If you ever want to travel back in time, visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It is a work of art and, unlike other historic churches, you can still see it under construction.
Construction began back in 1892, but to this day, the cathedral is still not complete. Eight massive, 130-ton granite columns were lugged in from Maine. Designs were hand-carved into the stone by the famous Ardolino brothers. Even the architectural style was abruptly changed almost 20 years into the project from a Byzantine-Romanesque design to a Gothic construction. And, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the construction of the cathedral was completely halted for more than half a century.
Although incomplete, the building opened for church service in 1899 and, by the mid 20th century, had become a cultural epicenter in New York. Leonard Bernstein conducted the first New Year’s Eve concert for peace in the cathedral, an artist-in-residence program was born, and the annual Feast of St. Francis celebration featured a procession of animals each year. Yes, elephants visit the church. Authors set novels in the magnificent cathedral, virtuosos held concerts, and visitors came from around the world.
In 2001, a fire engulfed the unfinished north transept, destroying the gift shop, threatening the sanctuary, and silencing the pipe organ. It took another four years before major post-fire cleaning and restoration of the church began.
After all these years, they call it St. John the Unfinished, which is exactly how my mom and I found it one day when I was around eight years old. We were walking east on 112th Street when the sweeping architecture came into view. Mom grabbed me by the arm and insisted on going inside.
As we stepped through the gigantic bronze doors, I was transported back to the 1500s. The sun from outside illuminated the stained-glass windows and danced across the stone and wood surfaces, while choral music filled the vast space. As I looked up to take in the beauty of it all, I instantly felt a million times smaller.
I looked at mom and could tell she was feeling the same way. It was a mystical experience, just the two of us standing there taking in the enormity of the world as others filtered past us into the nave. That moment has been etched in my brain ever since, and it’s the reason I keep going back.
I learned three things in that day that I’ll never forget.
Lesson #1: If You Listen Hard Enough, You Can See Amazing Things
The natural acoustics in St. John’s are out of this world. From the choir of voices singing and chanting in unison to the soft echoes of footsteps clicking as they passed by, every sound and motion is audible if you really listen. It’s as if you can paint a picture with your ears.
I talk a lot, but I learned how to listen that day with my mom. Today, when I find myself at St. John the Divine, I remember to shut up and let the picture enter through my ears. I listen not only to what other people are saying, but to what the environment around me is sharing as well.
Lesson #2: Routines Create Connections
I’ve always loved rituals. Religious or others. Every evening before bed, I set my intentions for the next day. Each morning, I wake up and work out before moving on to my other priorities. These practices help me focus on what is important in my life—to grow and improve. But I’m also fascinated by the traditions that other communities and people hold dear.
Religion is deeply rooted in ritual, from rites of passage and ceremonies of feasting and fasting to sacraments of communion and rites of affliction. Often, these rituals help bring us closer to the ethical and metaphysical parts of religion—the parts that allow us to learn and grow. Other traditions bring communities together to celebrate one another or mark the passage of time. Some rituals require us to make a sacrifice.
I don’t confine myself to one religion, but I do embrace elements from many of them, particularly the parts that say to do good for others and for ourselves. Rituals help us set our intentions, care for our minds and bodies, and come together to connect.
Lesson #3: The Mission Is Never Accomplished
St. John the Unfinished is a living work of art that is constantly evolving. I’d like to think we can all internally embrace that imperfect state of being.
At the end of the day, we are never truly complete—we are always under construction, always refining who we are. We identify areas where we can improve, and we work to fix the broken pieces. We learn, change, and progress over time.
I’m Joe the Unfinished, and I’m just getting started.