Friday, January 29, 2010

Cathedral Spaces - St. John Divine NYC

In walking distance, it is maybe eight or nine blocks from the extreme northern end of Central Park. It is the crown on top of the so-called fashionable upper west end of Manhattan. It is the southern boundary of the Columbia University campus. I am of course talking about the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine - 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York City.

All sorts of adjectives and descriptions for this unfinished mish mash of styles, Romanesque and Gothic. The Nave is 600 feet long, the size of two American football fields laid end to end. It is second only in size to St. Peter’s in Rome. I am not certain where that big church in the Ivory Coast fits in, in terms of size, volumes etc.

This perhaps quiet, unforgotten gem of New York City architecture has been in building mode in spurts and stops since 1892. Many say that this seat of the Episcopal Bishop of New York is a dodo bird of sorts. It defies description but its internal space is why I am writing about it. One brief building period in the middle eighties to middle ninties added fifty feet (one third) of the Southwest bell tower in first photo above. It will not be finished in my lifetime.

I first encountered this behemoth structure in the middle of an May rain storm over thirty years ago. Getting out of the rain was indeed a pleasure but I have not stepped into any other such a magnificent space since. I have been in Notre Dame in Paris and only have a vague memory of it except that I thought it rather plain for all the hype. The average tourist never makes it here unless on a tour bus or religious bus tour package. It is as hidden a treasure to native New Yorkers as it is to the accidental tourist who, like me, literally stumbles upon its sheer space and audacity of being.

I have not been there since the fire and the smoke damage that required extensive and expensive cleanup. Less smoke damage would have occured if they has broken the stained glass to vent the fire. The officials at the Cathedral asked the fire marshall not to touch the windows which led to seven years of clean up that now has put the building on par with anything of Medieval European religious gothic architecture in official tourist guide books.

My first impression there had to do with that of the sheer size. The darkness of its soot covered interior walls was a result of having been submitted to fifty years of old New York City coal burning for heat and cooking in the air and reaching inside an open and unfinished church.

That dark space I feel to this day and a sense of what an astronaut must feel floating in outerspace, as I looked up into a seeming infinite darkness. When they finally opened the church in 1941, they put a temporary plywood dome over the unfinished transept expecting to finish the work after WWII. Funny how that temporary roof painted black made for such magic inside with a few electric lights, votive candles and gloomy exterior rain filled light making a faint register through blue colbalt colored stained glass.

Now over a hundred years of coal soot and fire smoke damage and general grime are cleaned up. The building was rededicated in late 2008.

The cathedral, not so crowded as with the huge number of midtown tourists that frequent the likes of St. Patrick's, makes this place a very quiet and meditative sort of place.

There is plenty of artwork, tapestries, icons, statues and it has a Holocaust memorial sculpture. It is an all purpose building that fits into the secular needs of the nearby Columbia University community. It is host to concerts, plays and even the annual blessings for animals small and big as elephants if need be.

It is a place where famous people, well loved people, have their post mortal memorials because of the thousands of people who can crowd into the space. I recall the author James Baldwin's memorial service took place there. It seemed appropriate since the rear of the cathedral sits on a slight hill and overlooks most of Harlem.

A very interesting place.

Here is a dated review of the place from the Ship of Fools website that reviews services and architecture of houses of worship worldwide.

1164: Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York City

And of course the annual Francis of Assisi Animal blessing.

I close in quote from the first video above.
"It moves me intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. It illustrates what architecture can do to the human animal. What an expression that architecture can be to the human spirit” --Alfred Blanco, Cathedral docent

Highlights of a Cathedral’s Rehabilitation

Avatar or Symbol for Compassion

I had written something recently about coming up with a symbol for Compassion. Symbols are also called avatars these days.

I had suggested using the so-called Quaker Star, which is little more if you analyze it, little more than a common design on a quilt patch. The colors on that particular design were black, red and a cream white background.

That Quaker Star pattern had been used in the past for humanitarian workers in the Franco-Prussian War 1870 and conscientious objectors who worked in battlefields as medics in WWI. The small cloth patch had been sewn onto clothing or used as an armband to signify the unarmed nature of the person helping others in distress.

As such I think the design has some history associated with it with the idea of compassion. I think the Quakers might object if their exclusive design and color scheme were wholly lifted out of their place of meaning. I use the suggestion of the design as tribute to charity done to humanity in the past and present under their quilt pattern star.

I came up with a simple black and gray color scheme on a blue background. The circle is of course the planet, the world and beyond. The black at the center is darkness and uncertainty. The gray is certainly a movement into light, black mixed with white, not seen, moving into gray.

The only thing I might change in the symbol above but cannot technically do so at this time would be to make the outside dark ring to be one of white on the blue background.

The white or the light is a metaphor in religion. God as an abstract concept is sometimes called the Beatific Light – or “joyful” light – also beatific vision. If you think about it, pure white light is the exact opposite end of the total darkness of the void of space and the whole of the universe as we presently understand it from a scientific point of view.

Life as we know it exists in the light of a star, our sun, and shining on this one known living planet.

Compassion as described by the Dalai Lama means not wanting other people to be harmed, or causing no harm to others. In many ways that definition coincides with the idea of empathy or putting one in another’s situation or shoes and seeing the world from another point of view.

There is also the Charter for Compassion that tries to integrate globally the ancient Golden Rule to treat others as you would be treated yourself.

So many times, I have explained that to people and so many times I seem to get a blank stare in response. I have to wonder sometimes if the revolutionary soul of Jesus of Nazareth came from an evolutionary place in time and space where all humanity in all worlds and all galaxies find a home together – and he returned there. Perhaps that world is a real place that already exists in the Heaven and Paradise of myth.

I have to look at Jesus who wanted to change the world and the world promptly put him in his place. I have to wonder if like Luther, he could "do no other" than what he had to do while he was a presence here on this planet.

I also have to wonder too. If the compassion of the Creator to his creation - Us and Nature on Earth, whether the revolutionary message, or magic place of recognition of the divine spark within, continues to be hidden to so many of the human race – hidden because of ignorance – hidden out the fear of reaching for that light within?

Perhaps the human race is not ready to take a giant leap of faith toward the evolution of self and soul to live in peace and compassion together here on this mere spec of dust in space.

Until that day, when ever that is, those of us with the divine spark must keep the fire of light, even as a mere ember alive, waiting for that glory day of “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, I welcome all to adopt your own sign of compassion, and put it within your reach in your mind, in your thoughts, on a flag. Or in the window to your own soul and not unlike a lit candle of peace, love and compassion that it hopefully symbolizes but acts too, from you living examples, as a beacon to others to one day find.