Conjunctions on the Autumn Equinox

22 Sep


Early yesterday afternoon I found myself sitting in the sanctuary at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. The Parish was founded in 1835; this is its third church, built in the second decade of the 20th Century. It is Byzantine in style, with glittering mosaics on the interior.

The pipe organ is the largest in New York City, and one of the ten largest in the world. I didn’t know this when I sat there yesterday, as that was the first time I’d even been in the church. “Byzantine” didn’t even click in my mind, yesterday as I sat between my sister and her friend, Yoshiko, but I was certainly thinking “icons” (“iconoclasm”), “Greek Orthodox,” and even “Russian,” the conjunction of which all but added up to Byzantine. But didn’t. This was, after all, an Episcopal Church, no?


The Wikipedia tells me that it is this parish that brought Leopold Stokowski from Europe in 1905 to be its organist and choir director.

Holy crap! says I to myself, no way!


Stokowski went on to direct the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, and had become something of a celebrity when, over 30 years later, he ran into Walt Disney at a restaurant in Los Angeles. Walt invited him over to his table and Fantasia was hatched. Not then and there, mind you, it took awhile. But that’s when the wheels started turning.

Walt’s father, Elias, had been one of many carpenters who worked on The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. And that fair featured a Japanese exhibit and pavilion on a small 16 acre in a lagoon. It was the unexpected hit of the fair and the first time most Westerners had had any contact with the Japanese, who’d only recently been subject to forced entry by Admiral Perry in 1853.

That was 120 years ago. Now, or rather yesterday, I was sitting in an Episcopal sanctuary for an Autumn equinox ceremony offered by a relatively new Buddhist sect, Shinnyo-en. My sister, Sally, who lives in Philadelphia, had come to New York for the ceremony as the current head of the sect, Her Holiness Shinso Ito, had traveled from Japan to conduct Saturday’s ceremony, Sharing the Light of Peace, to be followed today by floating lanterns in Central Park.

Once the principals had processed into the sanctuary, the ceremony began with three players. A blue-clad Sufi priestess danced and whirled a prayer while a young woman sang, relieving her guitar of the need for gentle weeping. Then a Catholic priest sang his Latin in a voice ancient as the hills and young as the dawn. Finally, a Hindu priestess chanted a sutra, threading her syllables through three millennia of microtonal immediacy and grace.

Much of the service was conducted in chant. There was a choir of chanters to the left, with a young pure-voiced woman in the front row leading the way. Much of the chanting was call-and-response, with the congregation joining in the response. During the last half Her Holiness delivered a brief message; she spoke a few sentences in Japanese, which were then translated into English. Before that the Episcopal choir sang something. And somewhere in there some paper bits in the shape of flower petals (see the image at the head of this post) got tossed around. I stuck two of them into the pages of hymnals in front of me.

At the end of the ceremony 20 or so lanterns were lit had given to some 20 leaders of various faiths who then lined up, two deep, in front of the altar, holding their lanterns. It was a VERY touching moment.

The principals processed out of the ceremony…

…leaving the ushers with the task of getting us out of the sanctuary and back into the daylight.

On the way out I happened to see Steve Love, whom I’d met a number of years ago while working with Zeal Greenberg on World Island.

We chatted.

* * * * *

For a post about an utterly different service, see Religion on the Ground, Sunday Service. For a different encounter with the Japanese in Manhattan, again on a mission of peace, see The Japanese Take Manhattan, Protest Nukes.


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