There’s Something About You That Makes the Angels Look Up To You

View of the interior of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago (Richie Diesterheft/CC BY 2.0)
View of the interior of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago (Richie Diesterheft/CC BY 2.0) (photo: Screenshot)

You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow

— Sufjan Stevens

It’s college visitation time, and I recently accompanied my daughter, Meg, and her friend, Savanna, to check out the University of Chicago. The information session was helpful, but the best part was hearing about the University’s quirky admission essay questions – e.g., “What's so odd about odd numbers?” and “So where is Waldo, really?” My favorite: “How do you feel about Wednesdays?” I could really launch on that one. Aside from being Mittwoch (auf Deutsch), “Wednesday” is basically an Old English mash-up of “Odin’s Day” – as in the Norse god Odin, a deity associated with war and magic and mayhem. Think about that next time you find yourself dragging through the middle of the week. 

Anyway, after the info session and a campus tour, we were on our own in Hyde Park. Since I had lived a spell on Chicago’s south side, I knew something about the neighborhood – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, for example, which I duly pointed out to Meg and Savanna. My friend Michael, a University of Chicago graduate, had clued me in ahead of time to some additional highlights – the best bookstores, for example, and the café in the basement of the Divinity School. Also, he strongly advised the Rockefeller Chapel tour, and we took him up on his recommendation.

I’d been to that immense Neo-Gothic edifice a dozen times or more, and it never occurred to me to inquire after a tour, let alone a climb up to the top of the bell tower (thanks, Michael!). So we took an early lunch, arrived at the Chapel in time for the 11:30 tour, and took our seats at the front of the church along with the others waiting – a couple visiting from China, who apparently knew little English, and one other gentleman. Our guide arrived, and he introduced himself as Joey Brink, the Chapel’s recently installed carillon player – known as a “carillonneur” in the biz. Joey warned us about what lay ahead. “The stone staircases are spiral and steep,” he said. “We’ll take breaks along the way, but you’re welcome to stop at any point to catch your breath.” Good to know, since it’s a soaring 200-foot structure – the highest point on campus by design – and there are 271 steps in all. “If you decide you can’t go on,” Joey allowed, “feel free to simply return back down the stairs and let yourself out.”

“No way,” I thought to myself, nodding slowly. “I’m all in.” The tourists smiled and nodded as well.

Joey led the way through a big wooden door near the sanctuary, and the six of us eagerly followed, heedless of the challenge that lay ahead. I kept up pretty well the first 50 steps or so, but I started slowing down around the time we got to the first rest area. Thankfully, Joey took the opportunity to explain a bit about the mechanics of the carillon and the history of the enormous bells, but I focused on oxygen intake and my pulse. Joey also pointed out the false ceiling of the Chapel below, and drew our attention to the tower’s continued rise well above there. Even at this halfway point, I was already getting the sense of the Gothic architecture’s “otherworldliness where gravity seems overcome,” in the words of historian C.F. Barnes.

We kept going.

Probably around the 250-step mark, I really got winded. My pulse was racing, and the constant turning around the winding spiral staircases was making me a bit dizzy. As I climbed, I leaned more and more on the wall, sliding upwards, leaning forward, and concentrating on moving ahead, step by step. Finally, we achieved the level of the carillon keyboard – time for another mini-lecture and a breather. Joey demonstrated how the instrument was played, but then he released us to finish our journey to the top as he commenced his midday performance. Meg, Savanna, and I went first, followed by the Chinese tourists, and we could hear the bells ringing out below as we clambered up the last 20 steps or so.

Then – unexpectedly – we were aloft! We found ourselves on the outside of the tower’s summit, with nothing but a chest-high barrier and a metal bar separating us from a sheer drop, straight down. There we stood, a damp breeze buffeting our faces, lined up on a narrow causeway and stunned by the view of the lake and the city. Then, I glimpsed the Chinese woman gesturing wildly to me: She’d discovered that the causeway encircled the entire pinnacle, and she was urging us to follow her all the way around.

For a moment, I was transported back some thirty years when my sister and I were in Rome on a family trip, and the two of us scrambled to the top of St. Peter’s cupola. There were twice as many steps, but neither of us thought twice of it. We gleefully flew up the stairs – rising above Bernini and Michelangelo, above sculptures and paintings, saints and martyrs, even above the angels themselves. Pure joy and vitality, it was a race to the top – who knows the way? Up and up and up, laughing, lungs heaving, unclear as to our goal even – does it matter?

But we made it, and we were rewarded with a dizzying view from the very peak of the cupola down to the altar below, and then a view outside of the Eternal City – glorious!

And yet…not just a view, but a theological assertion as well – built right into St. Peter’s and the Rockefeller Chapel alike. For while we enter those grand physical spaces at street level – a reminder of our lowliness – we’re immediately swept up into an ascendant movement of the eyes, the heart, the soul: Arise!

Yes, we’re created us in God’s image and so we belong with him – even as ordinary humans – but that’s not the end of it. It’s strange enough that we bear God’s likeness, and even stranger still that he took on our flesh himself – thereby further elevating it – yet that’s not enough, that’s not the end of it.

In a bizarre twist, he gives us the grace – and the command! – to continue rising, to be transformed, to become perfect as he is perfect, to rise above the angels! “In itself our nature is far removed from the angels,” John of Damascus wrote in the seventh century, “but through God's goodness and the body's union with Him it has become higher than the angels.” The angels look up to us – us! Despite our ridiculous sins and insufferable self-absorption, the angels, pure spirit, envy us because we’re the ones that not only share in Jesus’ humanness, but also legitimately, if not brazenly, aspire to Christ-like deification. We’re the ones, that is, that can become “partakers of the divine nature” (CCC 460) – yes, us, even us!

Back in Chicago, we trudge down the stairs, worn out and winded, pausing at the levels of the carillon and the bells, and arriving in the nave – seemingly unaltered by the experience. Yet the effort itself and the exaltation of achieving the heights linger in our imaginations. As we exit the Chapel and head toward our car, we look up. “We were all the way up there!” we exclaim. “Can you believe it? All the way up there!”

Out on the street and looking up, it’s hard to believe. We’re so finite, so earthbound. Yet the recollection is itself a motivation to press on, return, and rise again.

Oh the mountain stream runs pure and clear
And I wish to my soul I could always be here
But there's a reason for living way down in the valley
That only the mountain knows

— Noel Paul Stookey