Few churches have offered me comfort and most have intimidated me. I have sought solace and connection elsewhere, in nature, anywhere there is water and rocks, mountains and lakes. However, this winter I discovered something completely unexpected inside a church, art — modern and bold in the form of performances, video installations, paintings and mixed media.
My journey into the confluence of art and spirituality began in New York City’s church of St. John the Divine, the world’s largest cathedral, measuring 121,000 square feet, 601 feet long and 124 feet high. That alone would inspire awe, but I honestly would have never prioritized seeing a cathedral when I went to Manhattan for work in late January. I arrived two days early with visions of lingering all day at the MET, free of diapers and deadlines. However, my friend and colleague, Diana Cohn, raved about “Water,” an exhibit in the cathedral of St. John the Divine.
“My friend works there. You have to go and meet her,” she said. So I did because nothing that Diana Cohn recommends falls on deaf ears. I knew this was an opportunity that I had to seize. Amazing is just one way to describe what I witnessed that cold but bright morning in January.
Immediately after I stepped through the huge bronze doors, I looked up to see three high-wire artists soaring beneath the flying buttresses like some kind of Biblical birds. My guide, Lisa A. Schubert, Vice President of Cathedral Events, Marketing and Communications, grabbed my arm and pointed. “You have no idea how lucky you are to see this,” she said with the delight of a child. “Just a few moments ago, a little boy on his tricycle pedaled down the aisle. Now this!”
We stood gasping, watching these three artists plummet from a hundred feet and stop a few feet short of the stone floor. My heart was in my throat, but I wanted to see more. I felt like I had travelled on a bazillion subways to walk into a laboratory for testing human potential.
God meets Cirque de Soleil, I thought, wondering how on earth I managed to witness this.
It was a rare series of events for what was supposed to be “a normal Friday” morning in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. It got better, actually surreal. “Come on,” Lisa said, motioning for me to follow her down the center aisle to a group of people clustered in the front pews.
“Elizabeth Streb is here,” she said and I followed her gaze to the woman who stood directing the high wire artists, “rehearsing for the opening show of the Summer Olympics in London.”
Wait, I thought. Elizabeth Streb? The choreographer Streb? The human phenomena Streb? Lisa read my face and nodded to confirm that yes, we were seeing the work of the most renowned action choreographer in the world. When Lisa made the introduction and Streb reached out and shook my hand, the only words that came were, “Thank you.” Elizabeth Streb simply smiled with the kind of cool, quiet composure that possess both confidence and graciousness.
What nobody knew in that moment was that Elizabeth Streb’s vision had brought to life a scene I had written in my most recent novel that takes places in a monastery and involves a character who has the ability to fly. I have a belief that all artists receive inspiration from the same source, and I was delighted that my imagination had strangely but surely crossed paths with hers. Now I was able to be in her presence and thank her for her creativity — in a church.
As much as I wanted to sit and watch Streb’s incredible athletes soar through the air, I also wanted to see “Water” so Lisa left me alone to wander. I walked back to where I started by the door, suddenly aware that I had almost missed a crucial corner of the Wonder Church: the one dedicated to the most influential writers of our times, The American Poets Corner, apparently inspired by the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. My eyes lit up reading the quotes etched into the stones bearing the names of Emily Dickinson, Eudora Welty, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and many more famous writers.
I had to sit down. Of all the churches I have visited, from Chartres to the Hagia Sofia and the temples of Luang Prabang, I have never been so affected by the space inside the cathedral of St. John the Divine. Apparently, the church was built using sacred geometry. Whatever that meant was affecting me and I knew I could not possibly take in everything I was seeing in one morning.
Here was a church, a church, on a mission to cultivate a conversation about the truth of the human experience — a conversation that inevitably transcends religion, politics, and culture.
My god, I thought. I finally found my church and it’s on the other side of the country.
“It may well be that the most accurate account of who we are as a people, as a nation, is the American Poets’ Corner in the Cathedral. The writers remember here engaged in the social set-ups, sentiments, and uncertainties of their times in deeply personal ways, and their bodies of work provide an historic record, and at the same time a living witness, to the relentless ongoing investigation of what it means to be human,” states a pamphlet about the Poets Corner. “Their words endure as examples of how the literary arts chronicle our life and times.”
I had to pause and breathe. Where am /, I said to myself, dazed by the fortuitous timing. What were the chances of arranging to meet Lisa that very morning, that very day. Lisa told me she wouldn’t have been there at all had I not arranged with her to see “Water,” thanks to Diana, an experience which was no less impressive than watching flying humans. I spent another hour absorbing the installments, marveling at a 250 meter river made of fabric, several paintings including three works by Mark Rothko, a fountain made of water bottles, etchings inspired by hurricane Katrina, and watched a video in the Baptistery by Bill Viola, “Isolde’s Asscension,” that left me breathless, as if I’d just witnessed a full cycle of life, death and rebirth in 14 minutes.
The “Water” exhibit alone would have made an impression, but it will forever be framed by watching Elizabeth Strebs’ dancers defying gravity via high wires. It’s not that they were doing flips in the air or that they even had the strength to flip while they were being hoisted upward, testing every fiber in their core strength. It’s that they were doing all of this inside a cathedral that not only made their creativity holy, but infused it into the body of its congregation.
It’s hard to believe there was a moment in history when it was thought that God did not approve of such human expressions, let alone have them performed in “His” house. I had crossed into a conversation about creativity and grace, about art as a bridge to all that exists, about the sacredness of the mundane, and the power of the imagination to transform.
When my daughter asks me what is sacred space, I will tell her it is where she is free to explore the vastness of her imagination. I will tell her it is anywhere she is permitted and permits herself to create. I will tell her that God’s stage knows no boundaries and brings people together in rapture and repose, and that if she has any belief in the divine, it is that art expresses the holy. And there, I will tell her, where the waters of spirituality and art converge, she will know grace.