I was in New York City recently on business. On my last day there I had a little time to kill before I needed to catch the subway to the airport so I decided to do a little sightseeing. My work was based near Times Square in Midtown so I had had enough of the blinking lights and 80,000 guys in yellow and red shirts trying to sell me a bus tour to stay in Times Square for the brief time I had to sightsee. However, going anywhere out of Midtown was out of the question based on the available time. Given all that I decided to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
I recall visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a child or perhaps I just saw a lot of it on television growing up in suburban New Jersey. Either way, I was familiar enough with it to know it was nearby. Also, some friends in Nashville had visited New York in the last few months and had mentioned how impressed they were with the structure and, most importantly, the “feel” of the place. The “feel” being the presence of something bigger, more important, and more timeless than oneself. A “feel” that gives perspective about one’s proper place in the world. It was that “feel” that intrigued me most about visiting.
I entered the building and it was as expected, lots of candles burning, many people milling around. There had been a mass that finished about 30 minutes before I arrived so I don’t know if the folks there were lingering from the mass or if they had done what I had done and wandered in later. I walked around a bit admiring the stained glass, sculpture, and architecture. I then sat down near the front right under the pulpit. I continued to look around and take in the surroundings in the hopes of experiencing that “feel”. Then something caught my attention.
While there were several people there who had come to pray and use the building as it had been purposed (I assume), the vast majority of people were walking around taking pictures and talking, like it was Niagara Falls. The “feel” I had gone there to experience was not there. Instead, I had a grave sense that I was in a dead place, like I was in the tomb of some famous person that people visit but had long forgotten why the person was famous. Rather than an active, breathing sacred space, I had found St. Patick’s Museum of Sacred Space.
What confused me most about this hollow, dead feeling I was having was the fact that this space was specifically designed to assist one in encountering the divine. Between the grand space created by the arching ceilings to the stained glass with sacred images meant to invoke a memory of the story depicted to the ornate gold altar and burning candles everywhere, one is expected to feel in awe of something greater than oneself.
But I had none of it. I left the building and headed for the subway to catch my plane.