Benedict and Hawthorne

Like some of my fellow journalists who contribute to dotCommonweal, I've been blogging on the papal visit (for Newsday, at I was struck by Pope Benedict's use of the windows in St. Patrick's Cathedral as a visual aid in his homily there to make his point about what the church should be.The windows, he said, "flood the interior with mystic light. From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive, reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor."The pope said that Nathaniel Hawthorne had used this image. I think he is referring to a passage in "The Marble Faun" in which two characters tour the cathedrals of Italy:"The friends left the church, and looking up, from the exterior, at the window which they had been contemplating within, nothing was visible but the merest outline of dusky shapes. Neither the individual likeness of saint, angel nor Saviour, and far less the combined scheme and purport of the picture, could anywise be made out. `All this,' thought the sculptor, `is a most forcible emblem of the different aspect of religious truth and sacred story, as viewed from the warm interior of belief, or from its cold and dreary outside. Christian faith is a grand cathedral, with divinely pictured windows. Standing without, you see no glory, nor can possibly imagine any; standing within, every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendors.' "

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

Also by this author
An obscenity in The Times

Please email comments to and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads