It doesn’t take a cathedral, but those steps are indispensable. I don’t mean the twelve. A church requires them.
You can be on your way in or out of the place, but somehow you know the sanctuary is what has put you in motion, going up or down, and somehow you know these steps are a threshold, the in-between place where different levels of existence—not just sacred and profane, that would be too glorious and obvious—are made concrete. This is the place where you pause; it’s the before and after of everyday life. That wasn’t you stumbling up and down those steps at the end of “The Roaring Twenties,” that was Jimmy Cagney on his dancer’s toes, but you get the picture.
You can’t enter a church without climbing unless it’s a Pentecostal storefront—a “pop-up,” as we now say—but then that’s the point of hovering on this dangerous brink, where the separation of the Sabbath from everyday life feels wrong. Churches (and synagogues and mosques) joyfully accomplish this separation by rising above their surroundings, yes, “literally,” but symbolically as well by carefully violating the humdrum, horizontal, elastic protocol of the street with beautiful, structural, vertical evidence of permanence. They’re a lavish waste of resources—they create monumental, useless space.
Those Pentecostal storefronts (there’s one on Lenox right next to the bodega at 123rd) make their presence known with amplified sound, not monumental space, because that’s what they can afford. And because that’s what their constituents believe—in the word of God, his voice, the conviction of things unseen. In their view, any structural evidence of holiness that stands above or apart from the street is theologically dubious. They live in the future, where everything is immanent, also imminent. When confronted with Walt Whitman’s fundamental question—“Why should I love God better than this day?”—they have a good answer: “We don’t.” They mean that God will reveal himself soon, perhaps today.
I went for a walk on Wednesday night because I had to get outside, or rather get to street level, where I could watch people, not airplanes rising from La Guardia. In my spinally impaired state, going for a walk meant I got to the corner of Lenox and 123rd , about a hundred yards from my building, and looked for a place to sit down. I found it on the steps of the Seventh Day Adventists church at the corner, which was built in 1910 by a Dutch Reformed congregation. I could see the Pentecostal storefront right across the street, and when I turned my head downtown, I saw three spires, three more sanctuaries on Lenox alone.
I love this day, I said to myself—I guess I was praying—even if you, God, take this life, my life, from me today or tomorrow. I don’t love you, you fucking brute, I wouldn’t know how. I have to believe in you, that’s true, but Jesus H. Christ, can you just leave me alone? That’s what free will is made of, I thought, interrupting my own prayer on behalf of the benighted philosopher (William James) who first experienced his nervous breakdown as a “great dorsal collapse”—it’s the ability to say “Not now” or “Not ever.” No, you can’t make me do that. I won’t. Does this ability presuppose legal agency, “the” state, certain individual rights, some law? Is it very modern, then? Well of course it does, and is.
But there I was just sitting on the steps of the church, a limestone miracle of steep towers held together by a structurally pointless flying buttress, and my legal agency didn’t seem any more significant than A. J. Ayer’s pathetic case for utilitarianism because I couldn’t move. People were climbing those steps, moving past me, on their way to something on a Wednesday night. What was I missing?
So I forced myself to stand up, my back clenching all the way, climbed the rest of the steps, and went inside, into the sanctuary proper, a huge sloping hemispheric space that could, and does, accommodate gospel events on weekends. I can hear them sing from my balcony. I had never bothered to go inside, even though hundreds of German and Italian tourists had unintentionally shown me the way.
But I know how to behave in church. I slipped into a pew at the back and listened dutifully to announcements I forgot immediately.
I snapped to attention when the preacher said we were there to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and explained his Talmudic posture by saying that there are “two versions of time”—theirs and ours, but also God’s and yours. We all live in different time zones without going anywhere, I think he said, because we all know what Augustine called the divisions of time. What a brilliant hook. While he spoke I was thinking that, from day to day, we experience and express these very divisions as the difference between the close limits imposed by our bodies and the infinite expanse enabled by our minds.
I thought, this is how cosmic, proto-religious renditions of time not only make sense, but why they can happily coexist with worldly, anti-teleological versions of historical time. The irresolvable mind-body problem is the modern, secular way of dispensing with cosmic renditions of time, and saying each of our lives is lived at different rates according to different purposes. But the pluralism of the proto-religious attitude still makes more sense.
Yes, we live by many calendars, always have. It’s a good thing, too, no matter how much they contradict each other. When the Sabbath encroaches on everyday life to the point where the difference between them is hard to tell or subject to regular denunciation, watch out.
I went back out to those steps feeling better about this church, this congregation, this neighborhood, this world—not to mention my spinal column and the time it forces me to spend thinking about the limits of the rest of my body. I sat down again, listening to the Pentecostal congregation warm up with exhortations and excerpts from songs (not hymns). The sound was exhilarating, intoxicating, but I didn’t cross Lenox. Then again, I couldn’t.