The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine – where to go when you want to feel insignificant (in a good way)

Entrance to St. John the Divine

That’s me standing outside the entrance to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine after the 11:00 Mass on Sunday, March 11, 2012.  It wasn’t actually that cold outside, but I’m from California, so I wear my big black coat whenever the temperature dips below 60.  It was probably about 50 out when this picture was taken.  You can really get a feel for how enormous the cathedral is… I’m 6’2″, and I look tiny compared to that giant entryway that doesn’t even fit in the frame.

POV shot walking up the steps of the church

When you’re walking up the steps to enter the church, you really can’t see the whole facade.  I mean, sure, you could crane your neck and attempt to see it as you step closer and closer towards it, but those sorts of walking antics would cause me to fall backwards down the steps.  So when I say you can’t see the whole facade, I actually mean that you can’t see it and stay vertical or, more accurately, that I can’t.  You might be more amazing.  I took the above photo holding the camera at eye level and looking up slightly to demonstrate the sort of view available to a person walking up those steps.  Limited and skewed though it is, the view is still impressive.

I get distracted thinking about all the masons who worked on the facade, all those workers who carved the stone and applied the iron to the wood and dangled precariously off scaffolding in order to create this magnificent frontispiece to a truly remarkable building.  Did the artisans and workers feel a sense of personal pride or service (or both) in working on what was to be a House of Prayer for All People, or was it just a paycheck to them?  Did they believe they were working on something beautiful, or did all of that Gothic over-the-topness seem a bit much?

I took pictures only of the exterior.  I know there are plenty of photos out there of the interior, but it felt wrong, somehow, to take pictures with my lame camera phone.

The first thing I noticed when I walked inside was how big it was.  My church could probably fit in that cathedral twenty-four times (two wide, three high, four deep).  When you’re in a space that big, the very air is different.  Sounds carry differently in such a place, and I bet the scripture readers have to undergo a lot of training on dealing with the relay before they are unleashed at the microphone.  The Reverend Canon who delivered the homily spoke deliberately, using the size of the place and the relay of sound to add another layer of meaning and experience to her sermon.  Even though the liturgy was exactly the same, the experience was completely different because of all that space and stone.

Personally, I like my church a bit better.  Maybe it’s a big fish/small pond thing, but I felt uncomfortably insignificant standing in the cathedral.  It’s good to feel that insignificant once in a while (because surely we are), but I can’t imagine dealing with it every week.

The other thing that I noticed about the cathedral is that it’s much more pleasant to be fully high church in a spacious cathedral than in a relatively small parish church.  They had a jolly incense bearer swinging his incense all over the place, sending up these giant plumes of white, fragrant smoke.  When my Priest takes it into his head to be all sorts of high church, I cringe and cough and try to discretely cover my nose so I can breathe air untainted by all that smoke.  What seems noxious and awful at my church was absolutely endurable at the cathedral.  At my church, the incense, because it is so concentrated in the smaller space, smells–to me–like burning pee.  At the cathedral, the incense carried hints of that burning pee smell but, oddly, not in an unpleasant way.  It was clearly the same type of incense, but it wasn’t horrible.

So there you have it: the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine!  I definitely recommend a visit whenever you should find yourself in New York City, especially if you are already of the Episcopal persuasion (otherwise, perhaps take a guided tour rather than attend a mass… less confusing that way!).  I think I need to visit some of the cathedral churches in Los Angeles to see if a cathedral is a cathedral or if my impression that St. John the Divine is a very special place holds true.  After all, I’ve only been to one cathedral–maybe they’re all like that!

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I am going to talk about religion (even though God don’t think stuff’s funny)

I like writing and thinking about religion, but I really hate talking about it.  You know how it is–you’re talking with a friend or a stranger about some random, innocuous subject, and all of a sudden Jesus joins the conversation.  And it isn’t even Jesus, really, it’s your version or her version of Jesus, and maybe those versions don’t match up.  All of a sudden, instead of being able to listen to one another and continue your formerly give-and-take conversation, you’re caught up in a battle of right and wrong (your opinion invariably representing the side of Right and your interlocutor’s opinion invariably representing the side of Wrong).  Ugh–I hate it!

I so hate talking about religion with people whom I do not yet trust to control that oh-so-human instinct to do religious battle at the drop of a hat, that I often hide my participation with my church until it seems safe to give it a casual mention.  After a year of knowing someone, if the topic of music comes up, I might mention that I sing in my church’s choir.  If a conversation happens to veer towards leadership or service, I might mention that I serve on my church’s vestry (as an aside, I didn’t know what a vestry was until I joined mine, so this mention tends to be safe due to general obscurity).  For the most part, however, I hold to a scrupulous silence about everything even remotely connected to religion.

Why?  Well, the fault is mine, really.  Religion tends to be viewed as a Serious Subject about which one should not joke, and I just can’t help but find parts of it funny, even while I believe in it.  I have offended more than a few people with my manner, an odd mix of irreverence and sincerity.  When I am glib about Serious Subjects (like the Eucharist, the Bible, God the Father, the Apostles, the Holy Ghost, etc.), folks who feel strongly about those subjects tend to reason, unsurprisingly, that my mortal soul might be in peril.  I don’t particularly like it when other people try to save my soul, so I tend to get even more snarky and glib, and it may be that I hold grudges.

This year, though, I have challenged myself to stop doing things just because I’ve always done them.  So I’ve had a problem in the past with people misunderstanding me… Since when do I have the right to control how other people view me?  Why in the world should I allow the potential for misunderstanding to justify my not being myself at all times?  Do I really have to be so damn neurotic all the time?  (Answer key: since never; I shouldn’t; no, ideally.)

On Saturday, I attended the Diocesan Ministry Fair for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, along with a host of clergy and old people.  (Seriously, out of a few hundred, there were probably fewer than 20 under the age of 35.)  It isn’t exactly accurate to say that I learned a lot–most of the plenary session seemed to be pitched towards the clergy and other folk who keep up on their modern theology (I don’t), so I spent at least the first half hour trying to figure out what the speaker’s topic was, what she meant by “Emergence Christianity” or “The Great Emergence”.  She seemed to presuppose that we would have a passing understanding of those terms, and it was my first time hearing them.

Once I caught on, I learned that we are on the cusp of a great cultural shift between the before and the after.  Advances in science and information technology have created a new world and a new culture, and people who are 45 and younger tend to accept these changes as a fact of life, while people who are 46 and older view them as scary change that is best resisted.  Quite aside from (or perhaps in concert with) these cultural changes, Christianity is changing as well.  The Emerging Church (which is apparently not the same thing as the Emergent Church, but hell if I know what the difference is) focuses on narrative and the power of story and will not be content with the simple sales pitch of traditional Christianity (believe in Christ or go to hell).  The Emerging Church wants to know about the Holy Spirit.  The Emerging Church believes in many paths to God.  The Emerging Church believes in mission, outreach, social justice, doing good in the world, and serving the Kingdom of God in all its many forms.  That last is, perhaps, the most important point about the Emerging Church: rather than believe that the Kingdom of God is encapsulated in the universal Church (the small-c catholic church), the Emerging Christians believe that all churches (all religions, perhaps?) are encapsulated within the overarching and universal Kingdom of God.

These are big thoughts, and I would never have expected to encounter them at a Diocese-wide event for an established Church.  Honestly, it was amazing (awesome, almost, in the real sense of the word… not awesome like hot dogs) sitting there hearing my secret thoughts about religion amplified around the room by a voice with a charming Tennessee accent (Phyllis Tickle.  You can look her up here: http://www.phyllistickle.com/index.html).

I have always felt vaguely heretical for believing that there are many ways to reach and serve God, for refusing to believe that I have magically stumbled across the right answer to the big questions of life.  What are we doing here?  What’s the point?  Those are big questions, and I really don’t believe that any human being has the ability to even comprehend the answers.  Maybe we aren’t even asking the right questions.  So it turns out that I’m a quasi-Emerging Christian–decidedly un-evangelical–and that there are millions worldwide who entertain similar thoughts about religion.  Goodness!

As an aside: for a blog about reading, I haven’t talked about books in a while.  I’ll have to fix that.

New York City – some thoughts and mediocre photography

I mentioned in my last post that I recently vacationed in New York City.  I’m from southern California, and I’d never before been to the big city, so I experienced, in many ways, a sense of culture shock throughout my short visit.  We crammed an astonishing amount of adventures into our five days in the city, but my favorite moments were spent in Central Park, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Hungarian Pastry Shop across from the cathedral.  I’m not saying that the other stuff was deficient, but those three places resonated most strongly with me.

New York's Central Park (click photos to enlarge)

Pardon the terrible photography, please.  I used my cell phone as my camera during this trip, and it is difficult to focus and stabilize.  In addition to that, I’m definitely not a photographer, so these images are twice cursed.

