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).