Wednesday, October 24, 2001

St. Pat's Vs. St. John The Divine

My entry for today concerns New York City and Christmas. With the holiday approaching, and the upcoming NY Thanksgiving pilgrimage I've been thinking of my favorite things to do to mark the celebration of Christmas in the city.

I believe the events outlined here took place at Christmas 1995. Almost exactly a year after I'd miscarried my 2nd child (Geoff was my third pregnancy, my 2nd actual kid). Here's what it was like:

We had breakfast at my parents' house and ditched Jessica with them and hopped a train right before noon to Manhattan from Huntington. It takes about an hour to get into the city from there. We got into Penn Station and went right straight uptown to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Cathedral Parkway, 110th street.

St. John the Divine is dark, large, and rather ominous. It is being hand tooled, and is yet to be finished after over 100 years of construction. It is an Episcopal cathedral, with a church school (Ben Stiller went there for a couple of years I understand) and is sort of a liberal Episcopal church. They have a strong ministry into Harlem, and many of the workers building the church are residents of Harlem who are being taught stonemasonry and other skills. The place is astoundingly beautiful, with stained glass that depicts modern life (complete with TV sets and firemen) and has seven sub-chapels dedicated to different walks of life, including one specifically dedicated to AIDS patients, which was designed by Keith Harring before his death.

The decoration scheme for Christmas the last time we were there were rather somber. Lots of poinsettias, not a lot of flash, a large tree with origami birds as ornaments. It was sedate, quiet, low key and kind of sad. I got the feeling from being there that Christmas is actually a sad holiday. The birth of Christ, while an event that would eventually bring redemption and joy to mankind, is actually an unfortunate and sad event. The gentle and respectful darkness of the cathedral reflected none of that potential joy, but a sorrowful acceptance of the event itself. The reality of the night as opposed to the promise of what was to come at Easter.

I was brought to tears as I circled around the chapels, looking at the firefighter's memorial (this was a few years ago, I can hardly imagine what that memorial looks like today in the wake of September 11th and the loss of so many of these fine servants). Christmas as a sad event had never occurred to me. And here I was, hit in the face with it. A whole new dark perspective on the day. Not enough attention is given to this cathedral in my humble opinion, but to me it is far more beautiful than anywhere I've ever been.

Sad and humbled, thinking of the ultimate gift and sacrifice that God gave to us that night, it is time to go out. We dawdled around the Columbia Campus, got a snack, and made our way south via subway.

We emerged in midtown, at Rockefeller Center. The area was packed, filled with holiday shoppers, singers, walkers, cops. The skating rink had a 2 hour wait. The tree at Rockefeller Plaza was amazing. A Rockette's show at Radio City Music Hall just got out. There were enough people and no wind, and the area felt warm and close. Walking up from the rink to the road, St. Patrick's Cathedral appears to the left.

Police directed traffic and chastised walkers attempting to step into the crosswalk against the light. There was so much pedestrian traffic that the sidewalks are cordoned off -- preventing anyone from stepping out into the road in the middle of the street. Like cattle we're all encouraged towards the crosswalks, and all the pedestrians use them dutifully.

St. Patrick's is decked out like a glorious golden angel, bathed in white floodlights, crowds of people moving in and out of the doors so much so that it hardly seemed worth it to have doors at all. Golden gilded boughs, candles, trumpets, women in fur coats, men in expensive woolen dress overcoats covering their Gucci suits. Children overdressed for the weather. Patrons dressed in their fineries all mingled with one another, extending holiday greetings, hugs, kisses, lighting candles and basking in the incredible sense of jubilation that filled the building. It was a stunning contrast to St. John the Divine, where there was sadness, quietness and a sense that something sad and awful was about to happen. Here I was looking for the dancing girls and champagne. The service was about to begin. We did a quick walk through, recognizing that here Christ's birth is an EVENT, like only New York can throw. Lots of flair, flash and glitz, lots of bright lights. Lots of excitement. This is wealthy church, wealthy Christianity at it's gaudiest and most proud. Lovely, but too flashy.

It is like "Joy to the World" as opposed to the sad "O Little Town of Photo courtesy of Rod WatsonBethlehem" found uptown.

There is no humility or fear about what this night heralds, this eve of Christ's birth. Just a great sense of excitement. A thrill. A welcoming, with arms thrown open, the angels sing, the masses cheer. It is a joyous coming, nothing to be regretted. Nothing to fear. A celebration to be marked with great noise and gleeful smiles and cheers. Huzzah! As beautiful and glitzy the place is, it was overwhelmingly too much for me. The lights, the sound... I remember longing to sit on a quiet pew in contemplation and prayer, but there would be none of that here. When we left I recall finding a bench near Rockefeller plaza crying. Marking almost the exact moment of losing a child, combined with the overwhelming sense of sacrifice made for me in my life, the horrible sense of loss, and the fact that we're all pretty meaningless in this world, it all kind of hit me hard.

The quiet space of St. John the Divine seemed more of where I wanted to be, not the consumerism style of Christianity presented by Midtown Manhattan, and I was ready to go home.

Since that night we've done this at least two other times. Doug wants to go back this year, as I mentioned, I don't know if I'm emotionally ready. I want to go down to SoHo and go to the Indian restaurant we like so much down there ("Namaskaar") and bring Jessica and go to the top of the Empire State Building. We've tried to take her there before but it was a 2 hour wait to go up. And the last time we tried to go up on the WTC the observation deck was closed (we were 15 minutes too late).

[Sidenote: The first time we went to St. John the Divine was in 1989 when a friend of ours from the Oregon Extension took us there. He lived in a building right on the edge of Central Park, and had a cathedral view. I'd never heard of this cathedral at that time, not being interested in anything really north of 85th street, so I was amazed when he brought us there. Dave has since come undone, and currently resides somewhere in a mental institution just upstate, across the border from New Jersey. But that's another story all together which I will write about soon, it's been heavy on my heart... always is when I think about the lovely cathedral that he introduced me to, and he loved so much.]

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