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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