Monday, 26 March 2007

Alain de Botton: McDonald's and Westminster Cathedral

"A few years ago, caught out by a heavy downpour, with a couple of hours to kill after being stood up for lunch by a friend, I took shelter in a smoked glass and granite block on London’s Victoria Street, home to the Westminster Branch of McDonald’s. The mood inside the restaurant was solemn and concentrated. Customers were eating alone, reading papers, or staring at the brown tiles, masticating with a sternness and brusqueness beside which the atmosphere of a feeding shed would have appeared convivial and mannered.

The setting served to render all kind of ideas absurd: that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere; that life may be worth enduring … The restaurant’s true talent lay in the generation of anxiety. The harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behaviour of the counter staff invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe. The only solution was to continue to eat in an attempt to compensate for the discomfort brought on by the location in which one was doing so.

However, my meal was disturbed by the arrival of thirty or so implausibly tall and blond Finnish teenagers. The shock of finding themselves so far south and of exchanging glacial snow for mere rain had lent them extremely high spirits, which they expressed by unsheathing straws, bursting into ardent song and giving one another piggy-back rides – to the confusion of the restaurant staff, who were uncertain whether to condemn such behaviour or to respect it as a promise of voracious appetites.

Prompted by the voluble Finns to draw my visit to a precipitate close, I cleared my table and walked out into the plaza immediately adjacent to the restaurant, where I properly noticed for the first time the incongruous and imposing Byzantine forms of Westminster Cathedral, its red and white brick campanile soaring eighty-seven metres into the foggy London skies.

Drawn by rain and curiosity, I entered a cavernous hall, sunk in tarry darkness, against which a thousand votive candles stood out, their golden shadows flickering over mosaics and carved representations of the Stations of the Cross. There were smells of incense and sounds of murmured prayer. Hanging from the ceiling at the centre of the nave was a ten-metre-high crucifix, with Jesus on one side and his mother on the other. Around the High Altar, a mosaic showed Christ enthroned in the heavens, encircled by angels, his feet resting on a globe, his hands clasping a chalice overflowing with his own blood.
The facile din of the outer world had given way to awe and silence. Children stood close to their parents and looked around with an air of puzzled reverence. Visitors instinctively whispered, as if deep in some collective dream from which they did not wish to emerge. The anonymity of the street had been subsumed by a peculiar kind of intimacy. Everything serious in human nature seemed to be called to the surface: thoughts about limits and infinity, about powerlessness and sublimity. The stonework threw into relief all that was compromised an dull, and kindled a yearning for one to live up to its perfections.

After ten minutes in the cathedral, a range of ideas that would have been inconceivable outside began to assume an air of reasonableness. Under the influence of the marble, the mosaics, the darkness and the incense, it seemed entirely probable that Jesus was the Son of God and has walked across the Sea of Galilee. In the presence of alabaster statues of the Virgin Mary set against rhythms of red, green and blue marble, it was no longer surprising to think that an angel might at any moment choose to descend through the layers of dense London cumulus, enter through a window in the nave, blow a golden trumpet and make an announcement in Latin about a forthcoming celestial event.

Concepts that would have sounded demented forty metres away, in the company of a party of Finnish teenagers and vats of frying oil, had succeeded – through a work of architecture – in acquiring supreme significance and majesty. "

This is an extract from Alain de Botton's 'The Architecture of Happiness', in which he describes the emotional impact of architecture. Alain de Botton is a young novelist and philosopher. This book was the basis of a television series.

The Architecture of Happiness
Hamish Hamilton 2006


Jude said...

What a pleasure to read this--something that anyone of faith can identify with upon entering the Cathedral. Contrast it with Ian Nairn's commentary on Westminster Cathedral. I loved his wit in Nairn's London, but growled when reading his bit on the Cathedral...describing this sacred space as "...a splendid electric appliance without the current turned on!" At the time I originally read this, I had to question how one's faith played into one's emotional response to a space--and wondered how ANYONE with a bit of a sense of the Other could not experience the presence of the "holy" (mysterious, tremendous, terrible, fascinating)upon entering the Cathedral. This piece by Alain de Botton captures that thought perfectly and puts it into words I never could.

Thanks for reprinting it Fr. Mark. I was delighted to read it!

John the organist said...

Hear, hear!

Anonymous said...

A wonderful and very true piece which I have just read rather surreally on my handheld on the train between Moscow and St Petersburg.

Due to a ticket mix-up I was seated in the guard's van. A long way from the vast sacred space at Westminster one might think, other than that the guard has arrayed it with icons of Our Lord, His Mother and St Antony. I feel very much at home!

Mark Langham said...

I must do a posting on the mosaics of the Blessed sascrament Chapel, designed and executed by Boris Anrep - a Russian artist!