building cathedrals

Our Lady of Burgos, Spain 

Begun in the 13th Century, completed in the 16th


I really, really wish I knew who wrote the following. In part because she deserves credit for her work (ironic given its content), but mostly because I just really want to hug her.

Thank you, Charlotte, wherever you may be.


It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I’m on the phone and ask to be taken to the store. Inside I’m thinking, ‘Can’t you see I’m on the phone?’ Obviously not; no one can see if I’m on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all. I’m invisible. The invisible Mom. Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this ? Can you tie this? Can you open this?

Some days I’m not a pair of hands; I’m not even a human being. I’m a clock to ask, ‘What time is it?’ I’m a satellite guide to answer, What number is the Disney Channel?’ I’m a car to order, ‘Right around 5:30, please.’

I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history and the mind that graduated summa cum laude – but now they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again. She’s going, she’s going, she’s gone!

One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. Janice had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself. I was feeling pretty pathetic, when Janice turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, ‘I brought you this.’ It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe. I wasn’t exactly sure why she’d given it to me until I read her inscription:

‘To Charlotte, with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.’

In the days ahead I would read – no, devour – the book. And I would discover what would become for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could pattern my work: No one can say who built the great cathedrals – we have no record of their names. These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished. They made great sacrifices and expected no credit. The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.

A legendary story in the book told of a rich man who came to visit a cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, ‘Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof where no one will ever see it?’ And the workman replied, ‘Because God sees.’

I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, ‘I see you, Charlotte. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you’ve done, no sequin you’ve sewn on, no cupcake you’ve baked, is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can’t see right now what it will become.

At times, my invisibility feels like an affliction. But it is not a disease that is erasing my life. It is the cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness. It is the antidote to my strong, stubborn pride.

I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on. The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree.

When I really think about it, I don’t want my son to tell the friend he’s bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, ‘My Mom gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table.’ That would mean I’d built a shrine or a monument to myself. I just want him to want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, to add, ‘You’re gonna love it there.’

As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we’re doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible women.

~ Author unknown

Ed note: Very happily amended to add:

The author of the above is Nicole Johnson and you can learn more about her HERE. Thank you so much to those who directed me to her! I sincerely hope she’s OK with me reprinting her words here, something I never would have done without her permission had I been able to find her on my own first. I’m headed over to see if I can contact her. 

27 thoughts on “building cathedrals

  1. I really really needed this today. And even now as I sit with my iPhone in the bathroom trying to write this comment my daughter is standing outside the bathroom door trying to tell me a story which I have asked her to please wait until I get out and my son is knocking telling me he needs something or another. As I said I needed this today. Thanks

  2. Jess, your words always inspire me – but today they have lifted me ever so slightly out of despair. A million thank yous.


  3. My Mom had sent this to me in an email right after my son was diagnosed and I was feeling down. She told me not forget that even though my son has disabilities, that together we could build cathedrals of our own and everything that I do to help him, no matter how big or small, is just adding another brick to that building.

  4. Thank you Jess, you have no idea how much I needed to hear this! My daughter will be 7 next week, and we FINALLY got a diagnosis 2 days ago; PDD-NOS, with OCD and SPD…I was so relieved the other day, but now having a rough patch. She is still the same beautiful gift to us, I’ve learned the trick is to try and not look to far into the future, but to enjoy each day.You made me smile AND cry today, and the only other person that can do that is my daughter 🙂

  5. I hope that we discover who gave voice to this beautiful metaphor. These hooks really stuck with me: “Brick by brick.” “The antidote to my stubborn pride.” “…when I see myself as a great builder.” I’d like to hug this author as well. She has channeled the voice of an entire community. Thank you so very much for sharing, Jess.

  6. Thank you for sharing! I know I’m not exactly the intended audience for your blog, but I still need a “cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness.” This reminds me today of what I’m at school for, and it’s not just to be able to take the courses which I find most challenging and exciting. It’s not to prove my intelligence or affiliate myself with a ‘brand name.’ It’s to prepare myself to build something bigger – starting from the ground up.

  7. Really needed this! Your timing is astonishing. Kind of at the bottom of the mountain…but this gave some perspective. 🙂 Thank you. 🙂 a million times over.

    • That was wonderful! And here I was thinking I could do something for you for once (rather than you lifting my spirits or connecting my feet back to the ground). Nicole Johnson. Maybe I can find her so you could actually hug her.

  8. Nicole is a fabulous speaker, if you ever get a chance to see her, be sure to do so. She is a wonderful addition to the Women of Faith tours.

  9. Ditto what Boy Wonder’s Mom wrote. It’s so hard sometimes when you are alone at home and feeling so stuck or so invisible. Hard to see the importance until you have the benefit of hindsight. Or friends, like you, who remind us that we are seen and appreciated by those who walk the walk with us. xo

  10. Wow, thanks for sharing this! It is amazingly well timed for me, because today is my last day at my full time professional job. From now on, I’m going to be staying home with my son who was recently diagnosed with autism.It is very hard to adjust to the idea of having a different kind of “career” now, after 10+ years working outside the home. This helped put it into perspective. Wishing you all a great weekend!

  11. I had a friend on facebook who likes your posts almost everyday. Curiousity got to me today and I finally read your post. I do not comment much, but this is incredible. Thank you for your post. I needed to read it. I have often felt invisible not only to my children but also to my husband. Our families are truly our cathedrals, for without our “invisible-ness” they could not function. You have brought tears to my eyes and a wake up call to my profession of being an invisible helpmate.

  12. I, like so many other’s, needed this. I am finding it SOoooooooooo hard having 2 children. The baby is very demanding. Cymbie still needs me more than ever. I can barely get anything done or get through the days right now. I have YET to shower today…the baby just won’t let me. Cymbie will be home from school soon then it’s off to speech therapy and home to make dinner. I’m so overwhelmed. I had no idea it would be this hard. So thank you, this gave me a little strength in the 1th hour, which lately feels like every hour.

  13. You both, “carve the little bird under the roof”, and build the walls of the cathedral and you do it everyday…
    What a great essay..
    Love you,

  14. I had to read this a few times to get to a place where I could understand what the author meant. Was she yearning for recognition for her job? For travel? Sometimes that happens for me when I’m reading about other moms’ experiences. I kinda wonder if it’s because I went through eight years of infertility until I finally had my son and then when he was born, we almost lost him. And he’s my only one. Which means I almost missed out on being part of a great cathedral and I’ll never take it for granted.

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