It was chance that put me at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine yesterday, September 11. I?m in New York on business this week, and since I was baptized Episcopalian three years ago I have always meant to see the Cathedral during a jaunt to Manhattan. I lost no friends or family on September 11 and can?t claim to have come to St. John?s out of a memorializing impulse. So I was neither expecting nor prepared to be so moved.

To begin with, the church is gorgeous, and in a completely unexpected way. It?s Gothic in style, and one of the largest Cathedrals in the world, of course, but four years ago much of it was damaged in a fire, and strangely this has only made it more beautiful. The back of the church has been boarded up, the end of the nave now marked not by ornamented stone but by gray-painted plywood. This has a stunning inadvertent effect when you enter and gaze down the row of impossibly lofty arches: You seem to be looking straight through a portal to the unknown, the incomprehensible. Because of the fire, there are no pews, and the displays of tapestries and fineries are surprisingly sparse. Instead, in the back corner of the church, rusty wood-and-metal school chairs have been placed in the round. The altar stands in the middle, atop a rather rickety makeshift platform. An ornate lectern has been rolled in as though from the half-struck set of some opera. The Cathedral?s Great Organ, installed in 1910 by no less an organ craftsman than Ernest M. Skinner, has been silenced by smoke damage. A digital electronic organ makes do.

And yet St. John the Divine still does everything ?high church?: Glittering vestments, every possible word of liturgy set to music, clouds upon clouds of incense. And as if this weren?t testament enough to the perseverance of the sacred in the face of destruction, the day?s service posed the message so eloquently that at half a dozen moments I thought I might cry. I was in too meditative a frame of mind to take notes, and so can?t quote from the sermon by the Reverend Canon Storm Swain, or the remarks by the New York Fire Department chaplain who welcomed uniformed men and women from an early morning memorial at Riverside Park. But I can let pieces of the service speak for themselves:

From the first hymn:

Mortal pride and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray our trust;
Though with care and toil we build them,
Tower and temple fall to dust.
But God?s power,
Hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.

From the collect:

Hear our prayers this day as we remember those of many nations and faiths whose lives were cut short by the fierce flames of anger and hatred. Hasten the time when the menace of war shall be removed. Cleanse both us and those perceived to be our enemies of all hatred and distrust.

From the solo sung at offertory by New York City Opera soprano Verda Lee Tudor, with text by St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon . . .
It is in pard?ning that we are pardoned.
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

I have a persistent and painful nihilistic streak, and I attend church every Sunday not because I am faithful but because the Anglican church is the only way I have found to counter this, to persuade me to see meaning in the world. (My deep-seated nihilism is also, I have realized in recent years, the reason I write: My need to create meaning is in direct proportion to my fear that life is devoid of it.) In recent weeks the nihilism has mostly overcome any inclination toward spirituality. Last week I watched footage of the New Orleans floods with my husband, and we turned to each other and bantered back and forth: A force that is all-powerful, all-knowing, sees everything you ever do and, oh yes, loves you?right! Ha! But listening to the words at St. John the Divine, watching the incense rise like pure spirit from the altar, hearing the fireman?s chaplain say that we are all broken, but in Christ?s broken body we are made whole?I felt again the profundity of religious symbolism, and I crossed myself during the final blessing feeling that life was far richer than the mental reductions I?d been making of it.

On my way out of the church I spotted the ?Poet?s Corner,? and read every carved stone there, scribbling resonant quotations onto my service leaflet.

Thoreau: Be it life or death, we crave only reality.
Dickinson: Captivity is Consciousness?so?s Liberty.
Frost: I had a lover?s quarrel with the world.
Edith Wharton: There is no end to life in its mercy or its pain.

And my favorite, from William Deans Howells:
Ah, poor Real Life, which I love!

2 Comments

  • Leigh Witchel Posted September 12, 2005 9:30 am

    Hope you’re enjoying our city, Rachel!

    My associations with St. John’s are similar. My concert was supposed to occur about two weeks after September 11 at Pace University – right across town from the WTC. I wasn’t able to reschedule the trip quickly enough for two friends from Toronto, so they visited anyway. The city was still in shock; the murals of colored xeroxes of the missing still everywhere, carpets of flowers at every firehouse.

    We went to St. John’s and the Cloisters. The church was not quiet, but it was still peaceful; it was filled with people trying to heal themselves. I’m not religious (and Jewish to boot) so I haven’t gone back since but your entry evoked memories and associations.

    All the best (and in the unlikely event you’re bored or have spare time – let me know if I can show you any of NYC)

  • lauren Posted September 16, 2005 7:42 am

    i sometimes attend anglican services in addition to my regular sunday catholic rituals, mostly for the music and the poetic leanings of their services. the post vatican II catholic service leaves something to be desired unless you attend a high latin mass.

    after being aghast at an easter service in madera that involved colored strobelights, a blaring rock band with brass, and ‘interpretive dancers’ drowning in large white robes with a few sheep baa’ing in the corner, i wrote a letter of complaint to my priest. i compared the service to an irreverent rock or pop concert (featuring the Stones or Madonna) that let some runaway animals take refuge. i then proposed that bach, or handel’s messiah which was originally intended for the easter service, would have been far more appropriate and meditative. i was 11 years old.

    he apologised and told me he was attempting to expand the traditional audience of the faithful but that he was sticking to his flamboyant ways.
    call me old school, but i prefer my incense and gregorian chants.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *