St Paul’s: Standing in the Fire

In times of chaos, the holy places become refuges, symbols of tenacious, desperate hope. Because no matter how bad things get, no matter how many times the holy place falls, it—like any hope set on the One who makes the place holy—will rise again.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, now one of the best-known cathedrals in London, was built upon a location once occupied by a temple to the Roman goddess, Diana. St. Paul’s was first dedicated as a Christian cathedral in 604 A.D. Then it burned.

The cathedral was rebuilt—and then destroyed by Vikings in 962.

The third cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1087.

The fourth was completed in the 1200s but was damaged by fire in the 1500s. It fell into further and further disrepair until the Fire of London burned it to the ground in 1666.

After the Fire of London, the architect, Sir Christopher Wren, designed a new cathedral, setting the first and last stones in place himself, thirty-five years apart. The cathedral stood for many years, becoming a burial place for many of England’s greats, including Wren himself.

Then came the German Blitz of 1940.

The almost constant bombing from the Luftwaffe that autumn destroyed many buildings in London, and on this night, October 9, 1940, a Nazi bomb pierced the dome at St. Paul’s.

But the building did not fall. And because it did not fall, it became a symbol to Londoners of hope and their determination that they would not be defeated. St. Paul’s Fire Watch and other civilian fire brigades protected the cathedral from fire and even removed an unexploded bomb from its roof. When Paris was liberated in 1944, the bells of St. Paul’s rang out, proclaiming a celebration of freedom, and a year later, 35,000 people attended the service at St. Paul’s marking the end of the war.

St Paul's bombing

In January 2011, I visited St. Paul’s with a study abroad group from my school. We walked up 270 steps to the Whispering Galley where we stood on opposite sides of the open dome and listened to our classmates’ whispered messages from the other side. We walked up another 100 stairs to the Stone Gallery, a circular deck around the outside of the dome, where we began to catch a view of the city. It wasn’t until we reached the Golden Gallery, 576 steps up, that we experienced the full impact of the panoramic view of London.

I don’t remember if I’d heard the story of the bombing of St. Paul’s before I visited. (I may well have, but I heard so many stories of London’s famous buildings that they ran together in my mind.) I certainly didn’t know the stories of the fires. Looking back, I wish I had. It might have made the whole experience more meaningful.

The holy places fall and rise. The holy people fall—but with the strength of their God within, they always rise again.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

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