There were a few things that I really liked about Central Park.  I liked the way it sounded–the noise and bustle of the city muffled somewhat by all that nature.  I liked the barren trees.  In my little corner of California, there aren’t very many deciduous trees, so it’s hard to notice the passing seasons.  When you’re surrounded by naked trees, you can’t forget that it’s winter.  Finally, I liked that so many people used the park in different ways, walking, running, singing, sitting on benches… it is a public space that actually gets used.

This winter has been a trifle mild (especially compared to last winter) across the northeast, so it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that the trees and plants were celebrating an early spring while we were there.

Tulips springing up in early March (Central Park)

I almost walked by these flowers without noticing them, but my husband pointed them out to me.  That’s my hulking shadow at the bottom-left corner.  Having no talent for growing anything that isn’t a drought-tolerant plant (thanks to my southern California climate), I didn’t realize that flowers could start to bloom before the plant is fully emerged from the soil.  It seemed that these tulips were so eager to see the warm sunshine that they just couldn’t wait for the rest of their foliage to get it together.  I like impatient things.

I wish I could have devoted an entire morning or afternoon to the park, but we just didn’t make the time for it.  The time we spent in the park, though, was wonderful.  We walked through a good portion of it (at a fairly brisk pace) one day, pausing occasionally to take pictures or listen to various groups performing in the park.  The next day, my husband and I ventured alone into the park and sat on a bench to enjoy the morning.  Even though it’s silly, I envy my sister for living so close (comparatively) to that park, for having endless opportunities for experiencing and enjoying it.  That said, there are lovely public spaces that I never visit located within a few miles of my house.  I think what I envy is not necessarily the proximity to such a space but the inclination to go there, to enjoy it.  I suspect culture is at work: in New York, the park is large and centrally located, and most of the residents in Manhattan aren’t able to cultivate their own little gardens, so they use the park for this quasi-bucolic enjoyment; in California, everything is spread out, and suburbanites like me can muck around in their own patch of soil (or hire people to do it for them)… in order to go to a park, one must drive and find parking… it’s all so damn inconvenient!  Maybe I don’t envy my sister at all.  Maybe I appreciate the burgeoning differences in our regional cultures as she becomes less and less a Californian and more and more an “other”.

Half-eaten pastries at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.  I had an almond pastry (that semicircle of goodness at the top right of the image above), my husband had a prune pastry (that gorgeous bit of pie crust and prune filling at the bottom left), and my sister had a fresh strawberry pastry (a sort of deconstructed cobbler-ish pie with an almond pie crust shown at the top left).  The pastries were really tasty, but the best part about the Hungarian Pastry Shop was that it was dark with tables set uncomfortably close together, but it still managed to exude an air of comfort and quiet relaxation.  The walls were covered with strange art, and the bathroom was decorated with snatches of misquoted poetry, phrases expressing political discontent, and the ubiquitous “Linda is a lesbo”.  We stayed there for over an hour, and I am so grateful that we didn’t rush ourselves.  Since having kids, I haven’t taken the time to pursue one of my favorite hobbies: sitting in a coffee shop enjoying conversation (or silence) mixed with the background noise and bustle of espresso machines, other patrons’ conversations, and the clink of forks on plates.  I had forgotten how much I love those little moments spent both isolated from and together with humanity at a neighborhood coffee shop.  Also, I love almonds.

I think I’ll write about the cathedral in a separate post… It was so amazing, I suspect it deserves its own billing.

Elizabeth and Hazel – a follow up with thoughts on education and race

I’m a wee bit behind on my reflections and analysis.  I took a vacation to New York City (lovely) and have been on a mental vacation ever since, perhaps recovering from my vacation, perhaps recovering from the strain of living every day.  At any rate, I haven’t been in any position to write coherently about anything.

The final meeting of my workplace book club was on March 7, and, since we had already finished discussing the book, we met to watch an HBO special, “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later”.  The documentary was a good companion piece for the book because, rather than focusing on the picture and on the microstory of Elizabeth and Hazel, the documentary focused on Little Rock Central High, how it had changed in fifty years, and what still needs to change.  Frankly, by the end of the book, I was done with both Elizabeth and Hazel, so I welcomed the related but different subject matter.

