Depot of Silence
A spirituality for the divergent.
By Adrienne deFaria
It took seven years of fighting before my spiritual yet stern atheist mother allowed my rebellious Roman Catholic father to baptize me. Too big to be picked up by the priest, I dunked my entire head in the basin as sacred organs rang through St. Bede’s Church. My father had told me just to “touch your head to it.” This was the first time our definitions of holiness diverged.
Underwater, I kept my eyes open and my breath bated, seeking some sign of the divine. Submerged in that cleansing bath, I remember the vibration of the organs most: Even as God waterlogged my ear canals, it cut through, strong and clear. I was not saved that day, but I was inspired by prayer without words.
Maybe it was then that I fell in love with classical music. But that music wasn’t just classical—it was charged with earnest devotion, distinct from any other sound I’d heard in my young life. The same sounds struck me at St. Paul’s Chapel, which runs Sacred Music, a concert series on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. Each week, a musical artist from the greater New York City area suffuses the Byzantine interior with their sounds while Columbians filter in and out, playing musical chairs in the backmost row. Students come out of curiosity and stay for a study break, drawn to this serendipitous pocket of sanctity.
This is no one-off miracle. It’s the project of award-winning composer Julian Bennett Holmes, with whom I spoke on a Friday night after a Sacred Music concert. He’s entrusted with arranging the series, a tradition that’s been on and off for years.
Holmes, who is also a doctoral candidate and instructor at the Manhattan School of Music, has been Sacred Music’s coordinator since 2018. He speaks calmly and thoughtfully, with the distinction of someone who spends most of his time thinking about things bigger than himself.
“There has been music in the chapel I’m sure for the whole time the chapel has existed—since 1904,” he said. He prioritizes making the program as diverse as possible, accommodating various religions and cultures. This fall, Sacred Music has shared with the community everything from “Move! Spirituals for the Spiritual Journey” to “Festival of Indian Music: Raaga and Rhythm.” Though the chapel’s iconography is Christian, the music isn’t rooted in a particular faith; rather, it’s curated to create a spiritual, sonic haven.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly drew a theologically spiteful agnostic like myself to the event. Perhaps it’s the magnetism of the chapel, the sheer grandiosity of it. Of course, Columbia is a grand campus: aged colonnades, stoic bricks, a quad that will swallow you up before you can take a step. But Columbia is also loud. The sounds of New York ricochet across our 30 acres, performing a discordant concerto with stressed students’ moans and the excess noise of too-loud headphones. St. Paul’s is a depot of silence. Even the wails of a violin, the thuds of a piano, or the simple patter of Doc Martens only remind me of the silence they’re cutting through.
“Some people come to have a quiet time, or to meditate, or to pray,” Holmes told me. He suggested that the experience of Sacred Music is different for everyone. Perhaps that’s what makes it sacred—its power to cultivate a universal privacy. It creates a space for concurrent self-exploration and communion, for the convening of countless memories and motivations.
So I sit, trying to slurp up the sacredness, as if each piano strike or violin stroke will cleanse me of my displacement. I sit, admiring each turquoise and orange tile of the upper dome, hyperfixating on the oval skylights. It’s a peculiar nostalgia. Despite my awareness of Catholicism’s blind spots, despite the lack of holiness that confronted me at the bottom of the basin, religion is sewn into my skin. At St. Paul’s, I remember the comfort and connection my father’s family felt. I remember experiences I haven’t lived.
Our histories provide a warm blanket of explanation, manuals for how to proceed. For me, the knowledge that my ancestors sat in similar pews, in a million cathedrals in a million cities, is powerful solace. The organs still vibrate with clarity. They sound like voices of guidance. I will hide in history and I will shine in individuality. Like a bird shedding its feathers, I’ll chase my version of sacredness while remembering that of my family.