Thursday, August 18, 2005

Ever been to the Cologne cathedral?

If you haven’t, you really ought to go. The building is massive and looks it – a great big and very imposing structure. Even in the age of the sky-scraper the cathedral manages to impress and, somehow, manages to look more substantial than some much larger buildings. It is, however, on the inside that the cathedral really has a power all of its own. The sense of space is overwhelming, the great gothic arches reaching up into the half-darkness of the roof. The people walking are dwarfed by the scale of the thing – mere insects crawling across its marble floor. At the same time, one has to be amazed by the sheer individuality and mastery of the craftsmen who worked to chisel away the tiny details of ornamentation – the miniscule heads and animals that mass together at the bottoms of the pillars and in every other nook and cranny that offers itself.

At the same time, walking inside the cathedral one can not help but feel that one is desecrating a grave. The great arches are like the ribcage of some leviathan that had, long ago, washed up upon the beach and died. All that is left are the bones, imposing and grand but, ultimately melancholy. Walking down the echoing nave it is clear that life has left this place long ago, leaving to us a monument from an antique land. The only ones moving inside are the tourists who’ve come to gawk at the marvellous downfall.

The reason why I write this is that today the World Youth Day begins in Cologne with Ratzinger trying to live up to the image of the previous Pope and to start “a wave of new faith among young people”. The cathedral is full of people and alive with prayer. In a week, however, it will have been returned to the care of the tourists and the pigeons, while the young people who have gathered will have returned to their homes. Most will go back to their lives and will be just the same as they were before, just as they were unchanged by the death of the previous Pope – despite loud protestations to the contrary. Visionaries who tried to change the moral character of people have always failed to have anything but a short-term effect. Even if they did, the young are much more awake to the sheer hypocrisy of the church than those who have become cynical themselves. Who knows, maybe one of the cleaning crews will find a large pile of used condoms behind one of the main tents, just as they did in Paris?

So, most people will go back home unchanged. But it is not them that I feel sorry for. Rather, I feel sorry for those for whom Cologne will be a life-changing event. I don’t know, for some it may even lead to better lives than they would have led otherwise. Still, I can not help but pity lives premised upon a myth and mistakenly devoted to the continuation of an organisation that has harmed and twisted people’s lives for many centuries. I think of those lives as ghosts that haunt the cathedral when the massive doors are shut for the night.


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