St. John’s Episcopal

I had been looking for the door about 10 steps back on the left: the door out; but I was still walking straight on, only half-admitting to myself why. A dense tranquility anchored the far end of the passage, and, with no one around to have to explain myself to, I had broken my trajectory and been enticed down towards the stillness. If anyone had appeared suddenly, from around a corner or through one of the unmarked office doors, and asked me what I was doing there, I could have easily woven a tale about looking for an exit closest to my car, a shortcut to avoid the cold air outside. Very secular. Very logical. Very reasonable. But now here I am at the corridor’s end, standing in dim light, facing tall, heavy, wooden double doors carved with such care that I can’t help but ponder the majesty within that inspires them to stand sentry here day in and day out.

The doors are probably bolted. They had been earlier, from the street, and now it’s past dark, only a block from the nightclubs, tattoo parlors, and sex shops. No one is to be admitted at this hour, I’m sure. Any reasonable caretaker would have locked up this treasure to protect it from people like me: people who have no vested interest in preserving its sanctity and integrity. After all, I’ve never been here before. No one here knows my name. I could turn around now and not leave a trace. I really have no right. And yet this moment feels as if it has been created just for me.

I give the heavy door a yank and, surprised by the ease with which it yields, I rush to step into the blackness beyond, before the door reseals the mystery within. The ends of the cathedral are imperceptible in the inky expanse, but I can sense their impenetrability in the quiet distance. Suddenly confused by the paradox of stillness within such vastness, I try to get my bearings. The lack of immediacy in this place is disorienting. And yet any sort of noise-making or thrashing about for control strikes me as completely selfish and unseemly. I stand motionless and, eventually, see that moonlight strains through the stained glass windows, showing me something about what it really means to yearn for sanctuary. And, as my eyes register the suggestion of pages of history on every wall, I am grateful for the uncertainty of the darkness, grateful to be spared the befuddlement of having to reckon with strange figures to whom I have nothing to say.

I don’t really know why I am here. I’m full up with knowledge of the world. I pretty much get the gist of how things work. The ideas take up a lot of room in my mind, and I enjoy endlessly playing with them like Tinker Toys, fitting together wheels and spokes until I build the kind of philosophies that give me a comforting sense of order. The practice keeps me from being overwhelmed by the unknown, from living in anxious vigilance against waking into that dream of being caught at a final exam with no pants on. I’ve paid attention in life for a long time because I’ve had to and–dammit–now I finally don’t feel totally unprepared.

Yet on the back of this hard-won feeling of mastery rides the surprising sense that life would be unbearable if this was all there was. If it were all about me and making my way. Or you. Or if we really could control our destinies or fully conceive of all we
perceive. How thoroughly, unexpectedly, despairingly inglorious. I have painstakingly constructed and destructed myself, I have torn down battlements and built weight-bearing walls, I can be nurturing or exacting, I am beautiful and even a little terrible. And with this relatively well-oiled, efficiently functioning mind, I am shocked to
find now that I can imagine nothing so unfulfilling as to write my own scripts and play them out for the rest of my life. I crave the feeling of being awe-struck by beauty in unexpected places, so badly that it hurts. Of feeling–no longer humiliated but instead–humbled. Of finding myself at the right place at the right time doing just what the moment calls for but by no means of my own careful calculations. Of hearing myself say unplanned words of kindness or wisdom that surprise even me. Of stumbling onto a perfect sunset, or a turtle just about to safely reach the far edge of the road, or the eagerness in the face of a person awaiting a loved one, and a million other moments that will never happen exactly that way ever again. And that’s why I’m here now, standing in the emptiness of this sanctified, aphotic enclosure. That’s why tonight I heard the silence beckoning from the other end of this sprawling complex of rooms and hallways: It is only the inviolable darkness that could stop my mind from trying to do its part to be “helpful” long enough for me to instead hear my heart yearning to be of service to something greater than myself.

As my eyes finally adjust, I realize that I have been facing the wrong way and, in fact, am standing with my back directly to the apse. I turn and feel my way to the end of the first pew and stand in the aisle and point myself in the direction of prayer. I am overcome, awash in gratitude that this moment and this space was secretly given to me, knowing that, in the light, there is no way I could ever have faced this place inside myself. And then I do something I have never done before. I get down on one knee and bow my head in genuine reverance. And, from deep inside me, from somewhere between my solar
plexis and my backbone, wells up the only prayer I have ever needed: “I do not ask to know. I do not ask to understand. I ask only to be used. Only to be used.”

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