Friday, July 26, 2013

Holy Ground

Ten years or so ago around this time of year, I met a woman in the grocery store in my old neighborhood. I had been admiring her t-shirt, which was silk-screened with beautiful, brightly-colored playbill images from various Sondheim musicals. We got to talking, and she told me that she had worked as a lighting designer in A-level regional theaters, but had settled in the neighborhood and was the mother of a five-year-old daughter. She was active in my parish, where I had only recently started regularly attending mass after many years away. Her daughter, whom I had seen around the church and the neighborhood, had, she told me, been born with severe, life-threatening birth defects, but, because of the prayers of our fellow parishioners, was now healthy and thriving. "This," said my new friend, referring to our neighborhood, "is holy ground."

I'm sure she was right. How could it not have been holy ground? The body of a great saint was in residence there. The prayers of the faithful evidently rose up to heaven with great success from there. Untold thousands of people had suffered there in all kinds of unimaginable ways in their working-class apartments there, including me. Maria Callas had grown up there. Okay, that last was a joke, though Callas, born in Astoria, Queens, really did grow up on the same street where I used to live, a few blocks from my building, until she moved to Greece in her teens. But that penultimate was not a joke. We have it on good authority that suffering sanctifies -- makes holy -- the sufferer, so why would it not also sanctify the place of his suffering? We honor the dirt where a saint has walked, the very fibers of the clothes that his body has touched, assuming that the saint's holiness confers spiritual power upon these things. If we ask the dead to pray for us, including those who may not (yet) be in heaven, it seems logical that we should consider holy the ground where those who suffered walked in life. And many saints have walked the ground of New York City, and many perhaps walk there still.

I still miss New York terribly. I miss my life there, which was not just my life but felt to me as though it were a piece of a whole, one part of a vital community that I thought was fairly stable. But that community itself has dispersed more and more; more of my near and dear ones have left. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his voluminous journal: "Methinks my present experience is nothing my past experience is all in all. . . 'Our life is a forgetting' &c."

But I wonder if where I'm standing now might also be holy ground. I've found that, as dull and benighted as this area is, there are some bizarrely wonderful things here, things that don't reveal themselves readily at first glance. Our pastor is one. The church we finally settled on, after a few initial months of parish-hopping, is what passes here for an urban one; it's a largely Italian parish in the midst of what is now a slum, and, not unlike the well-known Our Lady of Mount Carmel not far from where I used to live in the Bronx, it's attended on Sundays mainly by Italian-Americans who have moved up and out of the neighborhood, and you can still hear Italian spoken out on the pavement after Mass. This is by no means a friendly crowd; if you're "from there," as they say, you will know that even proverbially close-knit Italian-American communities harbor a not-insignificant amount of suspicion, even hostility, towards outsiders. So it's not what I would call a "friendly" place, but our pastor -- young, smart, orthodox, beautifully well-spoken, and passionate about the faith -- is like a beacon shining in the gray decrepitude of the parish's neighborhood. Friends who came here from New York and Boston for Jude's baptism last year noted how lucky we are to have such a priest, and it's true.

Another bright spot is my son's violin teacher, one of the greatest musicians I've ever met, who ended up in this backwater through a complicated chain of events (I've written about him here).  There are other good classical musicians here, too, if none on his level, but the best of them suffer from a kind of self-consciousness that is probably endemic to aesthetic strivers far-removed from artistic capitols -- a self-consciousness that comes, I think, from a kind of uncertainty and insecurity about the choice not to go to one of those capitols, but to stay in a small place in which each year the audience for the arts grows smaller and smaller. V. is not like this, because he is the real thing; and musicians on the highest level usually don't care about these things, though this not-caring is benign rather than bitter. Musicians who are the real thing also tend, in my experience, to have some balance in their lives, and to put things both musical and non- into a right-seeming perspective. (I'm not saying that I'm one of them, because, in spite of the fact that I'm a skilled musical crafstman, my relationship to music is virtually entirely neurotic.)

