The Cathedral Ruins

by Susan Harlan


A cathedral is a good place to remember. I visited European cathedrals when I was too young to care about them. There was Chartres: buttresses and spires, relics lined up in rows in glass cases, a crypt that’s not filled with dead people, but is another church in the church. One of the tour guides told me that the cathedral’s nave was constructed on an angle so that medieval pilgrims’ muck could be washed right out the door; they would just toss buckets of water in there. She also said that people still walk out to the cathedral from Paris and that it takes three days. You leave the city behind for the country. “Paris,” she said. “Trop de monde.”

I was thirteen when I went to Notre Dame for the first time. It was so crowded that my family and I moved in a phalanx of tourists, our arms flat against our sides. The air smelled of sweat and candle wax. I dropped a coin in one of the little boxes and lit a candle and made a wish that I promptly forgot. The cathedral should have been significant, and part of me wanted to know more about the hunchback, but it was just a place of old things, and I was really biding my time until I could go to a sidewalk café and order a root beer float — glace vanille avec coca — and sit in Paris’ summer sun.

Now I remember these cathedrals refracted through another one. When I was in college, I found Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights, which became my place in the city for about fifteen years. You go to some places and decide that you have seen them and that you don’t need to see them again; sometimes, you go to a place and you know that you need to see it again and again and again, like a person. I used to watch the peacocks strut in the cathedral’s gardens, and under the rosebushes, big rats slid along on their bellies. I watched the tour buses come and go, and the retirees walk in and out of the assisted living community across the street. Then I moved away, but ever since, whenever I visit New York, the cathedral is my aperture onto a city that keeps changing.

Construction on the Episcopal cathedral started in 1892, but there was never enough money to complete it, so it has remained unfinished. Inside, the stone is smooth in places but rough and raw in others, or stained with white watermarks and mold. There’s always scaffolding somewhere, proof of some kind of repair. The building is missing one of its towers on the northwest side. After a while, you get so used to it that the tower hardly seems to be missing at all, and this uneven façade seems both mournful and full of potential. It could be finished one day. It will never be finished. The soot on the stone outside marks it as a city cathedral. It looks a bit ravaged. Other places have restored themselves: Notre Dame began a major restoration and cleaning project in 1991. When I saw it as a teenager, I saw it in all its blackness, and I attributed its appearance to its medieval-ness. It was only when I got older that I realized that nothing could be more modern than pollution.

When I went back to St. John last February, it was raining. Inside, it smelled like mold and wet wool. As I stood in the nave, a woman who was looking up at the Rose window and walking at the same time accidentally backed into me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Her hair was wet, like she’d been walking around without an umbrella. And I thought: if she forgot her umbrella, she probably lives close by, as I used to, maybe just up the street. I sat down in the Poet’s Corner to read. It’s really too dark to read there, but I’ve always liked the idea. When I was in college, the cathedral hosted a reading of Dante’s Inferno that ran from Good Friday through Easter Sunday. People took turns reading, and friends and I came and went over the three days, listening to bits of this poet midway through his life, being led on a guided tour through a house of horrors: people scratching their scabs; or steeped in excrement; or walking forward with heads twisted backwards. In graduate school, I brought my copy to the cathedral and read silently to myself and thought about how one goes about inventing hell.

I always go to one chapel in particular, the Chapel of Saint Columba, which was consecrated on April 27, 1911. The windows in the chapel are stained a silvery white, so the light feels cool in the summer, and there’s never anyone in this room, so I can sit down and stay there, sometimes for whole afternoons. Inside this chapel is a white gold altar by Keith Haring called “The Life of Christ.” Mary is in the middle, holding the baby Jesus, and the angels on the side panels are jumping for joy. This is a place of dead people: Haring made the altar just few weeks before he died. The chapel itself was a gift from a mother to her dead daughter, and the stained glass windows are also dedicated to the dead, their names listed on the walls. Inside the next small chapel stands an armored Saint Boniface, a looming stone figure with wings. And in others, men lie long buried in glossy white marble.

There are plans for a big residential tower on the north side of the property, right beyond my chapel’s windows. This tower will continue a development project that started with the completion of the Avalon tower on the southeast corner of the property in 2008. If you walk to the cathedral along Central Park North, you see this building. I went to the cathedral yesterday to see what else had changed. First, I walked back to the chapel and lied on the stone floor to look up at the mosaics on the ceiling. I could hear birds outside, behind the glass, in the direction of the phantom tower. Shakespeare called the monasteries dissolved under Henry VIII “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” There’s a painting on the chapel wall of Mary holding the baby Jesus in a ruined church. Vines and weeds grow all around them, and the gray stone walls crumble.

I wonder if St. John the Divine can be a ruin if it was never finished. Maybe finishing it will ruin it. This new tower will block the view of the cathedral as you walk along 113th Street, past St. Luke’s Hospital. There’s a construction site there that stretches back along the side of the building, a tunnel of blue plywood walls stamped with the phrase POST NO BILLS. Orange construction cones and a dumpster: all signs of what is to come. But there’s no one there. Just an empty weathered trailer, waiting.

Susan Harlan is an English professor who professes Shakespeare at Wake Forest University.

Photo by Ainhoa I