Among the many factors contributing to the oddity of my nature is my religious background. I was born in my father's hometown, Bryn Athyn, a suburban speck north of Philadelphia.
Bryn Athyn was founded as a religious community for members of the Church of the New Jerusalem, a Christian sect based on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century scientist and mystic. In his late 50s, Swedenborg began entering trances and recording his conversations with spiritual beings. Some students of religion have, not surprisingly, dismissed him as a lunatic.
I moved south with my parents when I was an infant, so I did not receive much formal education in the church doctrine. My father sometimes led us in services at home and these included a tape recording of a sermon by one of the ministers in Bryn Athyn. Several times a year, a minister would visit and conduct "real" services for us and any other members of the church who had landed in Charlotte and, later, Atlanta.
During summer visits to Bryn Athyn and the few years we moved back there after I turned 10, we did go to services at the magnificent Gothic cathedral there. Its construction was directed by Raymond Pitcairn, my great uncle, who was married to my grandmother's sister. It took a decade to build and its stained glass rivals that of European masterpieces like Chartres. (You can see the church at www.brynathyncathedral.org.)
Some of my most intense childhood memories are of the cathedral, especially Easter services when the children of Bryn Athyn filled its chancel with flowers during a processional. My mother once told me that the cathedral itself was the religion's best advertising. Its radical beauty, she said, drew people toward the church even when its doctrines did not. In the years since, I've come to believe this aesthetic quality -- the encounter with the imagination -- is as central to spiritual experience as faith itself.
As I reported here a couple of weeks ago, my mother recently died. A stroke patient, she had not been to Bryn Athyn in many years, but, following her cremation, her "resurrection service" was held in the cathedral July 16. Because I am still recovering from major surgery on both my knees, I could not make the journey there for the service.
But I was, incredibly, able to attend, anyway. The cathedral now broadcasts all its services over the Internet -- making my childhood experience of listening to tape recordings unnecessary now, I guess. So, while my relatives gathered in the cathedral, I listened at home, flooded with memories and not just of my mother. I heard the organ and remembered my grandmother playing it some Sundays. I remembered my grandfather, plucking his violin, and my uncle Mark, who taught choral music, cajoling me to sing even though I could not carry a tune.
I remembered the frog pond near my aunt Yvonne's house and my uncle Steve's amazing car collection. He drove us through the woods in hand-cranked antique cars and across his long driveway's bridge where a sign warned us to "beware of trolls," which he also claimed lived in his attic. I remembered my aunt Jane refusing to let us touch our food at Thanksgiving until we declared what we were thankful for.
I played tennis (badly) on clay courts there and swam in my aunt Clara's pool. I remember my teacher asking me to stay after class in the church academy where I went to school. I was terrified. But all she did was take my face in her hands and say very deliberately: "You don't have to be perfect."
Bryn Athyn was a magical, idyllic place for a child -- or at least my memory says it was. The cathedral, built without a single right angle or straight line -- still opens its doors in my dreams, offering a transit to other worlds, to the literal past and to a place where angels speak to men, love is eternal and beauty is the shimmering of divinity. Where anything is possible. Where even my mother speaks.
I think of her -- unable to talk or read or write for 14 years -- and wonder where her imagination must have taken her. People say she hallucinated at times because of a drug she took. I think it's remarkable she didn't hallucinate all the time.
But I am glad her memory was evoked in the sanctuary of Bryn Athyn Cathedral, where she married my father, and where I return in my own imagination to remember that life, like the bent lines of the church, does not proceed in linear fashion to reveal the direction of our soul's fate.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
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