Saturday, July 07, 2007

Travel Journal (3)--NYC, A Tale of Two Churches

Frankly, I didn't plan to spend much time in churches during my Manhattan sojourn--saving that experience for the Republic of Georgia. I did manage to take in two rather famous--and in my opinion, disparate--churches in the city: St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The first is Catholic, the second, Episcopal. I skipped the The Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas, as it was just too far removed from a subway stop to be practical.

St. Patrick's is probably the best known Catholic church in the US. Even growing up Protestant in the South, I had an awareness of this church--perhaps from my faint memories of the Kennedy administration. It has certainly played a significant role in the history of New York, if not the country as a whole. There was even a passing reference or two to it in Grey Gardens, the play I attended the night before.

The church is now very much hemmed-in and dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers. So much so, you are actually somewhat surprised at just how large it is once you enter. The nave was a welcome sanctuary to me. I am loath to admit it, but my stamina has not returned following my surgery. By the time I reached this block of 5th Avenue, I really, really needed a cool place to sit down. I took a seat on a rear pew and tried to take it all in.

The magnificent sanctuary and the shuffling tourist throngs in full uniform (shorts, tennis shoes, baseball caps and bulky cameras) testify to St. Patrick's star power. Yet while they certainly welcome and accommodate tourists off the street, I was pleased to observe that the church is still, thankfully, very much a place of worship. The candles of the faithful flickered everywhere. Some were doing their devotions at the the shrines along each wall. Most in the pews were in prayer. I decided to join them. I left the Cathedral refreshed and thankful for the experience.

I did not immediately proceed to St. John the Divine. I stopped in at Tiffany's, still remarkably unchanged from its movie depiction so many years ago. A nice saleslady with her hair pulled back in a bun assisted me in arranging for a small package to be mailed back home. I crossed over to Rizzoli's Bookstore and paid homage to the late, great Oriana Fallaci. I arrived at the Met in time for a docent's fascinating tour of the Lehman Collection, followed by a croque monsieur at the lunch counter at Zabar's. Only then did I work my way up to St. John's.

I approached the church with no real preconceptions or prejudices. In fact, I wasn't even completely sure whether it was Episcopalian or Catholic. St. John the Divine bills itself as the largest cathedral in the world. Detractors quickly qualify that it is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. No matter. I am not going to quibble with either claim. Let's just say that this church is absolutely enormous.

It was designed to cover an entire city block. Under construction since 1892, the church has never been finished. And it never will be. I have since learned that they are strapped for cash, having few endowments. A major fire in 2001 was a further setback. One corner of the block that was once destined to be the last addition to the cathedral has now been carved off to make way for luxury high-rise apartments. The church charged a $5 admission fee. I didn't mind paying, but I thought it odd. Even with much of the sanctuary blocked off undergoing restoration after the fire, one is still struck by the utter immensity of the structure. Far into the church, one finally reaches the great dome of the cathedral, which I recognized from the baptismal scene in Six Degrees of Separation. I am told that the Statue of Liberty (minus the pedestal) would easily fit beneath this dome.

The nave was bustling with activity. Caterers were running everywhere--setting up tables and chairs throughout, and setting up tables around the outer ring of the altar for the wine glasses. Apparently a big reception of some sort was on tap for that night. It resembled nothing so much as a Gothic Convention Center.

Seven chapels ring the altar. Each one is dedicated to a particular immigrant groups to America: the Scandinavians, Germans, the British and Celts, the people of the East, the French, the Italians and the Spanish. The obvious omission of a chapel for immigrants from Africa is a stark testimony to the embedded racism of 19th-century America. Of course, no such layout could even be attempted today--there would have to be a chapel for each and every ethnic and interest group. I can see it now--a chapel for gay immigrants from Lithuania.

The last addition to the chapel was a silver triptych added in 1989. And it shows. The Cathedral is quite proud of the work of art--advertising it in their brochures and such. The triptych supposedly depicts the "Life of Christ." It contains a cross, with a Valentine's heart underneath that, and a baby underneath that, with either tear drops or rain drops raining down on what appeared to be an angry crowd--a sea of clenched fists or phallic symbols--I couldn't tell which. Angels who looked like Anasazi Indian figures fluttered upside down above the crowd. jeez.

The cathedral prominently displays a panel with important guests in their history: an Indian chief, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, etc. The last panel shows a "blessing of the animals" ceremony in the nave. A male priest held a piglet and a female priest held an opossum, with various barnyard animals gathered around. A camel and an elephant framed the nave scene. For some inexplicable reason, a Bolivian Indian family, in full native dress, stood front and center. With the addition of a couple of clowns, it could have passed for a traveling carnival show. Or the Texas Legislature in session. Episcopalians certainly have no monopoly on sillifying the sacred, but they remain the undisputed masters of the art.

The church contains an inviting children's park located south of the cathedral. I was walking away when the fountain in the middle of the park caught my attention. So, I circled back. The huge fountain sculpture is a tangle of human limbs, gazelle heads and lobster claws. I contemplated exactly what message the sculptor was trying to convey to children, but walked away completely baffled. For me, the fountain was a metaphor for the entire cathedral: overblown, confused, directionless. Its a great Gothic pile, but perhaps only a glorified community center, with seemingly little that would mark it as a place for worship. Frankly, I couldn't work up much enthusiasm one way or the other whether it was ever restored or completed. One rarely becomes passionate over a community center.


David Bryan said...

"With the addition of a couple of clowns, it could have passed for a traveling carnival show. Or the Texas Legislature in session."

Ha! True...

Thanks for the chronicle.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, perhaps you should have tried St. Thomas's Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks from St. Patricks, for an Anglican "shrine church." Sure, St. Thomas lacks the a bit of the "wow factor," but it is has very homely, English cosiness that speaks to the souls of we Anglo-American, Prayer-Book Catholics (1928 American ed.).

I wouldn't expect St. Thomas to give a strong impression anyone outside this sadly diminishing demographic but, then again, it isn't design too! Still, I think it would have been more refreshing in its relatively humble, high-WASP sincerity than the "White elephant" ostentations of the 815 Episcopagan Crowd (St. John's NYC & National Cathedral D.C.).

John said...

David Bryan, are you familiar with the famous Ben Sergent cartoon about the Texas Legislature, captioned "Hark, hark, the dogs do bark, the circus is back in town"?

Death bredon, definitely St. Thomas next time!