The Cathedral
At Cuernavaca

George F. Kennan
The square before the cathedral was taken up by a street fair; bedlam of booths, hawkers, and customers. Souvenirs, religious trinkets, food for the pilgrims, were all being dispensed. Slowly, the big limousine edged its way into the dense mass of people, who accepted its invasion without indignation. We got out and pushed our way into the cathedral. Though packed with people, it was cooler and dark in there. A ritual procession was moving around the edge of the building, past the side altars: priests, acolytes, choirboys, and lay deacons with white silk cross bands over their dark suits and banners held above their heads. Priests were chanting, the choirboys responding over and over again with the same group of four notes.

We had to edge back towards the wall, with the crowd, to make room for the procession. Women worshippers, scurrying along on their knees and trying in this way to keep up with the procession, squirmed past our feet.

In the scene of the procession, as it moved past us, there was an overwhelming electric starkness that rocked the spectator like a bolt of lightning: the gross, bleary faces of the priests; the desperate intentness of the kneeling, scurrying women; the heads of the choirboys thrown back and their faces uplifted as they sang, their child eyes glancing upward at the great Roman columns and vaults with their gold ornamentation; the dirty, bursting shoes sticking out from under the priestly and choral robes and shuffling over the worn flagstones. Here was the full-throated utterance of the human mass, with all its age-old vitality, with its spiritual dependence, its will to believe, and its readiness to submit to the organization and regimentation of that same will.

I drove back to the airport still saturated with the penetrating eloquence of this scene. I have never taken offense at the thesis of the Roman Church that many men require a spiritual as well as a profane framework of law: a moral order, founded on an appreciation of the dilemmas of birth and death and of the requirements of social living --- together, a moral order drawn up by those who are wiser and more experienced than the great masses of humanity and are capable of channelling into the body of spiritual law the ponderous experience of millennia of human progress. For many people it is always better that there should be some moral law, even an imperfect or entirely arbitrary one, than that there should be none at all; for the human being who recognizes no moral restrictions and has no sense of humility is worse than the foulest and most savage beast.

--- From Sketches from a Life
©1989, Pantheon Books
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Part I

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