St John the Unfinished by Bryan VanDyke
This cathedral does not belong here. This is what I think whenever I stare up at the colossal face of the Cathedral of St John the Divine. Arguably the longest and loneliest work-in-progress in North America—and the biggest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere—this gothic house of worship has been under construction for more than a hundred and twenty years. And it’s nowhere near done. It sits incongruously, stubbornly you might even say, just a few miles north of Midtown Manhattan. This monument to slow time stands year after year with a stubborn smugness in the middle of the heartland of modernity. This is a bishop’s domicile, technically, but it’s also kind of a middle finger to the hurry-up-and-get-out-of-my-way lifestyle of New York City itself. Inside the cathedral the 124-foot ceilings and stained glass windows create the illusion that the interior is somehow even larger than the exterior. A welcome sign near a visitor’s booth explains how a tour comes with each $10 entrance fee. For an additional charge, catwalk tours allow the truly devout to enjoy an up-close examination of the upper level’s patterned glass. Today, a few tourists are idling on the wrong side of the rope on this weekday afternoon. But nobody appears to be buying tickets. A couple talking in German drifts back toward the doors as if unsure whether this is the kind of New York they expected to see.
I stand in the sparse crowd until a confident woman with a pin on her jacket approaches me and says: “Welcome to the Cathedral!” You can hear the exclamation mark at the end. There are two tours on offer: Vertical and Spotlight. The former involves ascending to the barrel-vaulted ceiling and ends on the roof, overlooking Manhattan. The latter concentrates on a single facet of the Cathedral—the textile collection, the use of pot glass, the renowned Great Organ.
There is so much to be seen here and yet I cannot find it in myself to buy a ticket. There is something here that is trying too hard, that feels too eager to capture my fancy. The Cathedral wants to throw open its doors and pull me in, but I would rather have it remain elusive, enigmatic. The mysterious qualities of the place are what hold my attention, and nothing kills a mystery quite like a scripted tour.
I first learned of the Cathedral in the promotional materials that were mailed to me in 1998 after I was admitted as a graduate student at the university in the same neighborhood. Descriptions of the Cathedral promised grandeur, a lording presence, and a work-in-progress likely to outlive me. After I arrived on campus, I was delighted to learn that I had been assigned to live just around the corner from St John’s.
If you studied the Cathedral closely at the time, you would have seen heartening signs of recent progress: newly cut angels and limestone Christs had just been mounted on the western façade. The southern spire had scaffolding around it, as if an army of masons were ready to get back to work just as soon as their union contract was worked out. Or maybe the optimism was something I brought with me—the latest hopeful to arrive in New York City.
I was writing a novel about a fire in a lighthouse for most of the time that I lived near the Cathedral. Sometimes I would wander past the Amsterdam Avenue façade while out on walks to clear my head while working through plot complexities. During one of these strolls I made my way into the Cathedral Gift Shop. They had in the shop a scale model of the whole structure as envisioned in the original plans from 1888. One glance at this model made clear just how much work remained—the two spires were still due to grow hundreds of feet higher. Construction of the soaring battlement on the east end had yet to begin.
Some evenings after class, I would walk past the work yard north of the Cathedral where the stone cutters stored blocks of limestone. Those piles of unused stone provided a kind of poetic reassurance: mankind’s work was long and hard but had a purpose and an end goal. The biggest impediment to construction at the time—as I would learn later—was finding master stone cutters trained in shaping gothic stone: the practice was ancient and arcane in the modern world of power saws and steel rebar.
A year after I finished my novel about a fire in a lighthouse, a real-world fire broke out in the Cathedral Gift Shop. The flames consumed the shop and, I presume, the model of the complete cathedral that I had once marveled over. After engines from six different fire stations converged on the scene, the flames were extinguished, but not before blackening tapestries and traumatizing the delicate pipes of the Grand Organ.
Seven years of recovery work was required to repair the damage from the fire. In that time, the major work on the stone exterior was put aside. The spires of Amsterdam did not rise higher. The stone cutters left and went on to other jobs. The scaffolding on the south spire rusted away. Now, as we near the twenty-year anniversary of my first visit, the Cathedral remains largely the same as when I first arrived—in a state of partial completion, partly real, partly dream, an idea not yet completed.
There is a trope in evangelical Christianity that the building of the church is not the church itself—the church is wherever the members are. This is particularly useful as a concept when a new church begins to meet in the basement of an American Legion Hall or in a stand-to shack out near a lake. In Harlem where I live now there are storefront Houses of God every few blocks, most of them roughly the same size as the neighboring Bank of America or Citibank ATM-only outposts. This anywhere-will-do approach to worship is just one of the numerous elements that helped Christianity grow to include 2.2 billion people, by the far the most practiced religion on the planet.
