Building a Cathedral

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

A story goes that a man traveling comes to visit a village in Italy, where, for all time, stone cutting has been the trade of the men. Curious about the trade and what these men are doing, he walks into the local stone cutting yard and approaches the first man he sees. “Hello sir, good morning,” the traveler greets him. “Tell me, what is it you are doing?” The gentleman pauses in his work to say, “Well, I am cutting stone. It is the job I was hired to do.” The traveler thanks him and continues onward. He approaches a second man, chipping away at the white rock, and says, “Hello friend! Can you tell me more about what you’re doing?” The man looks up, smiles, and answers, “Well yes, I am cutting stone, just as my father did, and my grandfather before him. I am grateful that I can provide for my family and be part of a long-held tradition and community.” The traveler, thankful, nods his appreciation and walks on. As he approaches the back of the yard, he makes his way to another man. Curious to understand more, the traveler again says, “Hello there! I notice you working diligently, sir. Can you tell me what it is you’re doing?” The man looks up, his face radiant.”Why yes,” he answers after a moment to breathe in deeply. “I am building a cathedral.”

This is the choice we make in our every activity. I must ask myself each day, in each activity, will I chip stone, arriving in my day with one layer of awareness? Will I work in a way in which I remember my connection to others, grateful for the work of chipping? Or will I arrive with such deep, clear reverence and attention, that in each action I am building a cathedral? There are plenty of moments that I am hurried and asleep, chipping stone through my day. It’s as if I slip below the surface of attention and am simply moving forward in the day to get to some end. I chip away at the day but am I awake to the possibility of splendor, the magnificence available when I am awake in my body, heart, and mind? This is the question I’ve been asking myself on the mat and off. How can I move with such attention, such reverence for the work I’m doing and the gift of the resources with which I work, that it is as if I am “building a cathedral” in all I do?

Richard Rohr relates this understanding through the work of Cynthia Bourgeault, who shares the importance of three-centered awareness—heart, mind, and body—in order to be fully present to ourselves, our lives, and to the divine:

“When a person is poised in all three centers, balanced and alertly there, a shift happens in consciousness. Rather than being trapped in our usual mind, with its well-formed rut tracks of issues and agendas and ways of thinking, we seem to come from a deeper, steadier, and quieter place. We are present, in the words of Wisdom tradition, fully occupying the now in which we find ourselves. Presence is the straight and narrow gate through which one passes to Wisdom.

This state of presence is extraordinarily important to know and taste in oneself. For sacred tradition is emphatic in its insistence that real Wisdom can be given and received only in a state of presence, with all three centers of our being engaged and awake. Anything less is known in the tradition as ‘sleep.'”

Perhaps we arrive out of bed only once each day, but we get the opportunity to wake up many times, throughout each day. This waking up to the sensations of body, to the presence of a connected and compassionate heart, and to a mind aware of right and wise action and word, is the work of building a cathedral. Stepping onto my mat and into my day I can of course proceed through the daily chipping away of stone, mostly asleep to what I am doing. Perhaps I’m awake even to one of the three centers of awareness. Yet, when I keep all three awarenesses open long enough for the deeper, hidden understanding to arise, I experience, as Thomas Keating writes, “…the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.” This is the gleaming arrival of understanding that I am indeed able to build a cathedral in all I do. I mean the work of moving my body, of connecting with humanity from the center of my heart, and of contemplating my experiences into a new wisdom. It is all an opportunity for deep reverence, deep attention, and to practice waking up all three ways of being aware and alive. Why would I not want to? Life is so precious and so short, and there is such good work to be a part of.

Perhaps today try a practice I offer in the teacher training. Immerse yourself in your day by noticing, now and throughout the day, more deeply what your hands are doing right now, your feet, your senses. Anchor your awareness into your body. Then, what is your experience of thought? Our body doesn’t have a choice–it is always in the moment, exactly where it is. But our mind often chooses to exit to the past or to the future. Can you instead stay present in the contemplation of your shifting experience right now long enough for some hidden awareness to arrive? As you awaken contemplation, guide attention to your heart–can you rest your awareness right there and watch as the breath moves around this space. Feel that there is room for each inhalation as exhalation makes space for the new. Surrender to the breath, and remember that this breath that enters you is the very same breath that enters each human you encounter today, each of us connected through this wondrous mystery. With your whole awareness–mind, bodily sensation, and heart–awake to this moment, allow yourself to feel the great work of each breath building a cathedral of you. Feel that you’ve arrived at the temple. And enter into the moment, allowing time and your experience to expand around this simple–albeit not necessarily easy–work.

Building a cathedral is not the work of only the greatest artists and architects. It is not merely for the wealthy or those with great resources. Building a cathedral is the work of the stone cutter at the back of a stone yard in a simple, old village. It is for the one who pauses to expand their awareness, feeling and knowing the precision and possibility in each well-attended moment. It is the work that reminds us we can be, in all ways, radiantly alive.