Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Church on Times Square I Almost Missed

This week I am in New York: meeting with inspiring leaders and artists who are redefining Art and the Art Museum every day. I am staying in a neighborhood that is new and bewildering to me: Times Square.

I've probably spent more time underneath Times Square than at it's surface: it was once, in my Summer in New York (ca. 1998), an easy place for me to brave the complicated subway system. Times Square is the setting on my Lionel Train Setting that my parents didn't like for us to use: full power hot (that part of the switch was red) with sparks flying under the locomotive's wheels. "Burn, baby burn" we used to say. Times Square is hot. The hi-def screens are bigger, the crowds maddening, police now carry machine guns and there is an energy of excitement and fear at the same time.  This is not a place for any kind of solitude or meditation.

Nonetheless, I like to try new things and this hotel is one I haven't tried before. It is 1/2 a block from Broadway at 46th: right in the heart of all of this electricity. When I visit New York I, like so many of you, make every minute count. I look for the antidote to this heightened pace--in a nearby coffee shop, Central Park or a quiet corner in the lobby of hotels. Once I sat next to a lit fire in the fireplace of the Eventi Hotel on and extraordinarily hot day in June. I love the contrasts of this City. I found one on this trip too.

When I walk into a new hotel room the first place I go to is the window. What can I see? How much light in the room can be natural? New York City Hotels are tricky. I've moved rooms three and four times seeking a room with light and a view. It doesn't have to be high, just open. This Texas Girl always needs a piece of sky.

My window this week is curtained by the remarkable rose window and the stone facade of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin: an Episcopal Church in the Catholic tradition. This church was built between 1894 and 1895 and designed by Napoleon Le Brun & Sons: the architects of the New York Metropolitan Life Building. I'm not surprised one bit that there is an Episcopalian Church at my doorstep: the Episcopalian Church has been with me all of the days of my life and as the motto goes: The Episcopal Church [always] Welcomes Me.

I crossed the dark threshold yesterday morning a few minutes before Morning Prayer was to begin. As I expected, I was overcome with awe: the church behind this unassuming stone facade is spectacular. New York happens this way.

St. Mary's Times Square was designed in the style of thirteenth century French Gothic churches and is modeled after one of the most beautiful spaces in the world: Saint-Chappelle in Paris. Right here on 46th Street between Havana Central and the Laura Pels Theater: a little bit of Paris. A lot of quiet.

As I tentatively walked in I was struck first by the snoring. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and I saw their hunched-over figures: at least twelve tired humans who--sometime in the night--found the warm comfort of the church as their temporary home. They were spread out across as many aisles sleeping soundly at least for a few hours. I read that this church has a an "Open Doors" policy. The card I picked up says:

The Open Doors of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin characterize our faith. We throw open these doors in welcome of all who enter, proclaiming the Good News and worshipping together. And through these open we go out into the world for ministry and outreach. These open doors are an integral part of our witness to Jesus Christ. 

In anticipation of Morning Prayer I sat comfortably in the sixth or seventh row. I watched as the church began to wake up: a priest praying quietly in the chancel and two or three (that's all we need right?) people joined her and a second priest on the other side up at the front. I assumed they were deacons or readers and it wasn't until the Psalm (the one I couldn't hear) I realized that small group of people up at the front was the Morning Prayer Service. I was displaced and alone in the pews with the sleeping homeless.

With uncertain steps I left my pew and went closer. I watched as a stream of people walked past me: some stopped to pray at the "Statue of Our Lady", some at the Crucifix, some in the side chapels. I realized more people were using the church in other ways all the while a group of four faithfully recited Morning Prayer II in the Book of Common Prayer. Not quite sure if I was right or wrong, after the second reading I stepped up and joined this band of prayer warriors in the pew. My voice felt strong among them and I was glad I made the move mid-service. The church felt warmer in His words.

After the service ended I thanked the priest and told him I was from Texas. He told me he is "just a volunteer". Again I am reminded that things are not what they seem and the urban church is changing.

There is so little I know.

I sit for a while and think about this in the Chapel of Our Lady of Mercy. I realize the man next to me is crying. I pray for his prayers and for his peace. Someone (a volunteer?) has arranged flowering trees: cherry and pear in the vases surrounding a 1924 polychromed marble statue by Lee Lawrie.

Visitors file past: this church is their ritual: a quiet haven on the way to the other parts of their day. This Urban Church is not the place they congregate on Sundays or even Easter or Christmas: this is on the path of a different life: the one where we need to cry alone in small chapels and touch the feet of Jesus on the cross briefly before we catch the train, sit, even with our iphones in this harbor of quietude and forgiveness.

I walk over and read the plaque.




BORN APRIL 9, 1824

DIED JANUARY 20, 1890 
BORN JULY 6, 1836
DIED MARCH 19, 1915 

Yesterday was April 8. I think about the life of William Edward Jones and the life of his mother. She, on the eve of having a baby 192 years ago. He, a baby who would become a man and support a church and grow a family that would, at his death give this altar in this chapel in this church steps away and miles away from the electric hum of Times Square. This chapel that I found this morning humble and unaware of such grace and beauty: discovered in a church long loved and cared for by so many.

I consider where Compassion lives in this church: in the Open Doors welcome those who are tired and heavily laden. The congregation takes on a different form here during the week. The people of this church are nomads: stopping in for what they need most: love.

Compassion lives in those doors and in the hands of the architects envisioning the splendor of Sainte-Chappelle for New York City. Compassion lives in the skillful craftsmanship of the designers and artists, woodworkers and painters. Compassion lives in those families who commissioned these works in a church for a time they wouldn't know. Compassion lives in the volunteers and in the leadership dutifully taking measures to care for and protect this Times Square treasure. This church is practicing the kind of compassion taught in the teachings of Christ: this church is love manifest: and it is love that will sustain this harbor for the ages. At the Church of St. Mary the Virgin far from the urgency of a city that never sleeps, there is time for peace, perhaps even a nap, and a place to come and go placidly just as you are.