Manna About Town

Volume 46, Issue 2, By Michael Crosbie

Where in the city does one find God? Historically, the holy, sacred places and spaces where God might “reside” have been sacred buildings at the city’s center, fronting the marketplace, rising to dominate distant views of the city. As a typical urban condition, however, in today’s secular city the House of the Lord has lost its central dominance; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that God has left town. Holy urban places, disseminated throughout the city, where the spiritual can be encountered on an intimate basis, are actually very common, but not in obvious places. Often they are hidden in plain sight: in narrow alleys, behind garden walls, squeezed between row houses, on rooftops, and in cellars, rather than in a center-point of concentrated sacred space. We can imagine that evidence of the divine falls over the city like manna from heaven, providing spiritual sustenance where we most need it, on the next street corner. This expression of the sacred, where the spirit is immediate and proximate, at our very feet instead of remote and protected, gives us another way of understanding its power.

Evidence of the holy found in out-of-the-way places abounds in old European cities; there one can come across places of veneration in what are the most mundane settings. I recall my delight in turning a corner in an Italian hill town to discover a small shrine covered with age and maybe plastic flowers. In Assisi, at a convergence of two streets that trace their way up the town’s steep topography (surely a dangerous place to walk or ride a bicycle), a painting of a Madonna and Child hovers over the intersection. On the street below pedestrians make their way, seemingly unaware of the sacred presence barely a story above their heads.

A more contemporary example is in the heart of Manhattan, at the base of the Citycorp building. Here, God’s place is under the surface, hidden from view. Old St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on Lexington Avenue was demolished when the congregation sold its property in the mid-1970s so that Citicorp could be built, with the provision that a new church be constructed beneath the office building. Designed by Citycorp’s architect Hugh Stubbins, the new St. Peter’s has a presence on the street corner through its pyramidal shape, which pokes up above the sidewalk as if it were the spire of an underground church. Its interior was designed by Vignelli Associates, and is distinguished by works by such artists as Louise Nevelson, Dale Chihuly, and Kiki Smith. One might be shocked to realize, peering through the windows of this somewhat hulking earthbound granite structure, that a church spreads out below your feet. It is as if God has suddenly reached up to playfully grab your ankle.

That the sacred can be found in a thousand different places, hidden in plain sight throughout the city, is counter to the popular notion of the separation of the sacred from the secular. But in The City of God, Saint Augustine describes the City of Man and the City of God as forever entangled together in this world. Is this not really the urban condition of all time and all places, as well as the nature of the divine in the world at large?

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by using our contact form.


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