Monday, December 7, 2009

Churches are (not so) secretly my favorite places in Manhattan

I love to sing. I'm sort of notorious amongst my group of friends for singing a lot, and not particularly well. They love to exaggerate how badly I sing, but really I think I have a nice voice and I can carry a tune; it's just that most of the time - and actually, this is true in most areas of my life - I don't really recognize my own limits. I have been known to go for the high note in Mariah Carey's version of O Holy Night, or in that one Minnie Riperton song. You know the one.

Fortunately for me - and somewhat unfortunately for them - I don't really care if they like it or not, because I love singing and I don't plan on stopping. And Christmas - which I have recently dubbed "Crimma" in honor of my love for all things linguistically ludicrous - is the best time of year to sing. In Manhattan especially, Crimma music is everywhere. In Bryant Park at the ice skating rink, in Rockefeller Center near the tree - which, yes, I finally went to see! - and, most appropriately, inside churches all over the city.

It might be important to point something out here. Some of you might be surprised that, although I grew up in Alabama, in the heart of America's Bible Belt, I was not raised in a Christian or religious household. My mom purposefully raised me religion-less, telling me once that she grew up in a really strict religious household where she was not allowed to attend high school dances because it was not considered appropriate, and that she did not want me to come of age in a similar environment. So she just omitted that part of my up-bringing, instead leaving it up to me to choose my own religion. So, basically my mom was a big hippie. And I couldn't love her more for it.

As a result of all this, churches have never really been my thing. Growing up, if I ever went to church for a funeral or a wedding or just to go with my grandparents or something, I felt awkward. The ceremony of it always made me uncomfortable. People always seemed so stiff and dark to me, and the churches themselves seemed sterile. When I heard authority figures speak about God and Jesus and Hell and such, I was never moved by it because they never spoke of it with any movement. Until I got to New York, I always felt this way about churches. Then I visited St. John's.

St. John's is the largest all-stone cathedral in the world. This is made all the more amazing by the fact that its home is pretty much square in the middle of Manhattan, a tiny, bizarre island where people pay $1,000 to live in a space the size of most people's bedrooms. I visited St. John's on my first trip to the city, back in 2004, and I fell in love with it immediately. I've been back several times since then, and to this day I still think of it as my quiet place of peace in a hectic city that never sleeps and never shuts the fuck up. I also think of it as my gateway church.

Were it not for St. John's, I may have never visited the church of St. Paul the Apostle, which is where I found myself this past Saturday night, listening to the Fordham University Choir and Women's Choir sing Christmas songs. (See, this is when I get to my main point, about loving singing, yes?) The church itself was more contemporary than St. John's, a lot smaller and not nearly as beautiful. But the acoustics were amazing and when the lights dimmed and the choir members' voices grew from nothingness to a low vibrating hum to full-on singing, my hairs stood up on end and tears welled in my eyes. That's the thing about beautiful music - it transcends religious beliefs and indiscriminately connects all people to the source of life.

As I was letting the music seep into my skin, I was reminded of my childhood experiences in churches because as I looked around, I realized that most of the people in the audience seemed very stiff. We were in a Catholic church - me and my hodgepodge group of fellow non-religious slash Jewish friends - and we were listening to a Catholic choir singing songs about Jesus. Now, I would think that most of the people listening would also be Christians themselves, and should logically be more moved than I was by what they were hearing. And yet, everyone was - mostly, except for when the program directed that we should sing along - perfectly still and quiet as the choir proceeded through familiar, triumphant songs like Ding Dong! Merrily on High!, For Unto Us a Child is Born, and O Come All Ye Faithful.

Well, not me. I sang under my breath (or louder, LBO) anytime I knew the tune or the words. Once my friend J shot me a look that said, "OMG you cannot hit that note please stop you're hurting me," which was of course followed by me hitting her with my program and us both laughing inappropriately. We actually whisper-chattered and laughed a lot during the show - not to a level that would bother others I don't think, and not disrespectfully - but just enough to make me realize that this is what life is about. Laughter, beauty and people you love.

When the pastor got up to make the invocation, in the middle of the concert, he asked us all to bow our heads and pray. Usually I just ignore this and stare straight ahead, thinking about whatever seems important at the time. But this time, I bowed, and as he spoke of Jesus and faith and religion, I thought of the universe, love and family. While he asked Jesus to help rid the world of hunger, war and sadness, I asked the universe to help me keep my heart open, to show me how to love people as much as I possibly can and to have faith that things do work out for the best. And when he thanked Jesus for the blessings of our lives, I thanked the universe for the blessings in mine.

So I will keep singing, keep loving and keep seeing - or hearing - the beauty in things. Because to live any other way is, dare I say, sacrilegious*.

*You would think that this word is spelled "sacreligious," but in fact it is not. I looked it up. How bizarre.


  1. If you want to be moved by beautiful singing and the congregation's reaction to it, please consider attending the Christmas Concert at St. Patrick's Cathedral (you know the one- across from Rockefeller Center) next Thursday evening.

    By the way, perhaps I missed it, but from where did you derive the word "Crimma?"

  2. I call it Crimma as well sometimes but I break it up to sound like two words - Cri Muh - so it sounds gangsta enough to embarrass my kids. Congrats on being noteworthy, I am officially a fan!

  3. Thanks a lot! Now I have tears in my eyes. (That means its an excellent post.)

    I sing like that too, don't worry, people give me the same looks ALL THE TIME. Keep singing!

  4. christmas is just a beautiful time of year. especially when you bring in all the christmas songs.... I know not everyone believe in god, or a divince power but I truely think, that if there was ever a time that a person would... it would be now..... its something about churches at christmas... it just makes your heart sing.

    great post look forward to reading more

  5. Minnie Ripperton songs should not be sung by anyone but Minnie Ripperton. It's a tacit rule and one I break often.

  6. St. John the Divine is one of my favorite churches on Planet earth.

  7. I know I'm late to the commenting party on this post ... but I do get excited when I hear of someone who not only _likes_ singing, but actually _does_ it as well. I became a community singing leader a few years back because I'd heard so many people tell of being intimidated out of singing by family/friends/complete strangers; comments ranging from "don't give up your day job" to "please mime from now on" are tantamount to abuse as far as I'm concerned. I will fiercely defend your right to sing as often as you want, whatever your skill level. Anyway, I was thrilled to hear that you and your friends went along and enjoyed the singing at a big ol' cathedral, and acted like human beings enjoying a spiritual experience of song. Religiosity does tend to lay claim to spirituality, but I think that anyone who can quietly thank the universe for its blessings is as spiritual a person as you can find.

  8. I was similarly raised, even though my family celebrates Christmas, and such. It has allowed me to explore and freely question the idea of religion. I base my beliefs off of many different religions, especially Wicca. I encourage you to explore its main morals-they are all about the positive things in life, the beauty of nature, and respecting and not hurting anyone with what you do. I think you'd like that belief system. :)
    (I love churches too- for their amazing architecture!)