I don't believe in God.
I pretty much don't believe in God.
Okay... here's the deal:
I believe in God. . .
. . . but only in one place: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Apparently, the universe is constructed in such a manner that the omnipotent, omniscient --though obviously not omnipresent-- deity known for the most part in these parts as "God", only exists-- as far as I can tell-- when I exist within the walls of this largest Gothic cathedral in the world.
I can vouch for this phenomenon going back to late 1999 when I first stepped inside the church, its cool echoing darkness enveloping me immediately. I was living up on the edge of Harlem at the time, and began going often. I'd walk in past the periodic light shafting down from the stained glass, sit on one of the chairs (the nave has no permanent pews) and strike up an ongoing conversation on hold since my earnest Catholic childhood.
Hello old man. It's me.
These were not supplications, but rather heartfelt chats between one very good old friend and another. I didn't have to genuflect or cross myself to gain access to this communication. It's certainly telling that I don't feel this presence at all at, say, St. Patrick's Cathedral down on 50th and Madison shouldered up against Rockefeller Center and all those other much taller skyscrapers. If God lives there, he's the God of Pinstripes and Napoleon Complexes and Rudy Giuliani.
We moved to Queens in the late fall of '99 and my visits to St. John's became rarer but no less ardent-- in fact, maybe more so, since a two-train, 45-minute pilgrimage was involved.
And then, less than two years later, the world changed for New Yorkers and for everyone. I found myself in Our meeting place almost every other day, two trains or not. The conversations grew ever more urgent, but also so private that I couldn't even bring myself to write about them in my personal journal:
St. John's again.
Talking with God.
Wondering: Is faith a means or an end?
Or is the question nonsense?
Sometimes I'd cry. Sometimes I'd feel God feeling me cry and letting me know that it was understood.
On December 7, 2001, while I watched TV in the living room, my wife took a home pregnancy test. From the bathroom I heard a calm but distinct, "Uh-oh." Back then I didn't know just how damned accurate those things have gotten, but still I had a gut inkling that this time it was for real. I had a whole new thing to talk to God about, a whole new way to be scared.
Old man, help me be a good old man.
On December 18, 2001, I turned on the TV and was dosed with a whole new horror.
St. John's is burning; a five alarm fire.
What a lousy, lousy year.
In my head I drove a pathetic devil's bargain worthy of Winston Smith in room 101. "Take the goddamned Twin Towers", I practically prayed to Satan, "Just leave me my St. John's."
The firefighters, already crowned in glory, waded into the burning church which was home to, among so many other things, the largest memorial to fallen FDNY prior to 9/11. Commanders on the scene rapidly made the decision to use high-tech lasers to find their way through the smoke instead of following the common sense course of action: smashing through priceless, irreplaceable stained glass to vent it (adding a James Bond-esque/art connoisseur quality to their already enormous reputation for heroism). Within hours the fire was extinguished. But who knew how long the church would be closed to visitors?
In March of 2002 I got a short-term temp gig up at Columbia University. I walked by St. Johns on my lunch break, saw where soot still blackened the stones of the northern transept. My heart heavy and anxious, I climbed the front stairs and went in. It still smelled of burnt wood inside, and the gift shop, where the fire started, was still boarded up, but I knew instantly that the conflagration had done nothing to fumigate my Old Friend from the place. I sat down to chat.
In the end, you can only ask Him for a sample of his Grace, a slightly wider perspective than the one you're sitting in. It seems like a small thing writing about it now, but such an epiphany is really the only miracle there is. Art can offer it sometimes. Perhaps that's why I decided to become an artist.
And becoming one I am still.
Now I live in Seattle and have no place to talk to God.