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A spiritual journey

In Dresden and Coventry, war destroyed two cathedrals but not human kindness.

December 23, 2007|Eric Lucas | Special to The Times

DRESDEN, GERMANY — "Those are precious."

Precious? The objects I'm peering at are charred and pitted chunks of sandstone that look as though they've been retrieved from a fire pit -- because they have.

This is the Frauenkirche in Dresden, an elegant historic Protestant cathedral, and the charred stones signify something precious indeed.

On Feb. 13, 1945, British and American planes began bombing this city in eastern Germany. About six square miles of Dresden -- three times the area of West Hollywood -- were obliterated, including the Frauenkirche. The number of dead could never be calculated definitively because there were so many refugees in the city, but estimates run from 25,000 to as many as 135,000.

Dresden was not the first cathedral city devastated during World War II. In November 1940, German bombers zeroed in on Coventry, in the British Midlands, damaging more than 50,000 homes and destroying all but the walls and spires of St. Michael's Cathedral.

Coventry finished a new cathedral in 1962, and 30 years later Dresden started rebuilding the Frauenkirche.

Remarkably, the British city made a point of helping the German city.

Few places are so singularly devoted to reconciliation after war, so willing to do the hard work of rebuilding, to sing the song of forgiveness. Dresden and Coventry long had much in common. Both are historic European gems -- with castles, churches, cathedrals, museums, priceless artworks, colorful legends and mind-boggling treasure. They became involuntary brethren crippled by war. Now they are twin symbols of peace. And their two cathedrals are paired light posts of human possibility.

Visiting them is a unique spiritual journey. As I learn the structural and spiritual significance of the Frauenkirche's charred stones, I feel slender threads of yearning and kinship around me.

Some travel experiences are so unexpectedly intense that, unbidden, they bring tears to my eyes.

This is one.

ORIGINAL PIECES

My volunteer guide, the docent who is explaining the church's reconstruction to me, radiates warmth. I'm in Dresden by sheer happenstance, and I'm learning of this place's resurrection as he tells me of it. No doubt he can see the effect on me.

"These burned stones are pieces of the original altar we were able to rescue from the ruins," this grandfatherly, white-haired guide says. "You can see them throughout. As much as possible, we laid them back in their original spots.

"That's why they're so important. They represent the past and the future. Despair and hope." He beams.

They also represent the vision of one remarkable man.

The morning of Nov. 15, 1940, Coventry parish provost Dick Howard walked into the ruins of the historic St. Michael's, a medieval monument that had been hit during German carpet-bombing raids the night before. The church had caught fire, and the roof collapsed.

Near the altar, Howard stumbled on a charred piece of roof beam and, picking it up, inscribed in charcoal on the 570-year-old stone wall two plain words:

"Father Forgive."

Thus began a quest to turn the ruins of war into a catalyst of peace, a mission that has spread from this simple stone alcove around the world.

Two more charred beams were formed into a cross by a stonemason and placed on the altar.

The ancient roof nails were collected and, after the war, fashioned into crosses sent to Kiel, Dresden and Berlin.

The St. Michael's parish dedicated itself to fostering peace. The city of Coventry joined hands with Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Russia, inventing the sister-city movement. The Dresden ties grew into a full partnership in the early 1990s. All that, because Dick Howard was moved toward healing rather than hate.

LEARNING THE STORY

His original charcoal inscription, which could not have long withstood the persistent rains of the British Midlands, has been reset in brass lettering embedded in the stone. A replica charred-wood cross stands slightly askew on the altar.

I've come to Coventry -- I was compelled to come to Coventry -- to complete my own understanding of the story of the two cities.

A few unobtrusive plaques and memorials, including a sculpture of two human figures embracing, dot the grounds of the Coventry ruin, which is still open to the sky that rained destruction. A clutch of graceful yellow flowers tickles the foot of an entryway pillar.

On a mild May morning, with clouds chasing momentary braces of sunlight, standing before Howard's legacy, I still cannot fathom the why.

Not why war. This is clearly no place to ponder the meaning of war. Instead, I wonder what quality led Howard to foster forgiveness.

He made his choice during England's darkest days. Hitler's armies had seized much of Europe, and Britain's opposition looked futile.

Howard could not have known how things would turn out. Picking a path of peace was certainly far from obvious.

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