Reflections on a Ruined Cathedral

On my final day in St Andrews, the symbol of its ruined cathedral weighs upon my mind. In a world both increasingly secular and religious, it is the latter that led to the fall of this house. I’ve toured many impressive cathedrals in my time, from Chartres in its gothic splendor to the plain majesty of Durham. These engineering feats of medieval “superstition” still draw theists and atheists alike, in wonder. In crass terms, they represent a large economic investment. It terms of spirit, they are sublime. Under the duress of ecclesiastical prestige, those who couldn’t really afford the resources nonetheless stretched their stonework toward God. In secular Europe, some of the best known sites are sacred.

St Andrews Cathedral fell victim to the Reformation. Religions are notoriously selfish in this way. When a new divine regime takes over, the wonders of the previous god become spoils. Hagia Sophia (which I’ve never seen) went from basilica to mosque, and Roman Catholic St Andrews became an eviscerated shell at the hands of Protestant thinkers. Even in ancient Israel the temple of Jerusalem was build atop a site of even more ancient heathen shrines. We conquer to stoop.

St Andrews, named for the patron saint of Scotland, is better known for its golf than its god. The divine may have built this city, but the divot has captured its heart. Priorities change with time—we call this progress. Not far from the crumbling cathedral lies a ruined castle. Not the haunt of royalty, the castle was build to house powerful bishops and archbishops. Some of these were the warrior bishops who were knights as well as prelates. Some, like Alexander Stewart, led troops to war. And yet the cathedral could not survive the change of religious climate. If we can’t have it, then it must be destroyed. The great cathedral, once the largest church in Scotland, and among the largest in Europe, perhaps represents the fate of all acts of faith, when something more insistent comes along. Or maybe I just don’t want to leave.

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