The leather cathedral

I once met a man who had built a cathedral out of leather.

He showed it to me reverently in his back room – a two-foot-tall, perfectly-stitched gothic replica, enshrined on a carpet of rabbit-fur, complete with spires and buttresses and delicate snakeskin windows lit from within by coloured lights.

“I started it eight years ago to show that with leather you can do anything,” explained Peter, a former hippy who earned his living selling belts and other more recognisable handicrafts in the small Chilean fishing village where we met.

The cathedral was perfect on its own terms – that is, as an artificially-lit edifice made entirely from the skins of dead animals – the product of countless hours of devotion and intricate craftsmanship. But I also found it unsettling.


For a start, it seemed a strange thing to lavish so much time and devotion on. And today, remembering it suddenly for no apparent reason in the middle of a quiet February, I wonder what leather cathedrals are under construction in my own life.

What intricate displacement projects might be leeching my attention from what is really important? What passions or griefs am I burying in the addictive scrolling of my to-do list? Where am I sacrificing connection by focusing on perfection?

Interestingly, there was another shrine in that room, gathering dust next to Peter’s cathedral: his drum kit – a relic from his wild and idealistic youth, gigging with Chile’s answer to the Rolling Stones. “We once played for 54 hours continuously without amphetamines,” he told me proudly, sounding suddenly excited. “We had this great routine where we carried the lead singer on stage in a polystyrene coffin, with candles, so he could burst out through the lid.”


On his lounge wall, a framed poster titled The Legends Return showed Peter brandishing his drumsticks next to three other men wearing, among other things, pink trousers and a jacket of finest imitation zebra skin.

“That was a real show – but people don’t go for that stuff any more,” he lamented, his forehead furrowed between shaggy curtains of long blond hair. “We split up eventually. We all got on great, but our girlfriends hated each other’s guts.”

The first and last time I met Peter, twenty years ago, he was growing jaded at the state of the world, railing at consumerism – while just beyond his beach house veranda, magnificent horses helped the fishermen heave their boats out of the glittering surf.

But Peter insisted the view wasn’t as good as it used to be: “Too many people here now.”


At the time, writing travel columns for the Scotsman as I freelanced my way round South America, I was a little high-handed about Peter’s choices, leaving him to minster at his cathedral, “where building perfection is as simple as a straight cut”. But reading my account now, I wonder if he had simply found a project which gave him both a sense of personal accomplishment, and that elusive absorption in the moment we all seek – a place to lose himself as his youth waned.

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, argues that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand. I’ve felt that myself when I’m out in my kayak, or crafting a piece of writing – and it’s a wonderful place to be.

But I also know that ‘flow’ only really works for me when it’s a luscious interlude rather than a destination, a by-product of my life’s purpose rather than the purpose itself. It is potent fuel, but where will it take us?


I’ve met others like Peter, both before and since I started coaching. Looking back wistfully, wishing they could get the band back together – but fearing that the best is behind them.

My own experience – through learning to explore those feelings of sadness, trappedness, stuckness, follow them all the way down to what’s really underneath – is that the best may still be ahead.

If we’re lucky, midlife is a doorway, a rite of passage, a relinquishing of something in order to embrace something else. It is our chance to give ourselves to something much bigger that ourselves, to surrender perfection and small-scale plans in favour of a more vivid possibility, in favour of the thing that truly lights us up from inside.

I love watching men and women suddenly re-discover that purpose. It’s my favourite moment in coaching. I love how unexpected it is – unfinished and startling and exactly what is needed in the drama of life.

It’s less like a leather cathedral, and more like the moment when life bursts suddenly from its polystyrene coffin, wearing pink trousers.

Posted on: 13 Feb 2018 in Coaching, General, Psychology

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