Tuesday, September 2, 2014

descending from the starry night

what's beyond logic happens beneath will; 
nor can these moments be translated: 
i say that even after April 
by God there is no excuse for May
--e.e. cummings

After much walking, I saw a heralding angel crest above the dark green foliage of the trees of the park.
 Out of the low-rising buildings of Columbia's Morningside Heights campus rose a breathtaking Gothic façade, startlingly majestic.
A short while later, my small red umbrella and I stumbled into St. John the Divine.
Shaking the rain drops quietly off the umbrella, I looked up into this yawning vault of awe.
I have rarely felt such a tangible sense of mystery live inside a church.
Slowly (I can't imagine that moving at any other speed is allowed inside this sanctuary), I walked down the long, endlessly long, nave. It seemed to stretch on for miles and miles, and I would have gladly walked all of them forever.
The nave was all lit up with tranquil and mystical mixture of darkness and light.
The rose window, the third largest in the world, so they tell me, lets in pools and pools of deep, otherworldly blue starlight, even in the middle of the day.
Suspended from a spiderweb of iron, two pieced-together phoenixes hang above the heads of worshipers.  Incongruous with the order and symmetry of the church itself, these très moderne objets d'art were jarring, mechanical juxtapositions in this church of flowering marble.
These steel beasts were breathtaking compositions of rough scrap metal and colorful wood, their underbellies frosted with little ice blue lights. They seamed to be creatures breathing out red and blue fire.
Although Chihuly-like, flying phoenix sculptures are a rather outré choice of artwork for the nave of a Gothic Cathedral, they were, in a magical way, quite fitting.
Initially, I was suspicious of them, because they looked trendy, and had been installed in the nave in a fit of trendiness and a push to be relevant.
But, whatever the intentions behind the installation, they actually added to the atmosphere remarkably well, in their own unique, steampunk way.
They inspired you a sense of awe that was not quite comfortable.
As you walked under their starry underbellies, through the slender, elegant columns that blurred into a Lothlorien-like forest of silver light and marble trees, you could not escape the feeling of enchantment and danger. If a mythical creature had appeared in the shadows between the columns, I would not have been surprised. The phoenixes heralded a world beyond all things visible, and hinted that perhaps there was more power in that world than we would comfortably like to assume.
They suggested that something mystical dwelt in that church. Although, in reality, there are no magical beasts lurking in our curches, that hushed, heightened alertness is not an entirely incorrect feeling to have rushing through your veins as you approach the altar of the Lord. I thought of the words Josh Ritter croons:
The dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire.
and I felt that these phoenixes were not such a poor idea.
After getting lost in dark immanence of the nave, I wandered down into the transept. The north transept had suffered a fire ten years ago, and the sadness of a crumbling building permeated the entire cross section. I sat down on one of the stark wooden chairs to rest my feet and take in the view. Behind me, rain leaked through the roof far above me, and hit the stone floor with a melancholy plunk, plink, plunk, plink. I gaze up at the dark, smoky dome above me. It was sadly unpainted or undecorated. In a flash, I was reminded of my beloved Westminster Cathedral, with its tragically unfinished dome as well. Homesickness for England inundated me for a second.
Then, my eyes fell from the dome above down to the warm, dusky light of the sanctuary. There were seven lamps (a nod to John's own reference to the seven lights burning before the throne), they were elongated and sharp, like spindles of light. They looked like something from Grimm's fairy stories or the Arabian Nights.
I looked behind me, at the dark blue world I had just wandered through. And it seemed like an entirely different universe than the rich, hazy wonder of the sanctuary behind the altar.
I felt as though I saw this scene from the distance, behind a veil of angels' wings.
A group of trendy young youth, all dressed in black marched around the altar in their studded, heavy boots, taking pictures of the sanctuary and wandering around with a tourist's gait and posture: long, slow footfalls, constant revolution, to achieve a 360 degree view, and eyes focused upward.
And even they, so insistently distinct from their surroundings, their faces molded into detached, objective interest, seemed to be embraced by the tangible aura of the divine within those walls.
If I live to be a hundred, I doubt I will cease to be haunted by the mystery that swing beside the lamps in the golden sanctuary and lingers in the shadow-kissed starlight of the blue and silver nave.

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