In 2004, the late journalist and author Joan Didion wrote: “As I walked I kept my eyes on the window, half blinded by its brilliance but determined to keep my gaze fixed until I caught the moment in which the window as approached seems to explode with light, fill the entire field of vision with blue.”
The window, as described in Didion’s memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” is incandescent, beautiful and blue. It dominates the nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue. in New York. St. Johns’ Rose Window is the fourth largest in the world. Those who grew up underneath it know all too well the magical air it casts over the church, the feeling of minute insignificance it invokes in all who walk beneath it. We know the feeling of being watched by the life-size crucifix suspended behind the altar. We know the feeling of walking down the center aisle as the setting sun shines through the Rose Window and everything erupts in blue — a marvelous, iridescent light that stains the columns and statues and bodies and makes you feel so alive. Look down, and your hands, your legs and the stone floor, they’re all indigo.
Didion, who died on Dec. 23, and St. John’s have history through weddings and funerals. Just as I have, Didion has entered the cathedral and walked down the light-stained aisle, until she reached the high altar, great choir and the seven chapels that lay behind it. She has stepped into the Stuyvesant Baptistry, a quiet and forlorn chapel filled with Latin inscriptions and ghosts, and approached the marble vaults that make up the columbarium. Here, she said goodbye to her mother first. Her husband and daughter followed. When she was alive, she placed leis on the brass rods of the vaults holding their remains. For Didion, St. John’s represented the rituals of mourning: chanting in Latin, dressing up, dipping bread into wine, saying “peace be with you” and then being okay.
The cathedral and I are also intertwined. I spent every Sunday of my childhood inside its big brass doors. It’s where I dressed up in a fluffy white Easter dress and paraded around during the peace. It’s where I sat for hours, tucked in a wooden pew, desperately trying to believe in the rituals and the stories. Believing means living for something, thinking that there’s somebody up there who is vouching for you and ensuring that nothing will really go wrong. Even though it would be so comforting to believe in God — I did all the rituals and said all the prayers — I came to realize that I couldn’t.
It happened one Sunday, as I sat in a stiff chair and the priest rattled off a long list of sick and dying people to pray for. I suddenly realized that terrible things happen to undeserving people daily, and God lets it happen. Genocides, illnesses and tragedies — they all go uninterrupted by God. Either God is real and cruel, or God is not real and everything preached inside the church is utterly mythical. Despite the parables and religious rules I’d been taught as a child, one thing was clear to me: I would no longer take solace in religion, and I wouldn’t be coming back to this church for a while.
I don’t believe in God, Jesus or the creation story. Yet, I believe in the supernatural sense that overtakes you as you stand, dwarfed by the massive columns underneath the mighty Rose Window, feeling so insignificantly human. I believe in Joan Didion, and the magical ability some writers possess to put every thought you’ve ever had, and been unable to verbalize, into words.
I have moved away from St. John’s, both physically and metaphorically. “The Year of Magical Thinking” is gone, lent away to a friend who will inevitably forget to return it and let it collect dust on her bookshelf. Didion is dead. But her words and their impact are immortal. Because of her, I want to rediscover St. John’s. I haven’t entered the space in years, out of a desperation to remove myself from a religious world I cannot belong in due to a lack of belief and embarrassment. How could I — a rational, free-thinking human — ever believe in something so futile? How could I be simple enough to find comfort in meaningless rituals? Didion echoed this thought as she reflected on mourning her husband. “I did St. John the Divine, I did the chant in Latin, I did the Catholic priest and the Episcopal priest,” she wrote, “And it still didn’t bring him back.”
Similarly, no words will restore St. John’s to its former glory in my mind. When I look at it now, from the cafe across the street on 111th and Amsterdam, I don’t see a mighty house of God. Instead, I see an incomplete collection of stones and mortar, shaped into arches and buttresses. But reading Didion, her words remind me that St. John’s is a place independent of my own confusing religious history. It’s a building where blue light streams in twice a day — at sunrise and sunset — and makes you consider if God is real, because how can anything man made be so beautiful? Real humans spent over a century building that space, laying down each stone and chiseling each sculpture, and yet it has a godly beauty to it. The church connects me with a writer I admire so much. I know her beyond the words she’s carefully written, edited and printed on a page, because I know how it feels to mourn inside St. John’s. I know the heart-sinking feeling of seeing a name you know inside the columbarium. It’s where friends and family and idols are entombed. I know what it’s like to sit on the pew and say the prayers and sing the hymns and feel absolutely no satisfaction, guidance or fulfillment. And I know that window.
When I finally muster up the strength to revisit the cathedral, I will find Didion’s own name in the columbarium and my religious past hanging in the air. I’ll realize that she will never write again because she really is dead and gone and in a box, and I will become suddenly aware that the only person who is capable of writing about Joan Didion’s death is Joan Didion. So I will once again turn to her words to bring to fruition my most nebulous thoughts. I will once again watch as blue stains the pillars, and I will thank her — for teaching me that rituals are not a promise, and that writing cures all heartache.
Sophia Peyser (25C) is from Manhattan, New York
Sophia Peyser (25C) is an environmental science and english + creative writing major from New York City. In addition to managing the Opinion and Editorial Board sections of the Wheel, she works as an intern at Science for Georgia and a radio DJ at WMRE. In her free time, she loves thrifting in remote corners of Atlanta and drinking lavender lattes at Victory Calamity + Coffee.