Beauty, Cathedrals, Purpose: The Pillars of the Earth

Image of Saint Denis stained glass windows.

Saint Denis arches & stained glass

It wasn’t very far into Ken Follet’s, The Pillars of the Earth before I understood what might be enthralling the people who’ve been telling me I should read it.

“Because it will be beautiful,” Tom the Builder answered Prior Philip. By beautiful Tom didn’t mean simply pretty, or artful. He meant that upon seeing it, people would be moved by it, would feel connected to something greater than themselves, and would feel a little greater for feeling it, be raised up by it.

A new church needed to be built, and Tom was applying for the job of Master Builder. He had already demonstrated the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to be successful, but now he was facing the question, “Why do you want to build it?” Tom guessed that Philip would understand what he meant, and he guessed further that, like himself, Philip felt that his purpose in life was to bring such magnificent beauty into the world.
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Contact: When science learns faith…

Following is some dialog from the film Contact, a film adaptation of Carl Sagan‘s sci-fi novel of the same name.

I had… an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. All I can tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I am — tells me that it was real.

I was given something wonderful. Something that changed me. A vision of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant — and at the same time how rare and precious we all are. A vision… that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves… that we are not — that none of us — are alone.

I wish I could share it. I wish everyone, if only for a moment — could feel that awe, and humility… and hope. That continues to be my wish.

~ Ellie Arroway
  Contact (from the screen adaptation of Carl Sagan‘s novel)

Contact by Carl Sagan

Contact by Carl Sagan

Ellie Arroway, played with exacting precision by Jodie Foster in the film, is a scientist, meaning her world is constructed upon empirical evidence through reason…until now, until she has lived through an experience even her exquisitely scientific mind cannot fathom. Yet, she can sense the depth of it with soul-shaking awe and the clarity of a religious vision. Epiphany.

But how do you describe to an entire world an experience so extra-ordinary that no one else in the world can possibly have shared it?

You can’t. Language cannot describe such a thing. Words, even images and sound, can only hope to evoke a sense of something shared. All words can do is invoke a curiosity in others strong enough to seek out the experience for themselves. And so we have the language of poets and mystics to rely upon where science fails us.

I like to think that in this moment Ellie learns the value of faith, its wisdom.