palm sunday service at the cathedral

I’m going to start off by saying that I am by no means a devout Christian … heck, I ain’t even baptized. But I like going to church and I like the ritual/history of it all. For those reasons I usually end up attending Catholic mass, but today for Palm Sunday I went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, which is an Episcopalian church – a beautiful one at that.

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I’ve been inside the cathedral before for their exhibits, but this was my first time attending service there. I’ve been to Protestant youth groups, but never a full on church service other than Catholic mass. This was similar enough, but thankfully they handed out little booklets with all the hymns and prayers so I could follow along.

There was no Latin like I’m accustomed to and there was more singing than I expected, but there was still a whole lot of standing and coughing (from the incense). I was also somewhat surprised to see that there were quite a few people apart from myself who did not partake in Communion. Maybe that’s how it is with Episcopalians or maybe because the congregation is more religiously diverse in New York, but in Texas I always felt SUPER AWKWARD sitting alone while everyone else queued up.

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The cathedral itself is beautiful and historic so it gets a lot of tourists. It was built (or started construction) in 1892 and as cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, it’s the seat of the bishop. For the service I sat closer to the front where there were real chairs and beyond the threshold of “No Pictures Please” signs, so it wasn’t until service ended and I started leaving did I realize there were a whole bunch of people taking pictures in the back.

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They handed out palm leaves (it is Palm Sunday after all) and after the service and a snack at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street, I tied them into crosses. The whole thing was such a relaxing experience; one that I really needed. I realize it is really, really weird for a non-religious person to attend church, but it’s one of those things where churches just make me happy. They’re safe, calming … centering places. And even though I’m super busy with thesis, when I’m this stressed out, two hours of church is more helpful than not. Although I have no idea what I’m going to do with these palm crosses now.

stained glass prettiness

I’ll admit it, I don’t particularly care for decorative stained glass. My only exception would be rose windows in churches (but that’s mostly due to my love of Christian architecture). Stained glass was apparently quite a thing in the US from the late-19th century to the 20th, but I’m not too familiar with that history.

Below is a detail from “Peacocks and Peonies I” (1882) by John La Farge. This piece of stained glass is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Seeing it up close, you notice the texture and dimensionality of the glass and the amazing intricacy of each piece. The Met also has a bunch of stained glass, but usually I’m too busy in the European paintings galleries to bother venturing all the way over to the American Wing. And unlike the Met, all the Smithsonian museums in DC are free! As in really free, and not fake free with strongly suggested donations accompanied by dirty looks.

I don’t have anything against the medium, but I ain’t won over by it. Stained glass lacks that sense of artistic freedom and artist’s hand that is so obvious in painting. There’s something so craft, so conscious and deliberate about stained glass. It’s not something you can slap together in a fit of inspiration, or change course midway, or go back and alter. It just … is. And though that is compelling in its own way, I find that the hardness of the material creates an inherent sense of static distance with me, the viewer. Pretty. Just not my cup of tea.