Every now and then I read a really great quotation or some snappy writing in a major newspaper — The New York Times, for example — and the contents and tone of words are so perfect that they stick in my might as a snapshot of a particular place, time and state of mind.
Remember that classic New Yorker cover about how New Yorkers view the rest of the country, especially the fly over territory between the Hudson River and the large, and perhaps important, city called Los Angeles? I knew that you would. Well, the Times ran a mini-feature the other day about New York University President John Sexton the other day that contained a quotation that made me think of that cover. Do you see any churches in that illustration?
The context for the quote is a chatty Q&A format called “Sunday Routine” in which important people describe what they like to do on normal Sundays. As you might expect, Sundays in New York may or may not include religion and, in this case, Sexton serves up a quotation that captures what many religious believers out in the heartland probably assume is a New York state of mind, in terms of faith.
The feature begins this way:
John Sexton, 66, is the 15th president of New York University, a position he has held since 2001. He joined N.Y.U. as a law professor almost 30 years ago. In the summer, he spends time at his weekend house on Fire Island with his daughter, Katie, 20, a senior at Yale, and his son, Jed, 40, and his family. Two years ago, Mr. Sexton’s wife died suddenly of an aneurysm, a loss that is ever present, he said. Fall weekends usually find Mr. Sexton alone or with guests at the house on Fire Island with his Havanese, Legs.
Here is the quote, which comes a few lines later. My question to you (especially for Catholic readers) is this: Is this a perfect statement of New York Times-friendly religion or what?
FERRY TO CHURCH
I bike down to the local market where the 7:30 ferry will be coming in. I’ll get a cup of black coffee, a light yogurt, the Sunday New York Times and The Daily News. And I’ll get on the ferry and ride over to Bay Shore, where I can walk the five minutes to St. Patrick’s Church for the 8 o’clock Mass. I have a Ph.D. in religion and I’m a spiritual person. Notwithstanding the fact that my wife and our children and grandchildren are all Jewish, I am a Catholic, and the Catholic liturgy means a great deal to me.
Later in the day, of course, there is a baseball game to attend. It’s Sunday in New York.
I bring this up not to mock the Times or, certainly, not to mock Sexton. I didn’t expect the president of NYU to drop by a charismatic Latino Catholic parish, go to confession and speak in tongues or anything like that. I am also not surprised by the “I’m a spiritual person” language or the reference to an appreciation for liturgy that appears to be separate from the doctrine contained in the rite or the Divine Mysteries celebrated therein. Was Sexton speaking frankly, or describing only a publicly acceptable part of his faith? How would we know?
You see, the day after reading that feature I bumped into a longer Style piece in the Washington Post that — again — seemed to perfectly capture a time, a place and an approach to faith that is uniquely Washington, D.C. Read it all, please, and tell me if you see the connection. There is religion in this piece, sort of, but only a certain kind. Might there be more? How would we know?
This piece focused on a major figure in the arts, the opera diva (in the best sense of that word) Denyce Graves and her recent wedding (with multiple rites) that was, on several levels, the result of a deeply spiritual experience. Here’s the top of the story for context:
This is what’s transpired in the past six years of Denyce Graves’s ever-epic life:
She was dumped by a boyfriend who no longer wished to follow her around the world. She found herself heartbroken and sick and finally went to a doctor who said he had news — at 39, she was with child. Impossible, she replied: Throughout her previous 17-year marriage she tried repeatedly to get pregnant, but was told it could never happen because of fibroids and various other conditions. Besides, her then-lover had told her he’d had a vasectomy, she says.
But she was pregnant. The doctors urged her to abort, she says, because she wouldn’t be able to carry to term. Then, Graves says, she was told the child had Down syndrome. But in 2004 she delivered a healthy baby girl — “and she’s perfect.”
Then there is a chance encounter on an airplane with a famous heart-transplant surgeon — Robert Montgomery of Johns Hopkins — that leads to love. Quickly this leads to some multiple, colorful wedding rites. And in that context we read:
The force of that love, they both say, has been the greatest surprise of their lives.
“I understand what people are writing the poems about and writing the songs about,” says Graves, who now lives with Montgomery in Bethesda. “It’s just a bit of heaven. I feel like it’s God saying, ‘Hello, I’m here. I exist, you see?’ ”
Hence three weddings — the chance to, as she put it, “scream it from the mountaintops.” Almost eight years to the day after she sang “The Lord’s Prayer” at the 9/11 memorial service, Graves entered Washington National Cathedral again, this time in a long white dress. The bride’s and groom’s children preceded her down the aisle, where she and Montgomery would be serenaded before their 150 guests by a violinist, trumpeter, organist, harpist, two pianists, a full cathedral choir and four opera singers, including soprano Alessandra Marc and matron of honor Anna Soranno.
OK, you can say that this is, again, merely “spiritual language,” this whole, “it’s God saying, ‘Hello, I’m here” thing described by Graves.
Then again, I was left wondering about that joyful quote on which she says that she opted for three wedding rites because she wanted to “scream it from the mountaintops.” What does “it” stand for in that sentence? Her marriage? The series of events, including her daughter’s birth, that led up to it? Is “it” simply a matter of romance or, maybe, faith?
Could be either one. How would we know? Or does the Style piece touch the faith, like a hot pan on a stove, and then withdraw the journalistic hand as quickly as possible? Are we getting the brand of faith that fits in the Style pages of this newspaper?
All I know is this: I want to know more. How about you?