All the faith that fits the zip code

new_yorker_view_from_9th_ave_coverEvery 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?


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.”

dgraves4Then 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?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Love that New Yorker cover and love Los Angeles. Dodgers had it right in ’58.

  • tmatt

    Apparently, no one wants to know more.

  • Jerry


    At least for me, I read your post and agreed with your questions. But I did not feel impelled to post a comment at the time.

    There is one comment I would make: doctors are overstepping their responsibilities when they urge someone to have an abortion. People can be pro-choice but not pro-pressure. And that Graves was told that her baby had Downs when she did not seems like malpractice to me and that should have been explored further as well.

  • Julia

    I take “it” to be that Graves and her husband find a connection between God and the joyousness of human love – parental and spousal. That’s pretty classic and maybe can only be described somewhat adequately in poetry and song. Choir directors and saints tell us that “singing well is praying twice”.

    Try to put into words the flood of emotion that parents feel on beholding their newly-born child in the delivery room. Ditto the emotion on-lookers often feel in watching a loving couple make their marriage vows or watching en elderly married couple who remain devoted to each other.

    Think of the words to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” after lauding the various kinds of human love – paraphrasing – oh, you millions, look for him – surely, there must be a God beyond the stars.

    Here’s Leonard Bernstein directing the last part of it – he’s going into an ecstasy at some points. He looks like he’s going have a big O at the word “bruder”.

    My Chorale did this piece a few years ago – it was interesting to see the audience reaction – first there was dead silence for about 5 seconds and then everybody jumped up together all at the same time, just stunned.

    The possibilities of joyous human love indicating that there must be God to explain it – that’s what “it” is. Denyce has probably sung this piece and experieced its magic. And there are many other pieces of poetry and music – lots of them in opera – that also address this ecstatic view of human love somehow enabling us to feel the existence of God. “Hello, I’m here.”

  • Julia

    I have a very brave and wonderful daughter-in-law like Ms Graves who was given a diagnosis that her unborn child had trisomy 18 – that’s Edwards syndrome which results in death not long after birth. She also ignored the doctors and my grandson is a little rascal who loves trucks and Bob the Builder as a normal 3 yr old toddler.

    Lots of tears and rejoicing that day, I’ll tell you.