I was in NYC this week, playing tourist. The two highlights were St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Cloisters.
I have frequently heard the complaint that the Roman Catholic church has too much money, as illustrated by the lavishness of the Vatican and cathedrals around the world. Visiting St. Patrick's reminded me of why these places should not be stripped bare, with contents sold to the highest bidder and the proceeds going to the hungry.
St. Patrick's is in the heart of mid-town Manhattan; the busiest city I have experienced. (Haven't been to Asia, but it's the most frentically crammed of cities I've visited in the US and a few other countries.) You walk in to a relative hush from the crowded sidewalk, and while the traffic noises are still audible, the difference is immediate. The space is huge, so while there are plenty of tourists wandering around trying unsucessfully to be quiet and respectful, it still manages to feel like a church rather than simply a tourist stop.
The beauty is everywhere, on floor and ceiling, in carved wooden arches, marble pulpits, soaring stained glass windows, statues... The scent of incense is present but not prominent. Small chapels encircle the primary sanctuary and nave, each one centering on a particular saint. The Pieta awaits contemplation of a mother's sorrow. Eucharistic adoration takes place in Mary's chapel.
But what caught me most were the people in the pews.
I didn't look extensively at them, there was so much else to look at. But now I wish that I had. One woman was clearly a street person. She was surrounded by suitcases, so many that I wondered how she managed to get from place to place. She must have a system. She sat on the end of a pew looking over some papers in her lap, and I'm guessing she had been there for hours. It made me wonder how warm such a huge space would get in the cold of winter, and how it must be lusciously cool in the summer heat.
Another man sat with his forehead resting on an arm on the pew in front of him. He looked like he might have stopped in during a lunch break from a custodial job in one of the nearby skyscrapers; tidy dark blue pants and shirt, sturdy shoes. Strong and capable, from what could be seen of his back. I never did see his face. But pain washed off him in waves as I walked past. He wasn't crying, or at least I don't think he was. There were no sounds, no heaving chest. Just a steady stillness, and pain you could feel in the pit of your heart.
I walked around this place of beauty and history and drama and pain, and thought of what a treasure it is. What a priceless thing to have such a place to enter without cost, no matter if you are a hotshot investor, gawking tourist, heartbroken wife and mother, homeless beggar, or anyone else from any walk of life from anywhere in the world.
A place of sanctuary and rest.
A place of solace and contemplation.
A place of beauty and dignity.
All free for all who enter.
The Cloisters cost $20, at the end of a long journey uptown, offering soundbyte-esque glimpses of Christian art out of context. Don't get me wrong, it was lovely in a 3D sacramental crazy quilt kind of way.
But St. Patrick's is Christian art in situ and in practice. A place where all can come to experience the transcendance and immanence of God. I thank Him for establishing a church which provides such treasures for His children.
I love St. Patrick's. Did you make it up to the Mary chapel? I used to go there at least 3X/week when I worked a block away and pray during my lunch hour. I miss that very, very much!!
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