- - Friday, January 17, 2014

The Episcopal Church-run National Cathedral in Northwest Washington, D.C., has hosted many events in its storied history, from Martin Luther King’s final Sunday sermon before his assassination, to U.S. presidents’ state funerals.

Last week, it was the site of “Seeing Deeper,” a five-day exploration of “expansiveness, immediacy and insight.” Before we get into that, here’s a brief history.

In 1791, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who laid out the capital city, included space for a “a great church for national purposes.” The original site now houses the National Portrait Gallery.

A century later, on Jan. 6, 1893, Congress granted a charter signed by President Benjamin Harrison for the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia. The foundation stone was laid on Sept. 29, 1907, during a ceremony attended by President Theodore Roosevelt, and it took 83 years to complete the world’s sixth-largest cathedral.

In 1990, master sculptor Frederick Hart also completed his 20-year work on the Creation Sculptures, which adorn the main facade. The magnificent series includes Ex Nihilo (out of nothing), The Creation of Day, The Creation of Night, Adam, St. Peter and St. Paul.

Like the rest of the liberalized Episcopal Church, the cathedral is bleeding parishioners and donors, so it is now resorting to charging $10 for tours.

Less spiritually uplifting than the Creation Sculptures, but eerily appropriate, is the gargoyle in the shape of Darth Vader on the northwest tower. You can get a Darth Vader T-shirt in the online gift shop, which at one time was selling Darth Vader bobbleheads. Seriously.

Last week, the cathedral, which has already celebrated same-sex “weddings,” jumped the shark.

“You see a cathedral, but you don’t see anything being done with it. I’m trying to get this place back to its roots.”

So said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the cathedral, who is quickly turning the place for the nation’s most solemn occasions into Flip Wilson’s Church of What’s Happening Now.

Don’t believe me? Try this snippet from The Washington Post:

“‘I want to skateboard down it — or have a paper-airplane contest,’ Mr. Hall, a tall, white-haired priest, said Monday as he watched about 100 people practice tai chi in the football-field-long, rectangular nave.”

That’s right. The nave — the heart of the church leading to the altar. They took out the seats to stage activities including yoga sessions during five days of “Seeing Deeper.” I wonder if they have given thought to renaming the nave as the “navel,” as in contemplating one’s own?

The cathedral’s website promised that “written prayers, yoga mats, zafu meditation cushions, poetry, and mandalas to draw and color” would be “available as reflection tools.”

For those unfamiliar with Eastern religions, you use a zafu during a zazen (sitting) meditation session. Mandalas are geometric patterns representing the cosmos, and are used in Hinduism, which has thousands of gods, or in Buddhism, which is godless.

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