When I was a little boy, about eight, I began to frequent churches on my own — a habit that has remained with me all my life. In the beginning I did so unbeknownst to my parents, who would not have approved of my crossing big city streets or prowling around deserted buildings. But back then the church doors in Flushing, Queens, were always open and children lived “free range.” I had license to roam.
I started with the First Presbyterian Church on Barclay Avenue, where my mother worked as a secretary and where I had an excuse to show up for no reason. The building was plain and white both inside and out. The only thing that caught the eye – on the wall above the choir loft and central pulpit – was a round window in stained glass with an image imitating the famous Heinrich Hofmann 1880 painting of Christ in Gethsemane: Jesus caught in profile, wrapped in a blue cloak, his praying hands extended on a conveniently placed rock.
Seeking and Thirsting
I roamed farther afield. Around the corner from Presbyterian austerity was St. John’s Episcopal and its little bit of country-parish England: red carpet, brass eagle lectern, stained glass windows, and a side altar which someone had decided was the perfect spot for raising African violets under a grow light. Far more impressive was St. Andrew Avellino on 158th Street: cavernous, bristling with side altars, confessionals, and statuary, and host to an image of the Virgin Mary that was said to weep. It was there that my friends made their first communions, the boys in white suits and the girls gotten up like little brides.
On the other end of the spectrum from St. Andrew’s was the Quaker Meeting House on Northern Boulevard: wood benches, clear paned windows, and deep quiet. Sometimes, if I was alone, I tested the places I visited: I stepped into a lectern or pulpit, prowled around the altar, made a reverberant sound to hear the echo – a clap, an “Amen!” – as if I were activating Philip Larkin’s poem, “Church Going,” decades before I would read it: “Once I am sure there’s nothing going on/I step inside letting the door thud shut.”
What was I looking for on these expeditions? For Larkin, it was “A serious house on serious earth …/In whose blent air all our compulsions meet/Are recognised and robed as destinies.”
Needless to say, I could not have understood such a formulation at the time, let alone recorded it.
Yet a longing for a “serious house,” a place where mystery was at home, makes perfect sense to me as I look back now. Given my subsequent vocation as a divinity school professor of religion and the arts, it would be gratifying to imagine that even at eight I was looking for God in whatever house of the Lord I walked into. The child was father to the man! Or, to quote the psalmist (42:1–2), as the hart panted for the water-brooks, so did my soul thirst for the living God.
Maybe I did thirst for God. If I remember correctly, there were acts of piety in my visits: When I entered a church, I could kneel and say the Lord’s Prayer. In St. Andrews, people lighted candles: For a dime, I could too.
But if truth can be told (60 years after the fact), I went church hopping not because I was looking for God but because I was looking for beauty. In my urban world I was cut off from nature and lived in a modest neighborhood of brick apartment houses. Church was the one place where I could find architecture, color, decoration, imagery, flowers (in winter!), and an atmosphere that courted mystery. Each of the sanctuaries I visited had something to offer anyone who opened the door. They were places set up for wonder.
In later years I sometimes worried that my religion might be a cover for aesthetic experience. Did I go to church the way other people went to art museums or concerts or poetry readings?
Access to Wonder
To be sure, I could turn to Psalm 27:4, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple” (KJV). But that was the psalmist: What if my search was more about beauty than about the Lord? For instance, did I choose my parish because of the building and the music? Did I cherish the sonorous prose of the Elizabethan liturgy – “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee” – but actually care a great deal less about offering myself as a sacrifice? I was drawn to the beauty of holiness, but what about being holy myself, with all the suffering and hard work that goes with the territory?
Then one night my beloved Greenwich Village parish church burned down. It happened between Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent: dust to dust, ashes to ashes. The remarkable new “Mozartian” organ was gone, as were the recently restored Anglo-Catholic gimcrack and 19th-century windows. Only a marble altar survived the flames, as it had the wrecking ball that brought down its earlier church home in 1918, when it was decided that a street needed to be widened and an 1803 church was in the way. Beauty’s lease hath all too short a date.
The loss was terrible, but when the bereft congregation gathered on Sunday in the school gymnasium – an improvised altar set up under a basketball hoop – I realized that holiness did not depend upon beauty: The people gathered and the rite celebrated were the only temple we needed that morning. Like Jacob at Bethel, a few well-placed rocks would do: “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17).
But of course that’s not the end of it. The beauty of architecture and ambiance, of music and language, give us access to wonder – which, as I intuited as a child, is one of the places where God dwells. For some people the Lord’s temple is found in the natural world, over which the Holy Spirit (as Gerard Manley Hopkins saw) “broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” For others, a building reveals what cannot be contained, a chorus raises the roof beyond what we thought possible, and a line almost expresses the inexpressible. All of which is to say: Beauty is worth looking for, not only as an end in itself but because of the door it can open and the places to which it can lead.
Peter S. Hawkins is Professor of Religion and Literature at YDS. His books and essays range in theme from scripture to Dante to modern fiction. He is the author of Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come (Seabury, 2009), Dante: A Brief History (Blackwell, 2006), and other books.