This is Notre Dame d’Amiens, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Amiens, located in Amiens, France.
Amazing, isn’t it? AWESOME. Literally inspires AWE. To put in perspective the size of the building, please note the HORSES standing out front. They’re one quarter the height of the front door.
At the time it was built, the architects of the era were in a “whose thing is bigger” contest to see JUST HOW BIG IT COULD BE. Constructed between 1220 and 1270 (yes you read that right, it took FIFTY YEARS to build it), Amiens Cathedral is the biggest completed cathedral in France.
The building is gorgeous and inspiring from the outside, but you don’t see the stunning, almost completely unbelievable, “oh holy shit” part until you’re on the INSIDE.
HOLY SHIT, RIGHT?! UNBELIEVABLE. The central arch of the cathedral reaches 138 feet. That’s THIRTEEN STORIES. It’s so big on the inside it’s literally like being OUTSIDE. The goals of the cathedral builders were to 1) reach as high into the heavens as possible, which they felt was pleasing to God, and 2) build the windows as ginormous as they could to maximize the light. They accomplished both of these goals and completed a cathedral with the largest medieval interior in Western Europe.
Amiens Cathedral is one of the few chapels that displays almost entirely original stained glass windows. They really are a sight to see. Back in the day “windows” weren’t just WINDOWS to let in light, they were individual works of illustrated manuscript to tell stories. At the time of construction the majority of the population was illiterate, so the windows were used to visually teach stories that people could not read with words. The windows told the stories of the saints and apostles found prancing through their frames, and the colored glass reflected the beliefs, foundation, and heart of the church in which it resided.
Now. THIS is a flying buttress.
See, the architects couldn’t build interiors that vast, walls that high made out of STONE, AND punch huge holes in the walls for very-important-for-teaching windows without some sort of support. The flying buttress was the architectural lifesaver, the necessary key to achieve the goals of reaching the heavens and letting in maximum light.
Most of the buttresses at Amiens were part of the original architecture. However, hundreds of years after the completion of the building excessive lateral force from the choir arch threatened internal collapse of the main hall. (In layman’s terms, “maybe that was too high.”) Masons added a second tier of buttresses lower down on the outer wall, saving the Chapel from folding in on itself.
I can hear you now. “Hey, great art history lesson. What does this have to do with being healthy?”
I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED.
We are Cathedrals. Each of us is a magnificent, lofty, beautiful cathedral built by The Architect. We reach for the heavens, straining and stretching to PUSH as high as we can with the time we have. Our outsides are magnificent in their construct regardless of appearance, but it’s our insides that are truly amazing. Sometimes full, sometimes empty, quiet, noisy, clean, dusty, stuffed with bags and boxes or decorated like it’s a party, a solitary place to be or a lively one, what is inside is the part that makes us phenomenal.
Just like the cathedral at Amiens we need to let in light. Nothing on the inside makes any sense in the dark. To let in light we need windows. BIG windows, and lots of them. Our stained glass is our filter between the outside world and our interiors; the content of our glass is a reflection of the way we see ourselves and the world. The stories we tell with our windows are sometimes good, sometimes ugly, usually truthful, but sometimes we tell ourselves and other people lies with what we paint there. Sometimes the content of our windows is not to be trusted. Sometimes we paint pictures to deceive others, and sometimes we paint pictures to deceive ourselves.
People on the inside, those we let in to our Cathedral, can revel in what they see coming through our glass. The images and stories we tell with our windows teach people on the inside the things we believe, the content of our character, and the essence of our hearts.
Just like Amiens, strong walls with holes cut in them need support. No matter how strong we are, no matter how solid the material we’re made of, we need support. WE NEED FLYING BUTTRESSES. We cannot reach as high as we’d like AND let light shine through our amazing windows without something holding us up from the outside.
You see where I’m going with this now, I bet…
Not too long ago I had ZERO WINDOWS in my cathedral. NO ONE INSIDE PLEASE. I am a private person that likes to keep my own stuff inside, in the dark, where no one EVEN MYSELF can see it. Never mind that I’ve been tripping over my own baggage for years, that I’ve stubbed every toe on both feet, that I keep banging my head against walls because I can’t see that they’re there (even sometimes when I KNOW they’re there). I didn’t have windows, I had WALLS. BIG ones. I’ve actually always been pretty proud of my walls. I built them solid and THICK and window-less on purpose. No one could see in, no one could get in, I was safe and secure and warm. And alone. And in the dark.
Then one day something changed. I was tired of pretending everything was okay. Ignorance is easier but it does not allow for progress. You can’t get rid of baggage unless you’re willing to actually LOOK AT IT. And then DEAL WITH IT. And then go through it. And then MOVE IT OUT. I wanted to make a change and rearrange some baggage, but it was too dark to see what I was doing, let alone where to even START.
I needed light. I needed WINDOWS.
Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh and DAMNIT.
