Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Sanctuary Sessions

This summer, I am following my heart and soul on little explorations, mostly local, and mostly in natural settings. However, I also have been longing to photograph stained glass windows from inside churches. There's something compelling about capturing the sunlight shining through stained glass in a sacred space. I'm particularly drawn to old churches, in which the energies of (one would hope) spiritual intention and devotion have accumulated for centuries.

I began this quest while walking around downtown Ithaca. From the outside of the First Unitarian church, the stained glass windows were a beautiful, impressive sight, and I wanted to photograph them from the inside. However, it was the Fourth of July, and the doors were locked.

I imagined what the interior spaces must be like and how it would feel to be surrounded by stained glass windows.

On the next block, St. Paul's United Methodist Church beckoned. When I first came up with the idea to photograph stained glass windows, this was the church that came to mind.

But again, the doors were locked. I didn't even attempt to enter the First Church of Christ Scientist with the stained glass windows I admired every time I set out on the Cascadilla Gorge trail.

Earlier this week, I was walking around downtown Saratoga Springs and wandered onto the block of Washington Street where there are a number of grand, old churches.

First I approached Bethesda Episcopal Church.

Again, I could not find a way in. So I looked across the street to the church where all my childhood memories were built: the former United Methodist Church, which is now Universal Preservation Hall. Originally built as the First Methodist-Episcopal Church in 1840, it was the setting for the first chapter in my spiritual autobiography.

If I close my eyes, I can picture the interior of that church so clearly as it was back in the early 1970's: the brass banister going down the stairs, the nursery and Sunday School spaces, a kitchenette, a meeting room, the large kitchen where I remember making a Holly Hobbie decoupage pin as a craft project and possibly also making candles, the choir room where all the robes (including my yellow one for Cherub Choir) were stored, the space that was set up as a small worship area with wooden folding chairs right next to the space where I went to Sunday School (separated by movable walls, as I remember) and where my most vivid memory is of dunking a graham cracker snack in a cup of apple juice and being surprised at how good it tasted. We must have had to be really quiet being so close to where the service was taking place!

And there must have been a basement because I remember going to Sunday School there, too - and being challenged to memorize a different scripture each week. The one I remember most clearly was Joel 3:10: "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong." I probably remember that one because I imagine I had a lot of trouble remembering it. The mothers of two of my friends were the teachers.

And then there was the upstairs - the grand, spiraling staircases on both sides once you enter the building, and the stained glass windows. There was something about going up the staircase that seemed so holy and mystical to me. In my adult life, I would dream of hidden rooms at the top. At the top of the staircases was the Great Hall - the large worship space filled with pews, an elaborate alter with enormous pipe organ, and lots of stained glass windows that I would gaze at during services. It was a huge, awesome space - a "real" church! And being part of that church community felt good. I felt safe and cared for there.

The United Methodist congregation moved into a brand new building in 1976, where it remains to this day. The Washington Street building was sold to the Universal Baptist Church, which did not have the financial means to maintain it. In the late 1990's, the building was deemed unsafe, and the congregation was evacuated. It ended up being renovated under the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Save America's Treasures and currently houses the Universal Baptist congregation while also functioning as a center for the arts and a venue for weddings and other events.

I haven't been inside the building since 1976 and was disappointed that nobody answered the doorbell when I rang it. However, the truth was that I was rather in a hurry, and it just wasn't the right time to go inside. This is not something to be rushed.

Later in the day, I traveled to the Adirondack village of Chestertown, where my husband's band was performing at a community festival. I was surprised to learn that the gig wasn't in the place where they usually play, just outside of the heart of the village. Instead, they performed in a field next to the public library. I was not prepared for this, as my dear friend and beloved mentor, David, who died in February, lived right next to the library, and the field essentially bordered his back yard, with just a small tennis court and parking lot in between.

Almost instantly, I was filled with grief. His house had a for-sale sign in front of it, and I realized that the next time I'm in Chestertown, someone else would likely be living in his house. It also hit me pretty hard that if he were still alive and in town that day, we would have spent time together that afternoon. I walked slowly past his house and could not hold back the tears. It really hit me that he's gone, and I missed him terribly. David died at home, making this house something of a portal.

I walked along the sidewalk to the next block and came upon a tiny, old church with a big red door:  Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. I learned later that, built around 1883, it is one of three buildings in town on the National Register of Historic Places.

I approached the big red doors consumed with grief, hoping to find refuge in a sacred space. And guess what?

The doors opened for me!

With gratitude, I entered this welcoming space with the creaky floorboards and musty smell.

The stained glass windows were lovely.

And so was the space. The sacred space. There is something about the energy of old, empty churches that I really love.

After leaving the church, I returned to the festival, but grief kept seizing me and calling me elsewhere. I wandered to a picnic table at the VFW right next to David's house where I sat alone and could see into his back yard. His garden plot was calling me, so I started walking again and got up the courage to wander into his back yard, feeling that he would have wanted me to. And that's where I felt his presence and became a river of tears. His statue of Saint Francis with bird-on-shoulder still stood to the side of his untended garden that featured a persistent, overgrown scallion amongst some weeds. I felt so strongly that this small patch of earth had been invested with his spirit, for he tended this garden with love.  

Of all the sanctuaries I tried to enter, this was the most sacred of all.

Still, my quest to photograph stained glass windows in churches continues. It feels as if it began in Chestertown with tears of grief and a true sanctuary that allowed me in. And somehow that feels like an absolutely perfect place to start.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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