And then it's so beautiful here in the summer, in certain places at least. The sky is so blue; there are so many trees. The heart of city itself is not beautiful; in fact, it looks exhausted and defeated, a victim of 1970s-era urban renewal and several generations of residents fleeing and decamping for the nearby suburbs, which are, in some ways, even worse. I laughed out loud when I saw postcards of the downtown for sale at a local shop, because they were probably the least-picturesque postcards I'd ever seen. But the wonderful library is downtown, as is the great independent coffee roaster who moved here on purpose after doing a demographic study and calculating that most of his trade was mail-order anyway. There is a farmer's market downtown, too, and the farms are just a ten-minute drive away; some are even in the city itself: there's a movement to establish a culture of urban agriculture here, which has a certain symmetry when you consider the generations of people and corporations that have left this place and so many places like it, leaving the buildings to crumble back into the earth.

The other day I was driving around on the slummy outskirts of my middle-class neighborhood, outskirts that are truly more impoverished than any place I ever lived or lived near in New York City, and I saw a patch of queen-anne's lace and chicory blossoms that had pushed up through the cracked sidewalk and grown so thick and tall that they looked as if they were about to overtake the lamppost they surrounded. For a second, I felt ecstatic. Thoreau also said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads, and I could see, as I witnessed this square foot of urban wilderness, that it was true -- this ragged little street-corner prairie was as beautiful, in its way, as anything I'd ever seen. If the combination of suffering and beauty can make a place holy ground -- or if suffering actually engenders beauty, which I believe it can do --  then even this decaying city might be, in its own way, holy.

Above: Moses taking off his sandals at the command of the Lord, who speaks to him from the burning bush (Michiel van der Borch, 14th century).


Lizzie said...

All I have to say is that you write beautifully and there is much to ponder here. Thank you! I was so pleased to see you'd posted-I hope your book is going well. God bless

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Lizzie! Actually it's been a tough summer and I haven't gotten much done on the book, but luckily got an extension from the publisher. I would be grateful for your prayers!

GretchenJoanna said...

I would call that an epiphany - about the wildflowers/weeds you saw. I had the same experience one day walking home from the mechanic's shop where I'd left my car, along the road in a very unattractive area, but it was a beautiful day I was close enough to see the flowering weeds in and next to the sidewalk, and they seemed gorgeous to me - I had a camera and I took so many pictures, only to get home and see that there was nothing was all in the moment and in God opening my eyes.

Pentimento said...

The word epiphany came to my mind when I thought of those flowers a few days later, GretchenJoanna.

Lizzie said...

I'm sorry your summer's been tough - I will certainly keep you in my prayers.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Lizzie.

Enbrethiliel said...


I was discussing something along these lines with another blogging friend: she has moved to a small town where neither she nor her husband has any roots, and now struggles to find the sense of community she craves. Now, I'd love community, too, but the word seems too tame to capture fully what I'm really seeking. I prefer the term "shared experience," which I got from someone's review of the novel Gagamba: The Spider Man by F. Sionil Jose.

Gagamba is about a group of people who are, for various reasons, all in the same building when it is destroyed in an earthquake. (Well, all except one: the title character.) Some characters are friends or family, but they aren't all connected to each other. The elderly Spanish priest, for instance, has nothing to do with the Japanese investor, who has nothing to do with the homeless family just outside, and so on. And yet all of them do not experience the earthquake differently: they share it, and so are more of a community in death than many people are in life.

But the title character whose deformities inspired the nickname "spider man"? My mind was totally blown when it hit me that he is a moral in reverse. That is, he doesn't survive because his deformity makes him an outsider, but is deformed because he chooses to be outside the collapse of society. To be outside of the shared experience is to be deformed. The catch is that to be part of it often means not being able to get out of the way when it all comes tumbling down.

But why be so pessimistic? Who says it's always going to turn out badly? I'm currently trying my hardest to see the good in the place where I live, that I may help to nurture it into something better. But it's hard going, and I find that I don't want to suffer much more than a few "inconveniences."

Pentimento said...

