Friday, January 18, 2019

monastery #3: 155th Street

At 155th Street, there's a small cloister walk (call me Kathleen Norris) which I discover on a bland winter afternoon, stripped of personality and personality, in early January.

Walking through the streets in the hug of my parka's faux-fur-lined hood, I am walking in a mobile cloister, cocooned in the silence of medieval stone arches. The fringes of the fur are the grille separating me from the pedestrians passing by me: we see each other, but there are porous barriers between us.

At 155th Street, the warden opens up the doors to the church. And I step inside to this must-colored church which smells like the pages of a children's book.

Outside this church is a cemetery, beyond the cemetery is a river. Between the river and the church is Broadway. But you cannot hear Broadway or the river. The cavernous quiet of the undisturbed grass outside tucks the church under its coverlet.

I walk across the uneven, bumpy stones. The sort of pavement stones that are in Rome that vociferously chew up the soles of your shoes, devouring them and spitting them out like a frantic Cookie Monster on the air.

The stone structure, like St. John the Divine, is devoid of any sort of tangible divinity. But it makes up for it many times over in atmosphere seeped in the amorphous magic which eventually is organized into religion.

If religion is a systematization of the thin places of the earth, then this is a spot of unadorned spirituality—sure, it's decked out in the trappings of Christianity. But its sacredness, whatever is living inside of this Church has little to do with the categorizations of councils and creeds. The world has thinned out into a translucence here, and you can smell and hear what is beyond the veil.

I do not know what makes this magic. If it is that the world is attenuated, or if the world becomes pellucid and transparent when it is thickest, when the stories and centuries of human beings living wears away at the atmosphere we inhale, so we breathe something else entirely than oxygen.

I slip the scent of old stones, the underwater murkiness of the light from the shabbily stained glass windows, the muted colors of a day scrubbed by clouds through my fingers like rosary beads.

Pausing my paces in the center of the church, at the foot of the choir stalls, at the front of the nave, I notice the missing transepts. This church is a bird with clipped wings: a canary that has no need to be caged—she can't soar anyway.

Where the transepts ought to be, I stand. I breathe not deeply, but slowly, loosening the air at the bottom of my lungs. All that stashed-away carbon dioxide carries to the surface those small pockets of worries I stuff in pulmonary Pandora's boxes: the anxieties I let simmer below the surface, those thoughts we look at out of the corner of our eyes, afraid to make direct eye contact lest we find them gorgons.

That air escapes into the incubated stillness of the stone and streaked glass and mixes with the breaths of others who have knelt on the blurred marble, who have sung loud hymns to Guadalupe hanging in the shadows of the side-aisles, who have gathered in a shuffling congregation to worship, next to those who miffed them, those they were in love with, those they cherished and those they snubbed.

In this church, God is not in the altar, but in the stones and air and in the witness of these fragments of creation who have come here each day to kneel and pray.

I wonder what this church looked like when the front doors were always unlocked, and men and women stopped in to pray briefly before going to the short old-Manhattan houses like Hamilton's over in St. Nicholas Park.

I return to the warden, who locks up the church again. It is empty, but, as I cross the sidewalk to return to the 1 train, I can still hear its heartbeat in mine and taste its air hanging in deeply buried alveoli of my lungs.

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