The Pope is performing mass at today at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Today is a good day to visit the National Cathedral. -ed.
“When my teardrops start to start, I tune my banjo to my heart” were the words Jeff Deitchman wrote in his tune “Banjo Pickin’ Girl.” My story about the National Cathedral begins with him.
I grew up in a musical family, surrounded by instruments and records, reel-to-reel tape and dinner guests who brought guitars and mandolins. Jeff Deitchman is one of those songwriters who was close to my dad way-back-when, and hung around the circle of friends who played at Gallagher’s. He’s still a phenomenal songwriter.
Jeff had this long-standing gig at a peculiar church service on Massachusetts avenue and Wisconsin. It was an informal, ecumenical service—instead of a regular congregation, they had a steady stream of first-time visitors to the church. Instead of a choir, they had the visitors sing the hymns. And, instead of an organ, they had a guitar.
The service was called the Folk Eucharist, and was held every Sunday at 10am in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also known as the National Cathedral.
Jeff got took a break from performing in the early eighties, and handed the gig off to my dad. Even when my father went back to a steady day job and started family life all over again, he was at the Cathedral every Sunday morning. He and my mother were married there. I was Christened there. I grew up there.
By the time I was eight or nine-years-old, I began sneaking around the corridors and hallways of the sixth-largest cathedral in the world. It was like a playground to me. The endless hallways, the acres of stained glass, the towering spiral staircases, and the intimidating balconies never ceased to amaze me. Most kids I knew dreaded going to church. I relished in it. When I was sixteen, my father gave my name to one of the docents at the Cathedral. He suggested that instead of trespassing, I should help with the tours of the bell tower.
Since then, I have been going up and down the stairs of the National Cathedral, leading tours, and telling visitors what I’ve learned about the beautiful building I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up with.
Sculptors, stone carvers, blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, engineers, historians, clergy, and skilled builders from all over the world constructed this enormous behemoth. My fellow Washingtonians pass by the church every day, acknowledging the clever use of Gothic architecture and stained glass. The simple, unavoidable truth is that the church’s architecture alone is far more complex than the broad “Gothic” title. There are elements of Norman, Romanesque, and even Egyptian styles in this cathedral’s bones. There is far more here than will ever meet the eye.
Last week’s visit was a bit different from my normal route—I was accompanied by Tom Wright and his set of skeleton keys. On an unbelievably bright, clear, cloudless day, I ventured not only to the crypts and tunnels I used to sneak through when I was young, but I also got to the top of the scaffolding on the National Cathedral’s central tower.
There are grotesques and gargoyles, there are stained glass windows and carved marble tombs, there are enormous black-iron gates and solid mahogany doors. It’s the only place in North America you can see a set of carillon bells beneath a set of peal bells. It’s the only place in the world you can see a US President, a moon rock, a bust of Darth Vader, and the tombstone of the first bishop of the Episcopal Church.
I’m lucky to have grown up there. I’m luckier still to keep learning the secrets of this incredible, hundred-year-old church.
This piece originally ran in March 14, 2014.