Sanctuaries

A few days ago, I was planning – or rather expecting – to prepare my annual Easter blog post as a eulogy for Notre Dame Cathedral. Like the rest of the world, I was horrified watching news videos of the blazing orange inferno licking ferociously at the roof of the 800 year old house of worship and bringing down its famous spire like it was just a flimsy stack of toothpicks. But miraculously, the damage turned out to be nowhere near as devastating as predicted, and the image of a burned-to-a-crisp building skeleton never emerged. Most of the artwork and holy relics survived, as did the pipe organ and the exquisite stained glass Rose windows. I thought for sure those windows would be goners; blown out and shattered by the intense heat. But incredibly they remain intact. Even the resident bees survived unscathed. Yes, the bees! And they did so without even having to fly away. Apparently the CO2 from the smoke makes bees so drowsy that they simply hunker down in a stupor. Nicholas Geant, Notre Dame’s beekeeper, posted a photo to his Instagram of the Cathedral bees safely huddled in a crevice of a gargoyle. Glory to god, and glory to the bees who are so critically important to the world’s ecosystem. I love this photo. The bees are like, “Fire? What fire?” 🙂

I spent time last week in a house of worship significantly ‘younger’ than the medieval-era Notre Dame. My priest Father Byrne asked me to help him chaperone our church’s youth group to an event called “Nightwatch”, organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. Our cathedral (which has no bees!) is the Cathedral of the Incarnation. It was established in 1885 – quite the contrast to the 1200s of Notre Dame. Other than both being designed in Gothic style architecture, the two structures don’t have many parallels. Significantly, Notre Dame is a Catholic cathedral, while the Incarnation is Episcopalian. We can get into the Catholic/Protestant divide another time. For now let’s just establish that all such Christian structures serve the purpose of the glorification of God and the veneration of Christ. There are, throughout the world, cultural buildings such as theaters and opera houses, and historic mansions and museums, that are all amazing places to visit. But a worship space of any faith has a distinct and unique aura within, whether a Hindu temple, Islamic mosque, Jewish synagogue, or Christian church. The prevailing sense of devotion is palpable in every inch of the place. It is the structure’s entire reason for being. Here in New York City, a stroll through St John the Divine is a completely different experience than a visit to The Frick Collection, the former private residence of an obscenely rich man. We can enjoy and appreciate both, of course.

Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, Long Island:

One need not be religious to appreciate the aesthetic beauty, rich history, and architectural splendor of houses of worship. The great cathedrals of the world are ornate and richly detailed. Small town or country churches, which are not seats of Bishops or home to large congregations or Tiffany stained glass windows, are equally sacred in their modesty and simplicity. The historic 300 year old Quaker Meeting House in Flushing, Queens, just a few miles from my house, is the most unassuming place you’ll ever see. But the plain rectangular-shaped building with its dark floorboards and unadorned interior is thoroughly imbued with deep spirituality and intense devotion. In a way, it’s deceptive, because the Quaker Meeting House has been a gathering place for some of the most committed ‘agitators’ in America’s history, most notably the early abolitionist movement. Check out their website and you’ll see that three centuries has not slowed them down in the slightest.

Back to “Nightwatch” and the purpose of the youth event. Young people from different parishes around the Diocese (which encompasses Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau and Suffolk counties) spent the night in the Cathedral and participated in games and activities led by youth group leaders, myself included. And by ‘spend the night’ I mean sleeping bags, pajamas, pillows, toothbrushes, the whole works, with every inch of the church space available to us. Children slept on the pews if they wished, on the floor, up at the altar, next to the organ, at the base of the lectern – literally wherever they wanted. They climbed up the bell tower, sang songs, did crafts. Activities were organized according to the Episcopal Church’s Lent Reflections, which consist of “Learn”, “Go”, “Turn”, “Rest”, “Bless”, among other meditations. I was very interested in “Turn” because there is a lot you could with that one. I’m still exploring it in my mind, days later; turn ‘away’, turn ‘toward’? Many interpretations. But I was assigned “Rest”, which I enjoyed a great deal because I got to connect with the young people through our shared leisure time. “Rest” did not involve sleeping or napping, mind you. It involved no-pressure togetherness of coloring, art, and labyrinths.

