Rodin’s ‘Cathedral’ as an Icon of Prayer

Years ago, when in my late teens, I was encouraged in my Christian faith by a handful of good and faithful Christians. They took an interest in me and patiently answered my questions about all manner of things to do with God, the Church and the Christian faith. One of them, whom I came to regard as my mentor, gave me a sepia card with a photograph on it. She had bought it in Paris in the mid-1930s. It was a picture of Rodin’s ‘Cathedral’. At the time I kept it in my bible and its meaning for me didn’t emerge until many years later.

‘Prayer is our Love Affair with God’
Mother Mary Clare SLG

The Cathedral | Rodin

Sydney Evans, the former Dean of King’s College, London, preached a sermon in the parish where I served as a curate on the subject of ‘Hands’. He referred to the sculpture by Rodin and later on I was pointed towards another sermon, preached by Michael Stancliffe when he became Dean of Winchester.  Again, it took Rodin’s Cathedral as its illustration.

When, later still, I made my first visit to Paris, I was taken to the top of the Montparnasse Tower from which it is possible to look down on the city. I searched hard and found what I was looking for. Before any visit to Notre Dame, The Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, there was something I had to see.

I made my way to the Rodin Museum and very soon I was standing in front of the exquisite statue of ‘The Cathedral’. I was amazed how tiny it was in comparison to many of Rodin’s other Sculptures. Rodin carved it in 1908, one of his later works.

It is of two hands emerging from the same base but it is unusual in that if you try to place your own hands as these are, you can’t do it – because both are right hands. The shape and poise of those hands form a kind of gothic arch and this gave Rodin the suggestion for its title. He had a passion for Gothic architecture and he combined this with his passion for modelling hands which, in his view were so expressive, capable of displaying so many human emotions.

In this work the sensuality which was such a feature of his life combined with the spiritual, avoiding that divorce that people often make, and the hands taper into a gesture of prayer.

What is important in looking at these hands is to see the gentleness and sensitivity in which they are reaching towards each other. They are not about to grip each other heartily. They are reaching towards each other but they don’t actually touch. The sculpture is held together by a connecting piece of stone but there is space between the fingers – the suggestion of almost meeting and the tantalizing thought that they might not. It is poised in that split second before connection is made and one could expect the fingers to gently intertwine. They are in the act of exploration. However, it is an exploration charged with vulnerability because they just might not connect. One or other might actually withdraw

Yet, overriding this is the much stronger image that the Cathedral presents of an exploration which is movement towards each other rather than away so  I see in Rodin’s hands the hands of two lovers who are about to touch and caress.  We catch them in that final moment of rather shy, exploration which will end in fingers intertwined – hands touching, holding.

It speaks to me of prayer.
Prayer in which both the one who prays and God are drawn in an act of love towards each other. E.M.Forster’s saying, ‘Only Connect’ is pertinent here. Prayer is when we connect with God and our hearts open in love to the one who always loves us. Only connect, in love.

According to a lovely nun I once knew, – the late Mother Mary Clare of The Sisters of the Love of God (SLG) – real prayer is like a love affair with God. In ‘Encountering the Depths’ she wrote this:

“Prayer is essentially […] a love affair with God, not schemes or techniques or ways of prayer, but the most direct, open approach of each one of us as a person to God our creator, redeemer and sanctifier. This is something beyond all methods and ideas. We are seeking God himself, not thoughts about him, nor about ourselves in relation to him. Prayer is an adventure at the end of which we stand face to face before the living God; not in a vague way in a place we call heaven, but in the here and now of our lives, by, with, and in Christ, as we are made part of his prayer and his offering to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

For me, this adventure of love is one of the powerful messages of Rodin’s, Cathedral. There is the suggestion of longing and loving which we need to constantly re-discover if our prayer is to remain fresh, real and a sign of the love by which we are held in God and through which we seek to become love.

  • ‘Encountering the depths’, by the late Mother Mary Clare is available from the SLG Press,  Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Parker Street, Oxford Ox4 1TB.
    Though it is available from other suppliers, buying it from SLG ensures they benefit totally from the sale. See their website on Google.

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