The tension between the secular and the sacred is an animating force of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” the very premise of which—a blind man healing a man who can see—inverts a popular Bible story in which Jesus heals a blind man. Carver’s story often explicitly and implicitly references religion, which is how many people find meaning in their lives, but Carver argues that a person does not need religion to find meaning—spirituality can be secular, and religion is perhaps most meaningful for the community it provides.
Though religion can provide meaning, it has not given the narrator meaning, despite that the narrator seems to have tried religion in the past. For example, he watches television program on Roman Catholic cathedrals and says that the program is about “the church and the Middle Ages.” It is unlikely he would call the Catholic church “the church” if he had not been a member of it at one point in his life. Nonetheless, the narrator seems like he may be a lapsed Catholic, having been unable to find meaning from that theological tradition. His cynicism does not extend only to the Catholic church—when asked by Robert if he is religious, the narrator says that he is not and that he doesn’t believe in anything: “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?”
However, “Cathedral” presents an alternative source of meaning, suggesting that close human connection can provide a secular fulfillment not unlike that provided by religion. At the beginning of the story, the narrator proves himself to be a bitter and argumentative person. He fights with his wife and asks Robert, his house guest, rude questions. Eventually, though, Robert and the narrator connect during a television program on cathedrals. The narrator attempts to describe the grand European churches to Robert—a first signal of the narrator’s regard for Robert—and when words fail, the narrator draws a cathedral with Robert’s hand placed on top of his as he holds a pen. With Robert’s encouragement, the narrator draws in a frenzy. He even closes his eyes to see as Robert does and he describes drawing the cathedral with his eyes closed as an experience “like nothing else in my life up to now. This is undeniably a spiritual experience, and the narrator lingers in his moment of transcendence, keeping his eyes closed despite Robert’s request to open them to witness their work.
Despite that the narrator’s spiritual experience is a secular one, it is not completely divorced from religion, as it revolves around cathedrals, which are religious symbols. In a sense, Robert and the narrator build a cathedral together through their drawing, which echoes the television program’s assertion that these grand cathedrals were built over many years with the help of many men. Perhaps, then, the communal aspect of religion was a main source of its meaningfulness all along. If a “cathedral” can be seen as a space built cooperatively and intended for people to join together in meaningful ways, then it’s reasonable to see the narrator’s spiritual experience as a secular version of simultaneously building a cathedral and worshiping inside one, since the narrator and Robert share a moment of finding meaning with one another.
The Secular and the Sacred ThemeTracker
The Secular and the Sacred Quotes in Cathedral
When we sat down at the table for dinner, we had another drink. My wife heaped Robert’s plate with cube steak, scalloped potatoes, green beans. I buttered him up two slices of bread. I said, “Here’s bread and butter for you.” I swallowed some of my drink. “Now let us pray,” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold,” I said.
Something about the church and the Middle Ages was on the TV. Not your run-of-the-mill TV fare. I wanted to watch something else. I turned to the other channels. But there was nothing on them, either. So I turned back to the first channel and apologized. “Bub, it’s all right,” the blind man said. “It’s fine with me. Whatever you want to watch is okay. I’m always learning something. Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight. I got ears,” he said.
There were times when the Englishman who was telling the thing would shut up, would simply let the camera move around over the cathedrals. Or else the camera would tour the countryside, men in fields walking behind oxen. I waited as long as I could. Then I felt I had to say something. I said, “They’re showing the outside of this cathedral now. Gargoyles. Little statues carved to look like monsters. Now I guess they’re in Italy. Yeah, they’re in Italy. There’s paintings on the walls of this one church.”
“That’s all right, bub,” the blind man said. “Hey, listen. I hope you don’t mind my asking you. Can I ask you something? Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no. I’m just curious and there’s no offense. You’re my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious? You don’t mind my asking?” I shook my head. He couldn’t see that, though. A wink is the same as a nod to a blind man. “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?”
So I began. First I drew a box that looked like a house. It could have been the house I lived in. Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. Crazy. “Swell,” he said. “Terrific. You’re doing fine,” he said. “Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub? Well, it’s a strange life, we all know that. Go on now. Keep it up.”
“Close your eyes now,” the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
“Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”
“They’re closed,” I said.
“Keep them that way,” he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”
Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.