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!

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.