Friday, October 19, 2012

The City A Cathedral

Sometime in 1987 or 1988, I wandered into a gift shop at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan and heard this song for the first time.  A young seminarian then, I liked to take a book or two and sit in the cathedral, doing some reading, thinking things over.  There was a lot to think over.  The cathedral's a cavernous place, a brilliant, evocative place.  And there was often something interesting going on--a musician practicing, an artist setting up, a rehearsal.  I'd leave after an hour or two, and all of New York seemed a bit like that cathedral: a holy place, broken and soaring, a place for experimentation and loving.

For some reason, that particular day I slipped into the cathedral gift shop before heading home to supper with friends.  And they were playing this song, the original, by saxophonist Jim Pepper.  I was new to jazz in those days, and I'd never heard of Jim Pepper.  (He's still relatively unknown and underappreciated.)  But there was something provocative, something wild and joyful about Witchi-Tia-To.  I stood still by a book shelf and just listened.

Even now, I can feel it.  Witchi Tia To.  I can feel the surge of energy, hope, joy of it.  I can feel Jim Pepper's voice and his instrument, ancient rhythms and joyful defiance.  There's a kind of sadness in this piece that makes the joy that much more profound and provocative.  I can feel night falling on Manhattan and my gratitude for all of it, for being part of it.  It was one of those moments, I guess.  An ordinary moment like a thousand others, but a moment that found depth in my soul.  And surprised me.  There have been larger moments in my life, but few that rival that one for sweetness and inspiration.

I found Jim Pepper's cassette by the cash register and walked back to my room on 122nd Street, holding the little plastic case tight.  All these years later, I'm stunned (still) by what music can do.  The video here is a cover of Pepper's original.  But it's a part of me now.  It runs through me again, with energy, hope.  If I have faith, it's because there are songs like this in the world, in the air.  It's like scripture, a love that casts out fear, grace upon grace.

This evening, I listen again and look to the falling night.  A cathedral.  Every day, every sundown, every city, every neighborhood.  Among these tattooed academics and wandering, homeless mystics, I see the soaring  possibilities of community and neighborliness.  As moms walk strollers and fog banks settle on Santa Cruz, I witness the dance of the Divine.  It's really all I need.  That and Witchi Tia To.