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Calm • Perspective

Building the Cathedral

Construction of Cologne Cathedral began on August 15, 1248; the choir was consecrated in 1322 and by 1448, the cathedral’s nave had been completed. Work on the transepts got going in the late 14th century but a range of delays meant that it wasn’t until 1814 that the two front twin towers started to rise – and it was 1996 before the south transept window was put in. Having required the labour of 150,000 people over 756 years, the Cathedral was conclusively finished in 2004.

Photograph of Cologne cathedral taken in 1855 – still under construction.
Cologne cathedral in 1855, with the mediaeval crane still in place.

Many of us have lives that feel as incomplete and haphazard as might that of a nameless stonemason exhausting himself chiselling a few blocks of limestone on one of the 16 flying buttresses of Cologne’s Cathedral at some stage in the late 15th or 16th or 17th centuries: we know we’re not getting anywhere fast and won’t see any notable return before our deaths.

But when despair stalks us, we should – like that mason – step back and imagine ourselves as part of a larger whole that can redeem us through its scale, logic and beauty. However apparently inconsequential our daily labours may seem, we are also likely to be contributing to a larger endeavour comparable in nobility and honour to a cathedral: the pursuit of human knowledge, the economic development of a nation, the safe nurture and growth of another generation.

Even if we are only making the snacks or cleaning the tools of those actively engaged in such work, we are – by necessity – involved in a magisterial task too; we just forget to notice the fact. We need to perceive where, and how, we fit in – and liberate ourselves from the punishing idea that we have to be the sole authors of a creation bearing our names, neatly completed within our lifetimes, in order for our work to have any value. 

It is a folly to imagine that each of us must, in the course of the 50 or so years in which we are active in the world, make our own utterly distinctive mark on the order of things. We can happily be only a small paragraph, even a word or two, in a story running to millions of pages assembled by numberless nameless scribes over a succession of generations. We just need, to rescue ourselves from sadness, to remember and see more clearly the ‘cathedral’ we are building.

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