I was able to watch only the first fifty minutes of the documentary, so I can’t comment on the entire thing, but the portion that I watched focused on the disparity between the success of desegregation and the failure of educational equality.  Central High’s racial demographic was, in 2007, approximately 60% black, 40% white.  If one looks only at that percentage, one could smugly assume that desegregation was successful, that black students won, so to speak.  There are, after all, more black students than white at Central High.  The thing is, percentages don’t really mean anything because they provide quantitative information rather than qualitative.

Here are some other figures.  In 2007, the racial demographic of remedial classes was 95% black, and the racial demographic of AP classes was 95% white.  This figure, of course, doesn’t really mean anything on its own.  One could conclude all sorts of awful things: are the black students at Central High simply unprepared, are they deficient in some way, or does it have more to do with wealth than with race?  What influence does culture have on the educational outcomes of black and white students at Central?  And (here’s a big question) do the black students at Central actually receive a better education than they would have gotten from a segregated school?

The documentary features interviews with students (white and black) and teachers (white and black, AP and remedial) and parents.  It follows students from their neighborhoods, the wealthy ones predominantly white and the poor ones predominantly black, to school.  It discusses some of the social problems that plague black students (poverty, teenage parenthood, nowhere to go, etc.) and discusses the difference between the goals and aspirations of the poor students (nearly all black) and the wealthy students.  The wealthy families presuppose success for their children, which, as with most self-fulfilling prophesies, tends to result in success for wealthy students.  Poor families tend to assume that their children will continue in a like condition, which tends to result in exactly that outcome.

Anyway, why do I care about Little Rock Central High?  I’ve never even been to Arkansas.  The thing is, when I was watching the video, I was strongly reminded of my own high school experience.  My family is not particularly wealthy, but I was privately educated through 4th grade, and my parents certainly had expectations of success for me and my sister.  When I entered the public education system in Monrovia for my 5th grade year, it was immediately evident to the educators that I was one of the smart ones, so I was whisked into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program then in use in the district (no idea if it’s still in use).  From 5th until 8th grade, I benefited from the best teachers and the most challenging curricula.  It was natural that I would enter the honors track when I arrived at high school, and it was inevitable that I would take AP classes and go on to college.  So there you go: my entire educational trajectory was decided in Kindergarten when my parents scrimped and saved and sometimes starved in order to send us to the private school.

The other interesting little factoid relating to my educational experience: in my GATE classes in junior high, I think there were 3-4 black students, 2-3 Hispanic students, and the rest of the 30 or so students were white.  The neighborhoods from which my junior high pulled students were either predominantly white (north of Foothill Blvd) or an even mix of black and Hispanic (south of Foothill).  The Asian population was negligible in that area.  By the time I got to the high school, even though the populations of nonwhite students dramatically increased (being from the entire city rather than just the northeastern portion), I recall fewer than 5 black students overall in the honors program (9th and 10th grade) and only 1 black student in my AP classes (11th and 12th grade).  So Little Rock Central High might be really far away, but the educational outcomes from that school mirror those of Monrovia High in sunny southern California.

I don’t know what it means, really.  It’s impossible to look at recollections and form firm conclusions.  Recollections are just too nebulous.  Maybe it means that household wealth is a strong determinant in educational success.  After all, that 1 black student from my AP classes was from an extremely wealthy family.  She went on to do undergrad at Johns Hopkins and is now a lawyer.  Maybe it means that there is a combination of racial preference at an early age and household wealth.  After all, my parents were not wealthy, but I received the full benefit of the best education possible in the Monrovia school system.  Maybe, if I’d been black or Hispanic, the administrators at the public elementary school to which I transferred in 5th grade would not have noticed or recognized that I was GATE material.  Who the hell knows?

I feel extremely grateful that I received such a good education, considering what little I’ve done with it.  When I think back on all that occurred, I feel a sense of sadness and helplessness.  I would wish everyone, regardless of race or gender (or anything else), to receive a good education, to experience the freedom of knowledge and critical thought.  It saddens me that so many people are taught only to follow directions, not to think for themselves.  It is depressing that there are adults who make it through the school system without mastering literacy.  That feeling of helplessness results from the reflection that my own excellent education largely derived from my separation from all the normal folk.  By taking classes only with other smart kids, I was able to learn how to think, how to speak intelligently, how to question accepted norms.  Would I have been able to learn those things if education were more egalitarian?  Does that make me a terrible hypocrite for wanting other people to have had a similar opportunity but not at the cost of my precious educational elitism?  It may be that there is no answer to that question.