Trinity Church on Wall Street is in the middle of a “rejuvenation” project — so naturally most of the building is closed to the public. I discovered this first-hand last week when a security guard yelled at me as I attempted to slip between the metal stanchions preventing me from peering inside the nave.
“Hey, Seersucker—read the sign! You can’t go in there.”
I asked him where I could go in, and he directed me to the All Saints Chapel on the other side of the church. It was about one o’clock, and the summer tourist rush made the half-block walk up Broadway a fight through Kate Spade bags and dripping dogs. When I finally pushed through the mob to the chapel, another security guard asked that I empty my pockets while a third wicked me down with a metal detector wand.
“Are you here for the service?” she asked me.
Every Wednesday in the summer, Trinity hosts midday “Catch Your Breath” services, catering to Financial District workers on their lunch breaks. The signs outside—beneath the Episcopal flag and next to the rejuvenation posters—advertise the services in this way:
Take a break from the workday rush. Participate in a breathing exercise, enjoy some quiet time, and listen to a short teaching before tackling the rest of your day. Bring your lunch for a supportive midday interaction.
For years, the Episcopal Church and its decline into secularism have been the butt of many a joke in the conservative Christian communities through which I’ve drifted. Membership is down—if baptism rates continue their decline, it will never recover—as the church concedes ever more beliefs in order to accommodate the modern world. Already, many of its members practice in a way that is nearly indistinguishable from the spiritual-but-not-religious folks who visit The Met on Sundays in lieu of a liturgy. Soon they may become like those who spend Sundays at MoMA.
It’s easy to be cynical about the state of the Episcopal Church. But everyone hungers for some salvation. When I entered the chapel, I found ten chairs set up in a ring behind the nave. In front of the chairs, ten flower-embroidered cushions formed an inner ring. Six middle-aged women sat in the chairs. A seventh woman wearing a scarf that looked like a tallit stood in the middle of the ring.
She introduced herself as Ellen and said she would be leading today’s meditation. “Now take a nice deep breath,” she said. “We’re centering ourselves for the exercises. Once you’re in your center, take one more deep breath and then exhale. Take one more big inhale, lift your arms up, and then exhale.”
I became conscious that the woman across the room was staring at me. I’ve never been athletic, and neither my blazer nor my tie really lent to these stretching exercises—but then neither did her pantsuit. Maybe I was conspicuous for being the only person in the room under forty, and the only man.
Ellen addressed my singularity when she sat down on one of the flower cushions.
“Since we have a gentleman among us, I’ll be a little more modest,” she said as she draped the scarf over her legs. “Okay, now let’s just focus on our breath. As you breathe, focus on that breath and when your mind wanders—as it will do—get back to the breath. We’ll do this for about three minutes. Notice your breath. Notice your nose, your lungs.”
I tried to notice my breath, but my eyes wandered around the chapel. It was built in with the restraint typical of an American neo-gothic church: no painted saints or glowing virgins. But the wood tracery adorning the brownstone walls was beautiful. And behind Ellen’s breathing body, an effigy of Morgan Dix, the church’s first warden, looked piously up to heaven, hands clasped.
“It’s time to face those hard emotions,” Ellen said. “As you face them, inhale all that you have of those difficult emotions. As we exhale, we will exhale the antidote. For example: fear. I inhale fear. I exhale courage. Or peace.”
The woman across from me gulped from a boxed water.
“Let your spirit guide you,” Ellen continued. “It may surprise you what the antidote may be. Allow yourself to be surprised. Don’t overthink this. This is not for our logic; this is for our spirit. The spirit will move within us and guide us with what we need.”
We did this for three minutes. Ellen liked it, so we did it again for another two. But I couldn’t muster her enthusiasm. I felt more like the security guard standing by the chapel door. He was doing push-ups on the many-columned portico to keep himself awake.
At the end of the exercise, Ellen smiled at us.
“We’re going to take a couple minutes, if anyone would like to share what happened,” she said. “Confusion was my emotion—I wasn’t really expecting that. I saw it as like this knotted ball, and as I exhaled, the antidote was step-by-step. It was like the ball was unwound, step-by-step. And I did that again—until, step-by-step, I reached peace. Would anyone else like to share?”
We shifted meekly in our seats. No one was brave enough to voice their emotion-to-antidote process. The woman next to me burped quietly.
“Let’s move on to our kindness meditations,” Ellen said. “As I say these meditations, repeat them internally as you breathe. We’ll start with ourselves, and as we move on, I’ll give you some prompts for some other people we can show kindness toward. All right?”
We nodded, and she began incanting in a measured voice that reminded me of the old woman who recites the Litany of Loreto every day after Mass at my home parish in Virginia.
We breathed; Ellen spoke:
May I feel safe.
May I feel loved.
May I feel content.
May I feel strong.
May I live wisely.
May I be at peace.
The noisy drilling from the rejuvenation project outside obscured the last line. But Ellen was unflappable. We repeated the kindness exercise four times, directing our breath first toward people we love, then toward people we see on the subway, then toward people who challenge us, and finally toward the people in our meditation ring.
“See their eyes.” Ellen said before each round. And we then were off.
May you feel safe.
May you feel loved.
May you feel content.
May you feel strong.
May you live wisely.
May you be at peace.
When we finished, Ellen flashed a half-smile around the ring. She bunched up her scarf and, standing up, gestured toward the door.
“Peace be with you.”
Christ’s words—and the nearest anyone in that room came to prayer.
Nic Rowan writes from Washington, DC.