E, my older son went on a crying jag the other day because he wanted to move to a city that still has passenger rail service; ours only has freight, though apparently it had passenger trains going in between New York and Chicago up until the mid-1960s. He also said he misses New York and he wants to go there and ride the subways all day long. I feel his pain, though I don't share his desire for a full day of subterranean transit. Today, though, he was seized by the desire to go to the center of our small city on the city bus, as we used to do before I could drive (and, by the way, I got a new car earlier this month and I'm feeling like a real American as a result). So we did. We went to the library, the department store, the independent bookstore, and to the urban park built on the riverbank. We walked through our Saturday-deserted downtown -- that's how it is in "the rest of America"! Downtowns are deserted on Saturdays! I'm not lying! -- and as we walked past boarded-up shopfronts, he gasped. "Look, Mommy!" he cried, and pointed to . . .a patch of weeds growing up through the sidewalk: nature in the midst of urban decay.

I think that hating this place will spiritually deform me as well. One does, I think, have to throw in one's lot with the others, as much as one (I mean as much as I) want to hold myself apart because I'm beset by the illusion that I'm better than them.

As Sartre said somewhere -- at least I think he did -- "for lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it."

GretchenJoanna said...

I have other quotes of similar sentiment to Sartre's, so I looked it up, and yes, it was he:

“I deserve it first because I could always get out of it by suicide or desertion; these ultimate possibilities are those which must always be present for us when there is a question of envisaging a situation. For lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it.”

It's from Being and Nothingness. I know very little of Sartre anymore, if I ever did, and I think my perspective is far different. I have been in situations that are (still) hugely distant from what I would have chosen. As a Christian it helps me to think of myself as carrying a burden and if I do lift it to God it eases the loneliness somewhat. I will continue to offer my poor prayers for you!

Pentimento said...

Thank you, GretchenJoanna. I'm extremely grateful for your prayers.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, it's funny that you should mention public transport as an example of a shared experience, because I almost did too, before I realised I'd better edit my first comment! Here is what I would have said . . .

Many years ago, a "rich girl" friend of mine told me that she had been going to school on cheapest form of public transportation possible, because she wanted to share a little bit of what "the masses" feel every day. Since then, she has graduated and been driving her own shiny car to work, but I should really ask her about the whole thing again. (Despite her uber-rich lifestyle, she works in an NGO and is very committed to helping the poor. I want to be cynical and say that's easy when your father is subsidising your annual vacations, but it's also true that she is doing good work where it is greatly needed.)

I've been thinking of her lately because these days I have been taking the cheapest form of public transportation to work. Unlike her, I do it not because I want to, but because I have to. (It's one of the "inconveniences" I alluded to in the last paragraph of my first comment.) And I have to quote Sartre along with you, because the only reason I chose it--or rather, accepted it with as much grace as I could muster--was that I couldn't get out of it.

On another tangent, I remember being struck by a blog post from a man who had deliberately moved his family from the city to the country, to start homesteading. They ended up in a small town that most residents would have liked to move away from. During one town fiesta (or whatever they're called in the US!), the mayor praised another member of the community as someone who was in town because he wanted to be and not because he was stuck in it. The blogger found it striking, because he would have said that he himself was in town because he wanted to be there, but was also very stuck. And he mused that being stuck doesn't have to be a punishment, but can be something incidental to real flourishing.

Pentimento said...

I'm pretty sure that the average small American town that is such a symbol in American culture of goodness and truth and family values is much like my own, although this one has enough people that it's considered a city. They are generally places that anyone who can leave, does leave -- mainly because there are none of the jobs anymore that made these places good, true, etc. So there's a massive brain drain to the cities, and those who are left are those who can't leave because of poverty, poor education, or personal inertia. England is the same, from what I understand -- the English country town, that is, is much the same. These places have become backwaters and cultural dumping grounds.

Sheila said...

I am so out of the loop, I didn't know you were working on a book. I'm working on a new degree (DMin) and very rarely reading blogs. But something brought me here tonight, and I'm glad. I love this post, and another where you wrote about differences between country and city and your sweet son. So many things to think about, and I love to see what you are thinking. God be with and bless you. (And if blogs can be holy places, then I think yours just might be.)

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Sheila! I'm pretty out of the loop too and don't blog here that much these days because of my other commitments, including the book I'm writing on deadline, but it's always good to hear from you. xxoo