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Feb 27, 2013 | Solange De Santis

The Unexpected Has Theological Impact

[Diolog MagazineWhy is a tightrope walker an “artist in residence” at a great urban cathedral?


At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, embracing the arts as an expression of the wonder of faith means opening the church’s arms very wide.


“If people just get what they expect on a Sunday morning, what are we doing wrong? The arts lead us to expect the unexpected,” said the Rev. Thomas Miller, Canon for Liturgy and the Arts, in an interview.


The cathedral, seat of the bishop of the Diocese of New York, currently lists 16 artists or ensembles in residence. They include Philippe Petit, who astonished the world one August morning in 1974 when he and a team of accomplices threw a wire between the World Trade Center towers and he performed a 45-minute walk 1300 feet in the air.


Within the last three decades, Petit has taken part in significant cathedral events, performing his singular artistry. When construction of the southwest tower resumed in 1982, Petit walked a wire 150 feet above Amsterdam Avenue to deliver a symbolic silver trowel to then-bishop Paul Moore.


“Wonder has something to do with it—the idea that someone can walk so confidently across that thin wire. Artists defy our normal sense of the way things, are and this has great theological impact for us. Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘We must do that which we think we cannot,’” Miller said. 


Art has been a part of the world’s largest cathedral for at least 45 years since Duke Ellington premiered his Second Sacred Concert there in 1968. Recent events included the play Fools Mass from the Dzieci Theater Company, a medieval arts children’s workshop, and the annual New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace, inaugurated in 1983 by Leonard Bernstein.


Founded in 1873 with a mission to be “a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership,” the cathedral features a list of current artists in residence that include folk singer Judy Collins, musical theater composer Jason Robert Brown, poets Cynthia Zarin and Marilyn Nelson, the Forces of Nature and Omega dance companies, and the Mettawee River Theatre Company. 


Petit and a few other artists actually lived in the cathedral, inhabiting rooms off the triforium, the gallery that encircles the interior high above the nave, but the apartments were closed after a fire in 2001. Artists in residence don’t receive a regular stipend and often offer their work as a gift to the cathedral, Miller said.  


For Miller, a couple of the most wondrous artistic events at St. John’s are the winter and summer solstice celebrations featuring the Paul Winter Consort, a jazz ensemble that’s been in residence for more than three decades.


“The summer solstice event starts at 4:30 a.m. You sit in the dark cathedral; there’s no natural light. The Consort plays meditations and as the sun rises you watch the light come through the windows. There’s a question of what element of the glass picks up the dullest light. Slowly the reds emerge, then blue, green and brown,” Miller recalled.


But doesn’t hosting an event to mark the solstice edge towards a pagan celebration? “The first breath of creation is foundational to our idea of God—‘let there be light.’ It streams throughout scriptural history; it’s in the New Testament,” said Miller.


Light streaming through the colored windows “feels like the first morning of creation … allowing us to see as if through God’s eyes,” he mused. “A lot of wonder is mystery—things we can’t explain, but nevertheless they capture our creative imaginations,” he said.


The cathedral interior itself—with its stained—glass stories, 17th-century tapestries depicting the life of Christ and sculptures of historical figures, including Shakespeare—is a total work of architectural art, Miller said.


“When people walk in, it is literally the OMG moment— ‘oh my God’— when they see the scale of the space itself,” he said. The nave is 600 feet long—two football fields end to end —and the vaulted ceiling is 17 stories high.


Experiencing a sense of spiritual wonder through art feels like “a certain weightlessness, a certain lifting,” said Miller. “We are taken out of our selves, connected in an inner way. There is a sense of flowing, integrating the body, mind and spirit. All of those things begin to work together. That is why we feel so alive.”


De Santis is the new editor of Episcopal Journal, a national Episcopal newspaper. She is the former editor of the Ecumenical News International news service.