Talking with ‘God’

Volume 52, Issue 2 :: Julio Bermudez

Exploring the power of sacred architecture in ‘The Story of God with Morgan Freeman’

Actor Morgan Freeman explores the sacred power of Chartres Cathedral with the author.

Actor Morgan Freeman explores the sacred power of Chartres Cathedral with the author. Photo: National Geographic/Maria Bohe

I am standing under one of the massive bell towers of Chartres Cathedral, an hour outside Paris, steps away from the magnificently carved doorway leading to a blessed world inside. I am trembling and not just because of the cold air in this early morning. I am nervous about my imminent encounter with the Morgan Freeman, the Academy Award-winning actor who has played the role of God in several films.

Expectations are high. I am to guide Freeman through his first visit to this amazing, 800-year-old structure, arguably the best example of Gothic architecture in the world. It is all part of the third episode of the third season of “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman,” a popular program on the National Geographic Channel. The show explores issues of faith, religion, and God. Its format is as simple as it is compelling. It starts with Freeman wondering about this or that religious or spiritual topic: What happens after death? Why does evil exist? Are there a chosen people? Do we need a messiah or representative of the divine to pursue a faith? What does God look like? Is there heaven and hell? Once Freeman articulates his question, he embarks in a journey around the globe to speak with experts and first-hand witnesses to cast light on the subject. His consultations with individuals from all faiths, cultures, and paths of life, even atheists and scientists, makes his query all the more interesting and engaging. His searches for answers are so full of surprises, detours, discoveries, and insights that they invite reflection well after the program is over.

Freeman keeps the inquiry open and avoids easy conclusions. Stereotypical or simplistic responses rapidly collapse under the sheer weight of the findings. “The Story of God” works because the host never challenges a viewpoint, respectfully voices questions that most of us would naturally ask, and puts an answer in relation to others. The viewer knows that, even if they disagree with a particular response, they are learning something new that expands their worldview, faith, or spirituality. The program often leans toward an anthropological or psychological take on religion, but even then it inevitably invites committed believers to go deeper into their faith. By showcasing multiple ways of being and seeing this world in relation to the one that lies beyond, “The Story of God” provides a remarkable service (the program is broadcast in many countries and available online). Indeed, at a time of growing global homogenization, nationalistic division, overt racism, religious radicalization, and superficial materialism, this series offers a healthy, sophisticated, and heartfelt antidote to these dangerous threats to our humanity in ways that are real and educational but also smart, fun, and entertaining.

Waiting for Morgan

The cameras begin to roll as I stand beside the west portal of Chartres on this November morning, waiting for the series host. We have agreed on the actions to follow, the words to be said, but still my anxiety is palpably hot despite a chilly breeze. It is hard to forget the chain of events leading to this moment. It all started in March 2018 upon receiving an email from Revelations Entertainment, the producers of “The Story of God.” They were interested to learn more about how sacred architecture creates a “sense of God’s presence.” They wanted to explore the experiential dimension of the transcendent through the lens of an iconic religious building. That initial email turned into Skype discussions and digital exchanges that culminated in their request that I participate in this episode. I could barely believe I had been invited, but I had been studying and writing about extraordinary architectural experiences for more than a decade, which had led the production team to me. Having Revelations Entertainment, National Geographic, and “The Story of God” tackle the most profound function of architecture—to facilitate our connection to the divine–was an opportunity not to be missed. The fact that architecture had never been a central feature of the series made the occasion all the more significant (striking religious buildings, sacred landscapes, and holy cities often appear in episodes but only as background settings to an otherwise architecturally unrelated inquiry).

How do you make the best use of this opportunity? This was the koan I tried to resolve during the seven months separating invitation and shooting. First I became familiar with all the historic, architectural, and related scholarship covering Chartres. Although this information was important, it was not central to the task at hand: to convey the architectural miracle that turns geometry into emotions, silence into timelessness, height into spiritual elevation, icons and statues into transcendent messages, stones into goosebumps, light into contemplative longing. The combination of all this transmutes into an ineffable moment, when the presence of the divine is unmistakably felt. I spent much time considering how to guide Freeman (and the program’s audience) so such an extraordinary experience could be, if not directly enjoyed, at least understood beyond a superficial or intellectual level. I eventually decided to focus on only a few ideas, use simple words full of embodied and emotional connotations, and speak as authentically and humbly as I could. The plan was to consider architectural conditions most likely to translate into awe, such as verticality and scale, light, materiality and craftsmanship, transition from a profane outside to a sacred inside, and the overall sense of unity or harmony. Other topics that the producers and I deemed worthy were sacred geometry, the neuro-scientific basis behind architectural awe, the silence and emptiness of the space, the structural awesomeness of the Gothic, and the role of darkness. All were covered during the three-hour filming, but they all didn’t make it to the final tape.