The Cathedral acts as an effective symbol for this worldwide domination in that it quite literally lords over the neighborhood where I now live—it is there, watching me from its perch on its rocks over Morningside Park, each day. It never changes. It has never changed. Or so it seems from the outside. The Episcopal Church, which owns the Cathedral, has been through significant turmoil in recent years. Since I moved into the region in the Cathedral’s shadow, there has been a stark division in Episcopalism over the ordination of women; about the as-yet-sensitive question of gay marriages and clergy. And yet the building has not changed since the day that I arrived here decades ago. That is the trouble with objects. It is also the thing that makes them so powerful.
The poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem called “Churchgoing” about his habit of wandering in closed churches on days when no one is in attendance. He came for reasons that had nothing to do with worship but everything to do with comfort and solace:
“Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.”
As a child, I was instructed by teachers and preachers to think of God as a fixed point in a changing universe. This was presented as a kind of heavenly ideal: to remain constant in a cosmos of unending change. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I came to regard consistency and reliability as noble qualities. But as is the case for most people, as an adult I began to change my opinions on matters that I once considered non-negotiable. Even when I have not wanted to change—and I am most certainly the kind of mulish person who resists change far too often—the fact of the matter is that I and every other living person have no choice but to adapt to change in order to survive amid the changing conditions of society.
Even the apparently unchanging Cathedral of St. John the Divine, that megalithic monument to slow time – turns out to be not so consistent after all upon close inspection. You see, there is not just one architectural design or vision for the cathedral. The building itself is a catalog of changing opinions and tastes: One set of architects at the beginning had plans for a Romanesque-Byzantine design. A second set of architects decades later pivoted to a Gothic style. A third group went with hand-cut stone for the creation of the bell tower. There is no single unity to the end product. There is no cohesive plan anymore. The vision keeps evolving as church leaders and architects and benefactors rise up and fade out and new ones appear.
All of this does not seem to really trouble anyone I ever see on the grounds of the Cathedral of St John the Divine. Tour buses keep coming; and petitioners keep coming Sundays; the pews are full for Easter and Christmas and the Blessing of the Animals at the Feast of St Francis. Certainly there are people deeply troubled by changes in church dogma or the question of female ordination or same-sex marriage. But you don’t see signs of all that change and frustration when you stand outside the building and watch people come and go. Most of them seem to get what they were looking for here—although I will admit that I did not stop and ask any of them directly.
Not long ago I visited the Cathedral on an overcast January afternoon. I had the idea of writing an essay that uses the long slow tedious process of building the Cathedral of St John the Divine as a point of comparison to the lifelong process of determining what one’s own beliefs are. But every time I started to write that essay, it felt too obvious. The metaphor was like a neon sign on the page. And besides, to write such a piece would require being certain about a great many points on faith and belief that I don’t feel that I can now or will ever know for certain. My personal beliefs are not unlike the Cathedral, it’s true: a mishmash of different ideas, different dreams, some slapdash, some beautiful, none of it really making sense, all of it idiosyncratic at best. What’s it all worth? What does it all mean? The question has no answer. Sort of like questions about the Cathedral of St John: will it ever be done? Do we actually want it to be finished? Or do we just want the place to be worthy of a look? Does anyone really need to write an essay about faith anymore? Does anyone really ask such dangerous questions?
In the acknowledgements section of Leslie Jamison’s deeply moving essay collection, “The Empathy Exams,” she rather astutely states that sometimes “the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.” Likewise, in interviews to promote her own recent book of essays, “The Unspeakable,” the equally dazzling Meghan Daum has more than once referred to the difficulty that she faced in trying to write about the death of her mother. The difficulty itself was what told her that she had to keep trying.
Longtime residents of the neighborhood around the Cathedral sometimes refer to the structure as “St John the Unfinished.” This can be taken as a term of endearment, mostly. During my final phase of research on the Cathedral I came to the conclusion (unsubstantiated by official statement) that the Cathedral has resigned itself to never being done. Their financial situation has gotten so bad that the Diocese last year sold off a large plot of land at the northern border of their grounds. A new apartment building will occupy the space and block the entire north end of the Cathedral in order to provide the church with much needed income. I see them there each day: an army of workers with hard hats and diggers labor away, constructing a modern building of glass and steel and concrete within spitting distance of the Cathedral itself, which remains unchanged, unfinished, unmoved.
Bryan VanDyke's essays and fiction have appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, Carve, New Delta Review and Pacific Standard. He is a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program and the curator of a reading series for emerging writers at the renowned KGB Bar in New York City. His book length essay on the nature of illness and recovery, Only the Trying, was published recently by Dutch Kills Press. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. You can follow him on Twitter at @Literotaur.
Photo by Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times