I am standing in drenching rain peering up at a great cathedral, through a chilling mist that, condensed on the flanks of two shaggy horses, has turned to ice. This makes it hard to see and so I hurry across the street to take shelter under the tremendous eaves, where I feel my fingers slowly going numb as they turn white. Even in the shadows, in the rivulets running down the pavement to collect between the cobblestones, the cathedral is before me. I find myself staring at it, trembling, immobilized for fear of finding myself suddenly lost, if I look away, in a vast emptiness. The stone of the cathedral is hard and real and solid against my back, and my mute fingers, tracing over it, sense even in the thousand cracks and needlepoints a strength and solidity that cannot be denied. And then standing there I wonder if perhaps it has been waiting, through countless lives and generations, for me to come to it, and I turn abruptly and go in.
The cathedral’s inside is obscure with the passing of many centuries and the painted saints on the walls are wrapped in shadow. Beside the iron gate is a row of candles, and if I open my wallet they will light one for me and place it with the others. I walk on quickly with a sense of shame. Around me the murmur of praying voices mounts to windows which are high and colourless. Sliding into a frozen pew I moisten my lips with my tongue but nothing escapes them. In my mind I am groping blindly for the right words, and my inner plea, worn like the pews from long usage, takes on the force of desperation: please. In this word I have concentrated all the soul-searching of a faltering faith.
And there is something here, a whisper, that, even as I listen, fades away. A stirring, as though the air is quickening even in the confinement of these walls. The candles seem suddenly brighter, as if they have, after all, made an impression in the darkness, as if they have, despite the odds, managed to create a thin aura of light that the blackness cannot swallow. It is when I turn to stare at them that I see the staircase, spiraling up toward unknown heights-to the bells, I suppose, where they hang silent and solitary, dormant until the ringer comes.
I want to climb these stairs. Others are doing so-I can see them laden with their packages and cameras and rain slickers and cellular phones, and their predecessors coming down, panting less with wonder than exertion. The steps beckon. Like the Greeks I have done my penance in the dark cell of the oracle, I have starved and blinded myself for visions, and now I tell myself I am ready to see.
The staircase is small and crowded, the air heavy with breath and perspiration. Now and then a tiny slit in the stone breaks its surface but by the time I seem to have reached it I have already passed, and so I go on as blind as before. The stairs twist up and below me into an equal darkness. I am nauseated. My body refuses to obey me and shudders even as my feet continue to move from one step to the next. If I don’t get out I will be crushed, I will be suffocated. But I go on, ever on, feeling my way when my eyes begin to blur. For mingled with all this fear is expectation, a hope I cannot strangle, a strange sweet sensation that overpowers the terror of the climb. I am ascending, ascending. I seek the touch of the creator which surely, in this place, I cannot fail to sense. In the faces of my fellow pilgrims I see many things-bitterness, foolishness, the blind roboticism of despair-but, above all, a breathless expectation. Am I like them? Is my face also flushed with yearning?
Then, from above, I become aware for the first time of the voices that have been chattering around me; gasping, a man exclaims: "We’re almost there." He is speaking farther up, to some other companion, but at the same time he is speaking to us all. He is our voice. We are all "almost there," perpetually, reaching for a sky we cannot see.
Turning a corner I suddenly find myself in a small chamber with four windows, nailed over with wire mesh. The top. I stumble to one of them and then, at a loss, I wait. My skin is clammy and my face burns. Resting my forehead against the wall, sensing the cold seeping in, I close my eyes and listen. Not to the babble of the tourists who, like me, have climbed the spire of this cathedral in a foreign land. But to the bells which are ringing out all across the city, big and small, strong and weak, in one swelling cry of joy and exultation. For a moment I feel it. Then it ceases and the bells fall silent once more, and as I open my eyes I see only a vast, grey, secular city where tiny black forms scurry aimlessly beneath a never-ending rain. And when I turn to find the stairs again there is a counter in the midst of the room where a clerk opens and closes a cash register and the tourists clutch their silver spoons and plastic Christs, and I am faced with a long descent.