Its spire soars 466 feet into the firmament.
From the mid-17th century through the late 19th, it stood as the tallest building in the world. Its Gothic structure blends Münster, Germany, and French cultural influences, while its sandstone construction projects a distinctive pink hue.
I stood recently at the base of the impressive cathedral and stared straight up at what Goethe described as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.”
Its height and mass are breathtaking.
I speak of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, in France’s Alsace region across the Rhine from Germany. Over the centuries, France and Germany have alternately possessed and dispossessed the soil upon which the cathedral stands.
The cathedral’s construction lasted more than 400 years, starting in 1015. British and American bombs found its hallowed precincts during air raids in 1944. The last of the repairs were completed in the 1990s.
Today a gold leaf tribute near the altar reads: “In memory of the American officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers who gave their life to free Alsace. 1944-45.”
I entered the cathedral on a weekday morning seeking refuge from maddening crowds and hoping to gain a few moments of quiet introspection. My wife, Hedy, was outside in the Place de la Cathedrale visiting tourist haunts.
As I entered, my heart leapt within my breast. I suddenly realized that I’d happened by at a most propitious hour. The cathedral’s spectacular pipe organ, located in a “swallow’s nest” 65 feet above the floor, was engaged in full-throated declamation.
I was quickly covered in goose flesh.
As I entered the nave, I saw hundreds of people — perhaps more than a thousand — seated or quietly strolling the stained glass-illuminated avenues of the immense sanctuary.
The sound was so magnificent and encompassing that it nearly lifted me off the floor. Startled by the sudden emotion I felt, I negotiated my way down the center aisle to a seat.
For 20 minutes, I drank deeply from the musical wells of Bach and Handel like a parched soul plunging his head in an oasis. I had but one distraction during my cathartic release. I was heartbroken that my bride — pursuing trinkets at tourist stalls — was missing the soaring arpeggios.
The concert concluded, and for an instant the atmosphere in the cathedral was charged with expectancy, as if the great God himself might suddenly appear to give spoken utterance. But, after a passage of moments, people began to move silently toward the exits. Gradually, a din of conversation could be heard echoing off the soaring roof, 130 feet above our heads.
I decided to take my leave.
I walked the aisle to the narthex. It was there that I noticed a small gathering of perhaps a dozen people behind the last row of seats in the nave.
They were in a circle looking down at — and several were kneeling over — something on the floor. For a brief time I couldn’t see precisely what it was. Then, I spied the splayed positioning of a man’s legs — possibly from an older gentleman because his suit pants appeared worn.
Though instinct prompted me to walk over and look, I resisted. I could see that several people, who obviously knew what they were doing, were attending him.
Had he fainted, overcome by the emotion of what just transpired? Had he had a seizure? A stroke or a heart attack? I had no answer. I continued to walk toward the exit, breathing a silent prayer.
Outside, I searched for Hedy and found her several minutes later. But, for the remainder of the day, my thoughts were of the man.
That morning, before the man’s collapse to an unforgiving stone floor, we’d heard the closest approximation of the Voice of God this side of eternity.
Perhaps by day’s end that man had been privileged to hear, in an infinitely grander venue, the voice of One reverberating off a billion galaxies.
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.