Nautilus Redux: The Dean’s ResponsePosted: January 30, 2014
There was a lot of reaction and (mostly) thoughtful commentary after I posted my response (The Heart of the Nautilus) to the new artwork on the pediment of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston. Since then I’ve been in contact with the cathedral’s gracious dean, the Very Rev. Jep Streit, who naturally doesn’t share my opinion on this.
I’ve invited his deanship to post a response here on Clergy Family Confidential as a Guest Blogger. Although he’s the first ever GB on my little slice of the internet, I’ve assured him this is a very prestigious honor. In all seriousness, I’m grateful for his willingness to engage on this issue and I appreciate the vulnerability of his position in opening himself and the cathedral community up to every art and ecclesiastical critic to ever stroll across Boston Common.
Guest Blogger: The Very Rev. Jep Streit
I’m grateful for his generous offer to respond to his posting as a “guest blogger” on his site, which only underscores my appreciation of how he engenders reflection and discussion in a thoughtful way.
In our video the artist remarked that he wanted to create art for the pediment that was not “too religious,” which of course alarmed some people, as though he were articulating our new mission statement. Remember, he’s the artist, not the Dean. I simply thought he was trying to articulate, in his imperfect way, his experience of the Cathedral as a place with an expansive vision of God, “not just for Episcopals” as he put it, and so he attempted to create something that would be broadly inviting.
At St. Paul’s Cathedral we celebrate the Eucharist eight times a week, keep our church open all day for anyone to come in and pray, hold a weekly meditation group and have welcomed and fed hungry people every single Monday for thirty years. I don’t worry that we aren’t Christian enough.
I was a little surprised at how dismissive people seemed to be to the nautilus as a symbol of our faith. It may not be an immediately self-evident symbol, but neither was the cross when it first was used. I can imagine people wondering, “Why are they glorifying imperial Roman instruments of torture and execution?”
After two millennia the cross is now an unmistakable symbol of Christianity, it’s something everyone expects to see on a church. But isn’t God the One who surpasses our expectations, not the One who just meets them? Isaiah proclaimed, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Is it unfaithful to imagine a new symbol for our faith? It may not be immediately clear exactly what a nautilus atop a cathedral means, but that ambiguity can invite thinking and conversation, much more than if we had done something less provocative, as evidenced by all the responses to Tim’s blog.
For the record, here is why I think a nautilus is an appropriate symbol for our faith:
- A nautilus is ancient (half a billion years old), just as our faith has ancient roots and traditions. Both the nautilus and our faith are open-ended, ever-expanding.
- A nautilus grows by forming new chambers is it outgrows old ones, it can never go back, just as the God leads us on our faith journey into new places, deepening our conversation. The Holy Spirit is dynamic, not static.
- The spiral of the nautilus shell is universal, an elemental form found throughout creation, from galaxies to weather patterns to the growth of plants to sub-atomic particles, just as we believe God is universal and unlimited.
- Jesus gathered disciples by inviting people who were curious about him and what he was doing. “Come and see,” he told Andrew, who then brought his brother Simon. My hope is that our nautilus sparks curiosity and welcomes exploration.
The nautilus works (or perhaps doesn’t work) as a symbol on these and many levels, but for me it is beautiful and inviting. I love it, and I think it does not require an explanation to be appreciated. Of course everyone doesn’t agree with me: one man’s beauty is another man’s fish house.
The week after the official dedication of the nautilus I received the following email from a total stranger. In it she confirmed my hope that our new artwork would be engaging and inviting to people who might not otherwise care or even be aware of St. Paul’s and our ministries, and she offers her own reason why the nautilus is a good fit for our cathedral.
Walking through the Common from Beacon Street tonight, I saw the Nautilus sculpture lit for the first time. It is thrilling, and one of the most redemptive architectural feats I have ever seen, bringing the building into new light and new light into the city.
I read about the inspiration of the Holmes poem, but I want to comment also (surely I am not the first) that the nautilus’s many ‘rooms’ evoked John 14:2. As I read about the multi-faith ‘homes’ provided by the Cathedral, not to mention room for the ‘homeless;’ whose room has been on your porch for many years, the verse echoed in my mind. I am not Christian, but I am a great appreciator of this new and marvelous work.
Thank you and everyone connected with the gift.
Finally, a couple of respondents have noted the limits of the cathedral building itself; poor sightlines, dim lighting, inadequate handicap access. They are right. This is why we are not only adding sculpture to finish our pediment but renovating our interior space: bringing in light, installing a full size elevator, adding a chapel, removing the pews to make our space more flexible and installing an efficient heating and ventilation system.
But when all is said and done, what is true is simple: our ministry is our message. I’m proud of our ministry, the gospel witness we make every day. I’m also glad for the conversation we are having about our new façade. Of course there are many viewpoints, just as in God’s house there are many rooms.
All are welcome.