Sunday, October 28, 2007

St. James In The Bronx

"The True Vine" by Louis Comfort Tiffany

On the Sunday before our Monday gathering of bloggers in New York City, several of us planned to attend the morning service at the church where Tobias Haller serves as vicar, St. James Episcopal Church, in the Bronx. I left about 45 minutes before the service from midtown. Big mistake. Definitely not enough time to get to the Bronx on a Sunday when subway services are reduced.

I found the station for the crosstown subway to take me to the No. 4 to the Bronx with no trouble, but - alas! - all the gates were locked. A few others came in, and then a nice couple from NYC took me and another out-of-town couple in hand and showed us the way to another station where the gates were not locked. They were getting off at the same station as I was, and they showed me the track to the No. 4. Once I was on the No. 4, I looked at my watch and knew I would be late for the service.

We began to speed through all the stops, and I began to worry that the train would not stop at Fordham Road, where I needed to get off, but when I expressed my concern to a gentleman near me, he said that it was an express only until it got to the Bronx - which, indeed, it was. When I got off, I knew to go left, but I did not see a church, so I headed under the el in the wrong direction until I asked directions and had the way pointed out.

Thirty minutes past the time for the beginning of the service, I arrived at St. James. Tobias was already preaching, as I slinked into a rear pew. If you think that Tobias does not use his thespian gifts in his preaching, you are wrong. He uses them with great skill, but he's not at all over the top. Here is the link to the sermon that he preached last Sunday. He said that I had missed only a few minutes of the sermon, and I see that is correct. I have long admired Tobias' sermons. They are simple and profound at the same time. He does not talk down to his congregation, yet his words are accessible to all. When he was preaching, especially on the story of Jacob wrestling with God, he used arm gestures that he may have learned in his acting days.

As though I had not made enough of a spectacle of myself by arriving 30 minutes late to the service, I had to go to the ladies room after the sermon was finished. I went outside and made my way around to the parish hall, but the doors were locked. I had to go back inside, walk across the rear of the church, then down the side aisle to the door to the parish hall.

The service was a sung Eucharist with smells and bells - lots of smoke from the incense. I suppose the cops on the beat in the area are familiar with the smoke wafting through the doors, or they'd burst in saying, "What are you folks smoking?"

Grandpère tells the story of a classmate of his who, with the first whiff of incense, would pass out cold, yet the powers-that-be kept insisting that he attend. In the Roman Catholic Church, where I spent most of my life, incense was reserved for solemn occasions or for the service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, which became rarer as I grew older.

Since the altar is attached to the wall, Tobias faces east as he presides at the Eucharist, with his back to the congregation during the Eucharistic prayers and the consecration of the elements. That brought back memories of my days in the RCC before Vatican II. However, I had forgotten how much of the time the priest actually does face the congregation to exchange responses.

The congregation at St. James is warm and welcoming. When they pass the peace, they pass the peace, with many walking all around the church to greet fellow parishioners and guests. During the announcement period, Tobias introduced us as a group of Episcopal bloggers from here, there, and everywhere. I thought that took a bit of courage. I wonder what the congregation thought of us. How many of them know what a blogger is? Not many of my parishioners know. The congregation is predominantly black, so we brought in a bit of diversity, since we're all white.

St. James is a beautiful old Gothic-style church built in the early 1860s. The building contains several windows by Tiffany, including the beauty shown below of The Last Supper. At the link, click on "Tiffany Windows" on the left-hand sidebar to see them all.

My church is actually older than St. James, dating to 1844, but much simpler and of the classical style. Both our congregations are aware that beautiful old churches are lovely to have, but are often in need of fixing, which costs money, money, money.

Altogether it was a beautiful service and well worth the trials and tribulations of getting there.

I met up with the other bloggers and had a walk around the church. Afterwards, we went to the parish hall for coffee and cake and a chat. Pictured below are the bloggers who were present at the service.

Mark, from the seminary, gave a lift to Klady, Terry, Gabe, and me after my looong, southern good-bye to the others. Meanwhile, Mark and his other passengers waited in the car. I'm sure they were thinking, "Will she ever come and get in the car?" Mark dropped us off around West 59th Street and recommended a restaurant nearby, which we chose to try. The four of us had a lovely brunch. Klady and I had spent quality time together, but, at lunch, I got to know Terry and Gabe. Both are delightful company. We had good conversation, which included many laughs, and I was sorry when the brunch came to an end. They had to go home to take care of their dog. Imagine! They preferred the company of their dog to Klady and me. People and their dogs! However, I confess that the company of a good dog is sometimes preferable to the company of certain people I can think of.

I had intended to put the group picture at the top of the post, but when I saw how lovely the "True Vine" window looked, I demoted us to the bottom. I love you, my friends, and you are beautiful, but just look at that window.

Thanks to Doug for the photo. In the back row: Klady, Terry, and Gabe. In front: Doug, Paul, Mimi, and Tobias.

UPDATE CORRECTION: The picture at the end of the post is there because I saved the best for last. We truly are more beautiful than the Tiffany window.