The liturgical round of the Christian church—whether Orthodox, Roman or Anglican—has inspired some of the best poetry ever written. The Book of Common Prayer, written by Thomas Cranmer, priest-confessor to Elizabeth I, contains some of the most elegant poetry in the English language, and late in the last century the Anglican poet, W.H. Auden, participated in a modernization of that work.
Now, as Auden’s Anglican Communion tears itself apart in the name of a squalid debate about homosexuality, a debate which in all likelihood one hundred years from now people will look back upon with dismay, the liturgy seems more a legacy the church shares with the people in a museum setting rather than the daily sustenance of the people, as it was meant to be.
It is this dispensation, this unfortunate aspect of life’s acceleration since the times when life centered on the cathedral, that Marjorie Maddox now sets on its head. Hence her apt title, Weeknights at the Cathedral. The cathedral was not meant to be a museum. Her cathedral is the gathering place of the hoi polloi as well as the elite. It is peopled not only by people we all know, but by their baggage, their foibles and problems. Her cathedral is not too solemn for jongleurs, hawkers, rakes and all us ordinary plodders. There is nothing showily pious or dauntingly metaphysical here. You could bring your laundry and certainly an irreverent sense of humor to Maddox’s cathedral, and that is how it was before bourgeois piety froze its heart and shelved it under glass.
Maddox lives in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but she could be speaking of Manhattan’s unfinished Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where the clergy have labored mightily for decades to open the romanesque edifice to humanity, to other religions, even to atheists and agnostics, turning it into the vibrant center of community life that cathedrals were meant to be.
Her poems—one of them in the shape of a chalice—observe the offices, sacraments, patron saints, holy days, and challenges of the church and its faithful, even its not-so-faithful.
Her prosody is, in turns, buoyant, funny, even preposterous, meditative, solemn. It is never hifalutin, which in the case of Anglicanism, is a caricaturable curse.
Maddox, always a seeker, understands the comfortability in Roman and Orthodox dogma, as well as the modernity and flexibility in Anglicanism’s longing for the via media . She celebrates not institutions but the people’s apprehension of what gives rise to them, a divine impulse in our hearts.
For the non-Christian this is an opportunity to spend a few invisible nights in a cathedral to see what their faith means to Christians. For the Christian, whatever denomination, it is an opportunity to revisit
root catholicity. And for all of us it is a time to consort with angels in department stores, Mary remembering Gabriel, God going fishing, the patron saints of dentists and television people—a time to be glad for life’s ordinariness.