Friday, April 13, 2012

Another New York experience

On the evening of Holy Saturday I happened to be walking down Amsterdam Avenue on the upper west side, near Columbia University, and passed the Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine, a massive, never-finished, architectural mish-mash of Romanesque and Gothic that seems to have had for its only purpose out-doing the Roman Catholic cathedral downtown.

I stepped inside.

And there, in the vestibule of the un-illuminated church, white-robed celebrants were kindling the Easter fire.

The Paschal candle was lit, the flame was shared to lesser candles, and the clergy and acolytes processed down the central aisle, where -- off there in the darkness -- the congregation waited.

I was surprised to discover that I was deeply moved.

Of, course, there was an element of nostalgia; many times in my youth I experienced the ritual lighting of the Paschal candle. And there is no denying the beauty of the ceremony -- those feeble flames in that vast dark space, the albs, the chant.

But I think what moved me was something deep and resilient in my own spiritual make-up, something completely natural and profoundly pagan, more firmly grounded in Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough than in the Nicene Creed.

Whatever the Christian symbolism of the new Easter fire, the ritual is surely grounded in the northern cycle of the seasons, the equinoctial return of the Sun after its southern excursion, a magical participation in a natural cycle.

We are knowledgeable enough today to realize that the diurnal and annual cycles of cold and warmth, dark and light, barrenness and fertility, will happen with or without our participation, but the lingering residues of the ancient liturgies can, if we let them, remind us that for all our technological savvy we are still part of nature.

That's what moved me in the dark nave of St. John the Divine: Not the ostensible evocation of the supernatural, but a more visceral stirring of the blood -- flesh and bone, light and dark, heat and cold -- something rapturously sensual, sexual, the planet spinning on its tilted course, bread and wine, oil and wax, the helical stuff of life twisting and twining in every cell of my body with an inexhaustible urgency -- a surfeit of mystery that calls for acknowledgement, celebration, reenactment, quite independently of any superimposed theology.

The miracle is everywhere.