Meeting ‘God’

Freeman suddenly opens the door of the black SUV parked some 30 meters away from the cathedral entrance and calmly, naturally walks towards me. I had thought that I would have a chance to meet him beforehand, but the production team informed me that they prefer to capture on camera the first time he meets people in his travels. The magic and spontaneity of such moments cannot be replicated and makes for the charm and genuineness that the program is well known for.

As Freeman approaches me, he raises his arm for a handshake. Reality sets in and the intense potential of the unfolding event washes over me. Almost as soon as I touch his hand, I feel that I have known this man for a long time. His peaceful and friendly manner soothes my nervousness. The experience is of two people on a journey of discovery, conversation, contemplation, and wonder. My transformation is thanks not only to Freeman’s attitude and demeanor, but also to the production team’s incredible support and guidance. I count 23 team members including manager, producer, director, cameramen, lighting and sound engineers, acting support, logistic personnel, drone controllers, security, etc. The wealth of equipment at their disposal is definitely impressive. It completely fills up one of the cathedral’s chapels. Witnessing the team work is a lesson in civility, professionalism, and creative improvisation. Quality comes first. Ego and ideas are immediately given up when a better argument or way of doing things emerges, always organically from team members. Case in point: They listen to my suggestions and improve on them, such as capturing Freeman doing the labyrinth from high above, dramatizing the entrance into the cathedral, and filming the buttresses using drones.

Morgan Freeman and Julio Bermudez

Freeman with Bermudez during the filming of “The Story of God.” Photo: National Geographic/Maria Bohe

Since our arrival at 6:30 AM we have had Chartres all for ourselves, except for a coterie of parishioners that pray there early each day. I was able to walk alone in the vast, empty, and dark space of this Gothic marvel, the sound of my steps reverberating down to its most hidden recesses and up into its highest vaults. I had been to Chartres before, but experiencing it like this was a dream come true. And when the sunlight began to pour down through the high stained-glass windows an hour later, a contemplative atmosphere full of grace and beauty set in. As more and more of the interior became illumined the majesty of Chartres revealed itself, even though darkness never fully disappeared.

With Morgan in the Nave

Freeman’s response to Chartres is sincere, intelligent, meditative. Never once do I feel that he is “acting” the part. He doesn’t need to. This is his first time in this incredible sacred space. So his expression of awe after entering this sacred space, so well captured on camera, is the real thing – not something arranged or repeated. Like our initial encounter outdoors, this particular take was done only once–the first time. The video is thus a testament of the moment when a transcending architecture touches him. As time passes, Chartres continues to grow on him. He asks to shoot things or discuss issues not included in the original plot structuring the segment. Our interaction also gets warmer. This closeness along with his questions and observations make me realize that he has not only gained a physical and intellectual grasp of Chartres but, most importantly, is able to sense the mysterious presence of something larger, much larger than all of us.

Having watched the episode many times, I must say that the editing of three hours of footage into just seven minutes accomplishes the seemingly impossible: to portray the essence of what happened that November morning in the cathedral. I say this with great relief, as it was something that preoccupied me for months. Since I had no say in what would go into the segment, I could only trust and wait for the episode premiere. The production team did an amazing job at capturing the spirit of our visit to Chartres.

Do I wish that the segment had been longer to allow for more discussion on the experience of sacred architecture and Chartres? After much reflection, I would say no. More is not always more, as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reminds us. Having personally witnessed Freeman’s experience of Chartres, I find his words closing our segment sincere and reassuring that he (and through him, one hopes, the audience) got a glimpse of the power of architecture to open the gates to God. Here is how Freeman closed the program:

The designers of this cathedral created a magnificent space. In there, you feel a connection to something bigger than yourself. There are generations of history connected there, not to mention the herculean efforts of the people that built it. But it is more than that. For me, it creates a sacred space up here [he points to his head], stops logic, stops the persistent drumbeat of modern life. It transports you outside of time. I guess you call that divine.

The author directs the Sacred Space and Cultural Studies graduate program at The Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning and is the president of the Architecture, Culture and Spirituality Forum ( an international organization he co-founded in 2007. “The Story of God With Morgan Freeman” is available on, Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, and other streaming media providers.

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