Here is my “Rest” station, replete with blankets, pillows, coloring, pencils, and markers:

Returning to my previous point about the unique ambiance of religious spaces; as adults and children slumbered in the Cathedral that night, sprawled in sleeping bags on marble floors while rain poured down outside, I awoke abruptly around 5 AM. My mind has been so troubled and distressed these days with my ongoing family strife and health issues I’m lucky if I even get five hours of sleep a night. So when my eyes fluttered open I was captivated by what was in my field of vision. It was beautiful, comforting, calming. I reached over for my iPhone and took a picture:

That light streaming through the bays represents, for me, the ray of light that I try to see – at times squinting (metaphorically) because the darkness can easily dominate – to get me through these difficult days. During this Easter time, I wish for all of you to bask in your light, be nourished by it, and follow it wherever it takes you.

A blessed Easter, blessed Passover, and blessed spring season to each of you. We can all be reborn ….

Love, Claudia

10 thoughts on “Sanctuaries

  1. Irene says:

    I used to pass by the Quaker meeting house in Manhasset all the time. In the midst of shopping meccas like Lord & Taylor and chain restaurants was what appeared to be a little island of peace. Wishing you a blessed holiday.

    • artmodel says:

      Irene,

      A life drawing group I pose for used to meet at that Quaker House! They’re using a different space now in Port Washington. I know exactly what you mean about the ‘little island of peace’. It’s simplicity and plainness feels incongruous – but also comforting – in that affluent stretch of Northern Boulevard.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

  2. Dave says:

    Happy Easter to you, Claudia. And thanks for this beautifully written post, accompanied by exquisite photos of that gorgeous house of worship. I’m not religious at all, but I am always moved by the beauty of such places.

    • artmodel says:

      Dave,

      Your sentiment about houses of worship is exactly what I hoped to speak to with this post! Thanks so much for expressing it. Yes, they are amazing places that anyone should be able to admire for their beauty and uniqueness.

      Thanks again for commenting!

      Claudia

  3. Bill says:

    Funny that you were talking about the theme of “Turn”. When I was in high school, we spent a great deal of time with the Odyssey, whose hero in the first line of the poem is described as being “polutropos” — a man of many turns. It’s something of a pun — I suppose that’s why I was attracted to it — referring to the fact that Odysseus was both a resourceful and perhaps even devious man, but also that he took many turns in his journey as he wandered for ten years before reaching home. My point is that it’s a word of many varied and perhaps even simultaneous meanings but, in this context, where you’re witnessing the rays of light coming through the Cathedral’s windows at Eastertime after the darkness and rain of the night, it suggests the idea of “turning toward the light”. Remembering your own initiation service a few years ago — which involved candles, didn’t it? — is almost seems like a symbol for your own journey.

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      Such beautiful comments, thank you! I need to re-read the Odyssey now 🙂 I’m glad you understood my fascination with “Turn”, and you interpreted it so wonderfully. And yes, my baptism back in 2014 involved lots of candles! It was the Easter Vigil, which is my favorite service of the year. My light-filled journey continues …

      Hope you had a blessed Easter, dear friend ..

      Claudia

  4. johndrobcuny says:

    Several lovely photos of Claudia and her young charges in action posted on the diocesan website – start browsing here”.

  5. artfromperry says:

    Regarding your article on sanctuaries. Official sanctuaries, Churches and Temples and others , and castles and such things are nice and they are historical. But probably, to me one of the most important sanctuary that one must have is one’s home, apartment, place or space. Our home is my castle, my sanctuary away from the rest of the world. Venturing outdoors is an adventure, and can be fun and informative and puts us in touch with wonderful and kind people, creative people. And having those experiences is doubled and tripled when one’s home is the first sanctuary. The others, buildings for spiritual retreat, spiritual renewal and for spiritual connections with our fellow human beings, these are fabulous, and most times necessary. Oops, there you go, I began rambling about sanctuaries. Anyways, great article, and great pictures! Peace. artfromperry

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