Friday, December 24, 2010

Absent Friends

Hard though it is to believe, I only left Idaho a little over two months ago. I haven't $400+ to spare to get me home and back so soon, so I'm spending the holidays in DC on my own. With everyone gone and most everything closed tomorrow I won't be doing too much for Christmas. I'll go downtown as I did on Thanksgiving, a trip I will probably document, but I thought for the day I'd share something a little more significant.

I am not religious, but I enjoy churches. In an age when buildings of glass and steel and concrete are erected and torn down every day, churches perhaps more than any other structure provide a historic continuity in geography that's often missing in old cities, and often is by default completely absent in newer ones. Further, they were built to please the god of their congregation; they are very consciously the best buildings they can possibly be.

Washington's grandest church is of course the National Cathedral. Compared to St. Patrick's in New York and a likely great deal of the churches in London it is quite young, but its neo-Gothic style is true to form, and the 83 years spent constructing it are a reflection of that authenticity. I've wanted to check it out since my September trip out here, but it is a distance--not great, but still a ways from the Metro--and I have not had occasion to visit. My mother, generous soul she is, asked for Christmas only that I visit the Cathedral, as it is one of her favorites.

Well! I now had not only justification but an obligation to make the trek, and so I went. (I also got Mum a material gift as well.) I went on Wednesday at 12:30, for an organ demonstration. Artist-in-Residence Jeremy Filsell described the history of the organ, first built in 1938, when the cathedral was only 1/3 the size it is today. This is problematic now, as the organ's 10,500(!) pipes were designed for the acoustics of the original chamber's size, and now much of the sound doesn't carry to the rest of the Nave.

Filsell finished with a Christmas piece, "Variations on a Noel," a Bach-inspired work written by prolific French organist Marcel Dupre on a tour of the U.S. in 1921. Organ music sounds impressive just through its sound and varied textures, doubly so due to the virtuosity necessary to play such pieces. But hearing it live, awash in the jangle and hum of thousands of pipes, is something else entirely.

Afterward we were allowed to come and get a look at the organ console up close. It's a daunting construction, with over 300 mixing knobs and a claim to being the only console in the world with hydraulic pedal raisers built in, instead of an adjustable seat.

Shortly thereafter I was looking about the choir chamber, and I spotted the Bible at the Bishop's chair. I read the two open pages with interest; though I was raised in a Lutheran household and recall many of the Biblical episodes I was taught, I have not read much of the Bible itself. There is much that is ugly, hateful, and backward in its teachings, but so too is there taught beauty, love, and wisdom. The liberal branches of Christianity have the decency to compartmentalize the former away, and I read in hopes that I might find something to mull over going into the holiday.

Unusually, considering the time of year, it was turned to the Gospel of John's account of the Last Supper, beginning with the identification of Judas as Christ's betrayer. It was only toward the end of the second page, at the point when Jesus is commanding his disciples what to do when he is gone, that a passage, John 15: 12-13, piqued my regard:

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

Easily the most difficult part of moving across the country was leaving friends of often many years. I naturally stay in touch with them through Facebook and email and phone, and one of them (two of them, really, a couple) was kind enough to send me a Christmas card. Yet it remains, that only when the people with whom one has spent long hours speaking studying drinking dining laughing are physically separated, is their presence most appreciated. A band with whom one can grow at ease, establish a rhythm and rapport, and improvise symphonies of conversation, is neither easily earned nor lightly left behind. I am yet unsettled in such a group in DC, although there are promising signs. All the same, I, a devout atheist, am this year giving Christmas and the words of its namesake greater thought than ever before.

1 comment:

  1. Merry Christmas, Benjamin.

    Thank you for the tour, It's beautiful. I too love churches for their beauty; they're built to inspire and filled with music to lift our emotions to things outside ourselves.

    I hope your Christmas was joyous, I grieve if it was lonely.