling, especially to Europe, want to go to museums. They want to see the Mona Lisa or an ancient artifact from Egypt or Rome. Frankly, those things, as much as I love history and art, bore me. They are lacking in experience because I can’t touch them or see them in their natural environment. Churches and cathedrals are historical artifacts and art. Each hold a level of history that once you step in makes you feel like you’re part of something. Even in newer church structures there is a sense of calm, a quiet, of something else. (I can count at least 2 priests shaking their heads at the fact that I can proclaim myself an agnostic and still say there is a sense of something else in a church). This calming mystery that pervades these buildings is probably why I love going to the National Cathedral.
Before I go much further I have to give a brief history and overview of the building to prevent any confusion. Despite the belief by many who come to DC the Cathedral is not Catholic. It is Episcopalian. So is St. Albans which also sits on the Cathedral grounds. As much as I love Cathedrals, I’ve only been inside the National Cathedral a couple of times. Like most of the city it is free, which means that aside from Sundays, when it’s packed to capacity with those attending services, it’s teeming with tourists and Catholics who’ve failed to read their tour books and think it is a Catholic Cathedral. Though long since passed, the anti-Catholic movement in the United States has not been friendly to the National Cathedral, an Episcopal institution. Despite the plethora of tourists that wander the Cathedral and its’ grounds, at least a handful of people fail to visit because they’re under the impression it is a Catholic and they couldn’t “with good conscious enter.” It is sad to think there a people missing out on the magnificence of the building simply because of religious disagreements. What one thinks about a religion should not stop them from admiring incredible feats in architecture.
Despite being a beautiful building, seated at the highest point on the city, what I usually go to see are the rest of the Cathedral grounds. The Bishop’s Garden because of its direct proximity to the Cathedral has the most traffic, but even still it is stunningly beautiful. In many ways it is reminiscent of an English Garden. The paths are lined and laid out in such a way that you often feel like you’re wandering them by yourself. There’s a gazebo perfect for reading, a lawn perfect for picnics, and photographic opportunities wherever you look.
Most people stop at the garden. They fail to realize that if they cross the small roadway there’s more that the grounds are hiding. Beyond the garden is a wooded area lined with paths and benches, even a tree-fort type structure, and an amphitheater. They’re quiet and beautiful because fewer people know they’re there. While the garden is not noisy, you’re more likely to find people talking loudly or posing for a photo. The woods and the amphitheater on the other hand have a level intimacy. I’m always afraid to speak above a whisper because you never know who will be sitting in quiet contemplation at the next turn. Naturally the woods simply feel more personal.
With so many places tucked away the Cathedral has always been the place I run to, to get time to myself and clear my head. Every section of DC in many ways is its own world. They each have their own culture and community. The National Cathedral is unique in that it’s not a community, but its 57 acres make it its own world. There are times when I’m wandering around in the woods or in the garden that I actually forget I’m in the city. The cars disappear, the tourists fade. You get lost in your own thoughts.