According to Wikipedia, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine disputes with the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral the title of the largest cathedral in the world. I’ve lived in New York City for nearly eight years now, and while I’ve heard praise lavished on the cathedral and wanted to see it for myself, I’d never made specific plans to do so; upper Manhattan is such a trek from Brooklyn that it may as well be New Jersey.

As it turned out, a rainy Tuesday afternoon was as good a time as any to rectify that. My dad was in town earlier this week. While he doesn’t have any particular interest in gothic architecture or religious iconography, and while he and I don’t have much in the way of shared interests, he left it up to me to decide what we did for the day. As such, his visit provided a good opportunity for me to shrug off my inertia and cross something off my “I’ve been meaning to check that out” list.

I don’t have any particular interest in cathedrals or other religious structures aside from a vague and generic appreciation for their aesthetics. Nor at this point in my life do I consider myself a religious or even spiritual person. Nevertheless, I could have sat there in the cathedral’s nave for hours. St. John the Divine was grand in every sense of the word, from the Great Rose Window to the bronze west doors to the eight granite columns, but what I loved most about it was the empty, the hollow, the quiet within its heavy walls, walls that held the city at bay.

Typically when I need to escape the din of the city, I retreat to green spaces like parks or places like bookshops and libraries. When I need a respite from the myriad demands of urban living, I run or do yoga or take long, meandering walks. While these places and activities give me a chance to slow down, they don’t always allow me to quiet down, to empty my bowl. While I find the rustle of leaves and branches in Carroll Park or the periodic rumble of the F outside my window to be soothing, there’s something to be said for a silence free of white noise. On Tuesday, St. John the Divine, a vast cavern that paradoxically echoed noise and absorbed it, held a profound silence that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time, and not in a church.

The nondenominational church I grew up in eschewed the ornamentation and pageantry of more orthodox forms of religion for a rough-hewn simplicity and a communal sensibility. To me, church was not a place but other people. There are aspects of this that I cherish and appreciate to this day, from potluck feasts to lasting friendships. However, when I made my first tenuous breaks with organized practices of religion, it was not so much from frustrations surrounding dogma as it was from frustrations of the social and political aspects of religion overwhelming the personal.

While this may be obvious to others, in St. John the Divine, I considered, for the first time maybe, how a cathedral or a church, in addition to being a place for mass gatherings, could be a refuge, a sanctuary for an individual. I’ve heard that one doesn’t need a specific place to access the sublime, and I agree, but sometimes the physical symbol of a space, its architecture, its sacredness, its being set aside for holy purpose, lends itself to certain experiences that one can’t as easily have elsewhere.

I’m easily inundated with everything in my life, from work to various projects to personal relationships, and my overactive and over-engaged mind is always grappling with something. Sitting in St. John the Divine, I felt like I was taking my first break in a long, long time. For an indefinite moment, I could let go of all the things that fill up my days, that make life simultaneously so beautiful and maddening.

While we constantly need to carve out spaces in our lives for reflection and meditation, both spatially and temporally, sometimes it’s nice to find spaces that have already been carved out for us. I’m curious whether other churches and places of worship, particularly those in my neighborhood, can and will play a similar role for secularists like me. I hope so. If not, St. John the Divine sits there, at Amsterdam and 112th.

It’s really something.

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