Spaces of Hope

Nokia Theatre at Times Square

Nokia Theatre at Times Square

The Saturday night before Easter this year I was standing in the VIP balcony of the Nokia Theater in Times Square, watching 2,000 acolytes undulate in rhythmic dances to the hypnotic, improvisational jams of Umphrey’s McGee, a fast-rising progressive rock/jam band from Chicago. Jam-band music isn’t really my thing. I probably would have been at a Catholic vigil mass stuck somewhere between Ezekiel and Isaiah, except that a friend who went to college with the Umphrey’s crew convinced me this would be a vigil of another sort. He was right, but maybe not in the way he imagined. I’m sure that some of the dancing, swaying people below me could have described this event as a religious experience. But what  struck me was the space itself.

The Nokia Theater is a magnificent place for an emotional tidal swell, whether generated by prog rock or folk music: an intimate ground floor that presses within two feet of the stage, another raised platform for standing/dancing fans, and then some 500 seats rising stadium-style behind it all. The space gives a sense of cohesion, directing all bodies to the action on the stage, but it holds them loosely, allowing for a dozen unexpected vortices of action: the kid dancing by himself under the platform leading to the VIP lounge; the group of people gathered and dispersed around the sound board in the middle of the second platform; the people walking up and down the aisles to the seats, taking a break from dancing, getting into a conversation with a friend of a friend; the steady flow of traffic leaving either side of the theater to the antechambers of softly-lit neon green glass bars; the cluster near the door where cell phone reception begins again; the small pockets of people lining the halls into the theater, checking voicemail, email, proving their existence with a real-time post on Twitter or Facebook; the anonymity of close proximity that allowed people to huddle over a joint ten feet from a security guard, the quick spark of orange fading to a dull smolder as the smoke rose to join the other incense caught in the stage lights, ascending in gentle, continuous billows to the rafters.

Around the time of the Protestant Reformation, cathedrals were something like this. Masses were said almost continually, in Latin, in rushed, hushed undertones by priests who were being paid to lift sacrifices before God at all hours of the day on behalf of those who could pay for them. Ordinary believers rarely, if ever, received communion, and they could come and go from the church, kneeling down at a side altar, lighting a candle, giving alms, meeting a neighbor, prostrating themselves before the icon of a beloved saint. If the point of church is catechesis and correct belief, this is a pretty shoddy system; that’s part of what worked the reformers into such a tizzy. But thinking about it now, I love the idea. It is why I love the big Catholic churches in New York—they stay open all day, even when they don’t have services. Their many side chapels, their icons, statues, and relics, the hum of the mass and music are there for anyone, even the occasionally and confusedly pious who only slip in off the street for a moment, even for the tourist who only aims to see a bit of art, to pay homage to the architectural grandeur.

The last time I was in the Nokia Theater I’d huddled in a hallway under a glass wall enclosing Heineken bottles like bones in a reliquary, talking on the phone to my mom about my grandmother who was sick in the hospital. On the night of the Umphrey’s show, a couple was enacting a bitter, unspoken argument in public. Four feet away from them, I was waiting in line at one of the neon green side bars, watching the bartender pour shots of whiskey for a group of four in front of me, who stepped forward like communicants at a communion rail, then stepped out of the way so the next round of us could place our orders. I walked down the hallway, carrying my drinks past the “technology room” where people were charging their cell phones, into the theater, past a group of people in banana costumes standing back ironic and self-conscious all at once, past a group of shaggy-haired post-frat boys dancing from the waist up, up the stairs to the VIP lounge, past a table of older folks with white hair not one of whom had stood up the entire night, to my party, who were sitting, standing, dancing, and talking in alternation.

Holding this many threads of pulsating life is one way that sacred space seems to work: the center is everywhere and nowhere at once. The main event—concert or consecration—creates the context for multiple other actions. Without some central focus point the space has no shape, no tension against which other actions can emerge. The central event gives the “there” a “there,” even though in the experience itself every action held in every space—side altar or sound board—has the potential to displace the main event as central. The space holds a multiplicity of intentions, actions, and meanings allowing bodies to arrange themselves in flexible, shifting patterns, giving each of us the corner of solace we are seeking (whether we know what that is or not)—escape, release, confrontation, confirmation, consolation, or jubilation.

Other people have thought about the connections between rock shows and worship—about the ecstatic sense of belonging created by each form of communal practice. What if the point of both has more to do with space and less to do with content? What if we belong to the common experience because we are there? The center holds us and gives way to let a dozen other centers form and re-form along the edges. If few churches offer this spatial belonging anymore, praise God for the Nokia Theater. I may not pay to have a mass said on my behalf, but I’ll buy another ticket and slip into the space, find my side altar, and let the buzz and flow of it all surround me, buoy me, hold whatever it is I have to give, whatever it is I have come seeking.

Kathryn Reklis is a Ph.D. student in religious studies at Yale University. She received her BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Master's of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School.