Like I said, nothing on the inside makes much sense when you’re in the dark. You can’t DEAL WITH THINGS when you’re alone and in the dark. I knew I needed windows, but DAMNIT, SO MUCH WORK. And I was so afraid.
“What if I can’t do it? Or I mess it all up? Or make too big of a hole and I can’t fix it?”
“What will people think of me?”
Adding windows is a tough, scary, threatening, scary, sometimes overwhelming, scary choice. SCARY. Even setting aside the sheer work of the project, cutting in windows lets in light. And with light you can SEE, and if the window is there OTHER people can see. “What if people see that stack of bags over there? What if I SEE THAT STACK OF BAGS OVER THERE?!” I had baggage that would require a FLEET of U-Hauls to move out of the building, I was sure of it. I was scared to face it, scared to see how big the pile really was. I was scared and embarrassed and ashamed and disgusted at the thought of OTHER PEOPLE seeing how big the pile was.
But really, I needed light. I was shriveled and dying and alone with my bags in the dark. There was no other way.
So I started to cut. I cut out chunks of my wall that were in my way, and cut out big pieces that kept the light from coming in. I cut out pieces that had been there for years, parts that I felt were weakest and some that were supposed to be strong but weren’t.
Cutting in windows is hard work, but it also came with some consequences I didn’t see coming. As I cut in windows I started to feel really weak and crumbly, like I was going to collapse in on myself. Big, intentional change is phenomenal when it’s complete, but cutting out chunks of “what is there now” to get to “what will be there later” is messy. And destructive. And sometimes it’s ugly. Things seem to get way, way worse before they get better.
Some of the people that were originally supportive, some people that had been in my Cathedral for a long time, saw the holes I was making, freaked out, said “THAT’S DUMB, YOU’RE FINE, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG, I DON’T LIKE THAT WINDOW, I LIKED THE WALL BETTER, I KNOW WHAT’S BEST.” I wavered some but kept going, and when I didn’t comply with their beliefs they left me standing in my mess.
Some people in my Cathedral saw the windows I was getting ready to put in and left because they didn’t like the picture. Some had cathedrals of their own that they KNEW needed those same windows and they RAN. My picture windows convicted them and they couldn’t cope.
At the worst, most horrible, most lonely, blackest, hardest part I was left alone and in the near-dark, eyeballs deep in dust and dirt, trying to stand tall and cut in windows without any support from the inside or the outside.
My lack of support made it way harder to cut in windows. My lack of support was limiting the height of my reach. I needed help.
Then something wonderful happened. I made a friend.
This is Mr. Nevada.
Mr. Nevada is my very own Flying Buttress.
At a time in my life when the walls were most crumbly, when things were most dark, he came to me and PUSHED. He pushed IN so I could push UP.
(See what I did there? PUSH.)
He stands outside the walls, watches my progress, and peers in the windows. If I try to cut a window in too close to another he’ll tell me in factual, real, honest, sometimes (usually) really-annoying-because-I-don’t-want-to-hear-it way, “Too close, you’ll fall apart.” He tells me when my walls are in need of repair, when there are wrecking balls around, and when I need to pay more attention to what’s going on INSIDE rather than the people hanging around outside (because I’ll admit it, I like to distract myself with what’s going on outside instead of dealing with my own insides sometimes).
He holds my hands when I’m going to DIE if I don’t binge and listens to me tell him all the unhealthy and horrible things I want to do to myself with food. He makes sure that I’m not skipping meals, even asking my kids to “be sure you see Mommy eat.” He makes sure my insides are clean and healthy.
He acts as an interpreter of window-stories and filters the stories I try to put there with truth. When I say “I feel fat and gross,” he replies with things like, “I’m sorry, too bad, neither of those things are true. Change that window, it’s telling lies.”
We all find support in different ways. Some feel they don’t need it. Raising my hand. I still feel like I don’t need it most of the time. And I don’t WANT it most of the time. But the fact remains… before I found a Flying Buttress, I could not even comprehend the full potential of my reach.
Some people don’t have flying buttresses at all, and instead they have stone pillars propped against their side leeeeeeaning on the Cathedral wall FOR support, not TO support. Some people THINK they have buttresses but what they really have have are arches. Arches are there in name and looks only, supporting themselves but never supporting their endpoints. Arches don’t push IN.
Each and every one of us needs support. Some more than others, but for sure if we ever want to instigate huge change, cut out chunks of our old life, say goodbye to “before,” and put in new windows to see more of what we’ve got going on inside we NEED SUPPORT. We need support to build higher. We need support to further our vertical reach.
Find your flying buttress. Find your support system. Find that one person, or group of people, that can stand outside your walls and hold them up so you can cut in windows and see what’s going on inside yourself. Church, community, neighborhoods, family, friends. Keep looking until you find it. Big change we can’t make alone.
No more stumbling around, tripping over your own baggage. Cut in those windows. Say goodbye to the dark.