Beauty, Cathedrals, Purpose: The Pillars of the Earth

Saint Denis Cathedral arches & stained glass

Saint Denis Cathedral arches & stained glass

It wasn’t very far into Ken Follet’s, The Pillars of the Earth before I understood what might be enthralling the people who’ve been telling me I should read it.

“Because it will be beautiful,” Tom the Builder answered Prior Philip.


By beautiful Tom didn’t mean simply pretty, or artful. He meant that upon seeing it, people would be moved by it, would feel connected to something greater than themselves, and would feel a little greater for feeling it, be raised up by it.

A new church needed to be built, and Tom was applying for the job of Master Builder. He had already demonstrated the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to be successful, but now he was facing the question, “Why do you want to build it?” Tom guessed that Philip would understand what he meant, and he guessed further that, like himself, Philip felt that his purpose in life was to bring such magnificent beauty into the world.

He got the job.

Over the years, I’ve asked a lot of people about this…this sense of purpose, this feeling that I’m part of a bigger plan, have a role to play in some great cosmic revelation. When I say it like that, there’s a ring of hubris to it, of megalomania. It sounds a little crazy, even to me. But there it is.

Yet, not for everybody. It’s surprising how few people share that sense of purpose with me. I’ve asked countless times, and found so few. At least, so few that would admit to such delusions of grandeur.

This reminds me of a favourite passage from my favourite novel of a favourite writer, Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. Alessandro is a wise old man, the titular Soldier of the Great War, who has lived life with passion, vigour, and experienced the truest of loves. Nicolo…Nicolo is a boy on the cusp of manhood.

“I don’t want to walk all the way to Sant’ Angelo with a . . . with someone who defeats himself before he’s begun,” Alessandro said. “I’m going to tell you something that you may or may not understand, and I want you to memorize it and say it to yourself now and then, until, someday, you do understand.”

“Is it long?”

“No.”

“Go ahead.”

“Nicolo,” Alessandro said.

“Nicolo,” Nicolo repeated.

“The spark of life is not gain.”

“The spark of life is not gain.”

“Nor is it luxury.”

“Nor is it luxury.”

“The spark of life is movement.”

“Movement.”

“Color.”

“Color.”

“Love.”

“Love.”

“And furthermore . . .”

“And furthermore . . .”

“If you really want to enjoy life, you must work quietly and humbly to realize your delusions of grandeur.”

“But I don’t have them.”

“Start to have them.”

I wonder if we don’t all have them. I think all of us have a purpose. I believe all of us do and that the most difficult part of our journey as human beings could be discovering what that purpose is, and believing in it enough to act on it.

And I wonder if the appeal of a book like The Pillars of the Earth or A Soldier of the Great War is, in part, due to the way it wakes up in us not just that connection to beauty the way a cathedral does but also the sense that we have a role to play in creating beauty, whether it be a cathedral, a painting, a film, telling a story, or to be true to love. In a sense, we’re all here to build cathedrals.

Mmmm… and this thought reminds me of a favourite song by Yes, Turn of the Century

2 Responses to “Beauty, Cathedrals, Purpose: The Pillars of the Earth”

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  1. Gary says:

    Great post. Yes we are all masters of our own destiny, captains of our soul, but finding our purpose in life is tough to do. I doubt whether I’ve found mine, which is probably the main reason for my nagging feelings of dissatisfaction and unfulfilment

  2. Peter says:

    Thanks, Gary.

    I think if we spend too much time mulling over, thinking about or seeking our purpose we’re unable to hear the subtle call from within. 😉

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