St. Paul’s Cathedral has a storied history. It has existed in one form or another in the heart of London for over fourteen hundred years. Built originally by monks in medieval times it endured neglect and fires. Over time there were many different versions of the structure, but it is the majestic architectural creation of Sir Christopher Wren that stuns visitors today. Wren’s masterpiece eschewed the dark stone, heavy pillars and stained glass of other churches and instead featured a massive dome hovering overhead like a window into heaven. There is a lightness and airiness about the interior not seen in other churches of the era. It has a modern, yet classic feel that is incomparable.
We traveled to St. Paul’s Cathedral on a Friday morning. We had enjoyed a foretaste of what we would see during Evensong the afternoon before when we were treated to the voices of a magnificent choir and a tradition that reaches back in time. The Church of England came about in the reign of Henry VIII when he broke with Rome and declared that as king he had the right to serve as the head of the Church in England. His was not a reformation, so the services and prayers continued in the same vein as those of the Catholic Church. Which is perhaps why, as a Catholic, I felt so at home in the cathedral.
We were fortunate to find a wonderful guide to take us through the church and to explain each aspect of the history and the architecture. St. Paul’s Cathedral has been the site of many famous events including the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the state funeral of Winston Churchill. To this day it is a gathering place where people sun on the steps and drop in for prayer in the chapel or noon day services. It is both a working church and a tourist attraction whose income from visitors provides financing for upkeep and renovations.
The high altar was eventually changed during the reign of Queen Victoria when it was encrusted with the kind of heavy gilding so popular during that era. It had a cleaner look in its original iteration as designed by Wren, and wondered what he might think were he to see it now so dark compared to the rest of the structure. In some ways there is a kind of disconnect between the heaviness of the altar and the etherial feel of the rest of the cathedral.
The choir stalls were also changed by the addition of dark and heavy woodwork during Queen Victoria’s reign. Nonetheless the cathedral is still dominated by the dome that makes it so unique. That pediment stands out in the London landscape from every angle whether day or night. It is a glorious beacon representing so much that is great about the city and its people.
During World War II London endured fifty seven straight nights of bombing from the German Luftwaffe. Parishioners served as security for the building hoping to protect the structure in the event that it became a target. One evening the people noticed a fire breaking out as the bombs burst overhead. They called for help in putting out the flames, and firefighters worked tirelessly to save the beloved church from destruction. When morning came virtually every building that had surrounded the cathedral was demolished, but St. Paul’s stood rock solid thanks to the heroics of the people who had been watching over it.
The basement of St. Paul’s serves as a crypt and memorial for many of London’s most imminent citizens including Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington who is beloved for saving the country from Napoleon’s domination. Much like Westminster Abbey it is a repository of much of the nation’s history.
There is a stairway that leads to the top of the grand dome. My brothers, Mike and Pat, navigated the winding and narrow passages along with my sister-in-law, Allison, to enjoy the sweeping vistas of the city and a closer look at the construction and magnificence of the the building. Sadly my knees would not hold up under such stress so I joined my husband Mike and sister-in-law, Becky for tea while the younger among us enjoyed the adventure of the climb. In another decade I surely would have been right there with them, but I have learned to respect the signs that such adventures are past.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a marvel of architecture and a treasure for all of the people of London. I felt a very spiritual connection to the church that was different from the awe of Westminster Abbey. It is a place where worship rather than history plays a more dominant role. It is a showpiece, but also a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. It has a calming presence that made me want to just sit and linger and meditate. I truly felt God’s presence there.
I would see the dome of St. Paul’s on the horizon again and again during my time in London. Sometimes it was like a beacon of hope, others it was a compass point helping me to find my way. Always just seeing it brought a sense of calm to me. It is one of those places that I will certainly conjure up when I feel the need to meditate on the goodness of humans, for that is what I felt there from the moment that I first entered.
Even now as think about St. Paul’s Cathedral my heart slows, my mind focuses and I feel a sublime sense of well being. I see the minister who looked at my face and smiled as though he knew the content of my heart as he invited me to attend Evensong. There is an otherworldly essence there that will sustain me whenever I close my eyes, quiet my heart, and remember the glory.