The annual confluence of Easter and Passover occurred earlier this month. Each celebration asks its believers to consider what is important in this life and what is not. Surely, with the possible exception of Memorial Day, Easter and Passover are the most reflective of observations. Regardless of your specific faith, or even if you have no particular faith to follow, taking time to be reflective is crucial, I believe.
For years my family, or that portion of my family that was within traveling distance, would attend the Easter service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. We were only able to do so because my sister was the Director of Development for the National Cathedral School for Girls, a venerable independent school that shares the so-called “Cathedral Hill” with the church and with the St. Alban’s School for Boys. In that position she could obtain “tickets” to the 11:00 service. (As an aside, a part of me always rued the notion of needing “tickets” to go to church. But the reality was that thousands more desired to attend than there was room to accommodate them, and a line would start forming à la Duke basketball down Wisconsin Avenue on Saturday evening, so I guess those associated directly with the church needed entry documents.)
I adored the service, not for its specific religious content but rather for the grandeur of the celebration, and particularly the music. The organist, accompanied by two kettle drums and a brass section, would play as the last prelude Charles-Marie Widor’s “Toccata in C,” which actually has a more formal name not necessary to be set forth here.
It is a stirring piece, fabulously difficult to play, which, a little like Ravel’s more famous and profane “Bolero,” grows in intensity and power in an unstoppable rush of sound until it finally rouses itself up and concludes with a glorious fanfare. It would take eight to ten seconds for the sound to finish reverberating around all that granite and give way to silence. And then for a few seconds the silence would be punctuated by a squeak of a chair leg being moved or the rasp of a throat being cleared.
And then would come the moment that I had anticipated ever since the previous year’s Easter. Way in the back of the church, singing in the soft soprano of small boys, the Cathedral Boy Choristers would begin the hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” You can live by the words of the hymn, or you may ignore or even reject them, but at that moment there was absolutely no way of denying that angels had in fact arrived on Cathedral Hill. The juxtaposition of the mighty organ and the pure, unsullied voices of those children would convince me that, at least at that place and time, God exists.
And then my sister moved on to a position with Marts and Lundy and there were no more passes to the Cathedral. Yet each member of my family and I craved a way to re-create that moment. What could persuade us, if only for a second or two, that there is a higher power in our universe? We found an equally glorious and affirmative answer at the bottom of the Great Falls of the Potomac, scarcely four miles as the eagle flies from the Cathedral. The river, having gathered up all the rain and melted snow from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, encounters there several rows of huge granite rocks, each trying its best to keep the water from making its way to its appointed destination. But the river, several hundred yards across at that point and facing an 80-foot drop, will not be denied. The water crashes and cascades and swirls on its way down, throwing great sprays of mist and making a noise that at once deafens the ear and touches the soul.
Here I will employ a word much overused – the sight and sound of that falling water is majestic. Both created by granite, the majesty of cascading water is much like the majesty of a church organ in a mighty cathedral. So by the river, as well as in a cathedral, one must conclude that, in whatever form you choose to believe, God indeed exists. And in the presence of majesty you are freed to reflect upon what is important in this life and what is not.
Every morning before classes begin we ask our older students to stop and reflect. I am glad we do so. I wish I could import the sound of that organ or that waterfall every morning, but alas, I cannot. But that’s okay. It does not take several hundred tons of granite for you to become reflective. A seat in the Johnson Theater or Price Auditorium is enough.
After all, He’s everywhere.