Before I get to my ego death in the Minneapolis Skyway System, a series of bridges linking various buildings downtown, I will outline the mission of the Accidental Churches series.
Some buildings are made with the intent of worship. Catholic churches guide the eye upward with arches and elaborately painted ceilings. The idea is to make the person below feel small, dwarfed by God. These, and buildings like them, mosques and synagogues, are not what I mean by “Accidental Church.” The sacred feeling of smallness arrives unexpectedly in an Accidental Church.
As an ex-Catholic, I’m interested in the trending desire to return to faith. I see it everywhere. It’s in fashion, where it manifests as a semi-ironic, semi-sincere embrace of religion. On the ironic end: a bikini with “Father” and “Son” written on the left and right breast, respectively, with “Holy Spirit” manning the fort below. If internet irony has taught me anything, it’s that knowing winks quickly become flirtatious ones.
I see it on social media as well, where the promise of simplicity that religion offers mingles quite comfortably with the cottagecore craze, a fantasy of trading the messiness of modern life for an imagined rural idyll. It makes sense. Organized religion is something of a cottage of the mind, organizing the complexity of everyday life into a series of manageable devotions, into prayer.
None of this is terribly surprising. In the wake of a pandemic and an ever-gloomier picture of earth’s prospects as “habitable,” we are likely to feel small, helpless. As I mentioned earlier regarding the architecture of Catholic churches, this is a religious feeling. With the world around us in shambles, we tend to look up.
I am no different. When I look at the things my life lacks, they are things I imagine religion might provide—a sense of purpose, rituals and routines, a community with a social calendar that doesn’t trample over my sleep routine or my liver, a quiet confidence in my existence, a higher calling.
This is not to say I believe organized religion can reliably satisfy these wants. Indeed, this trend seems based more on a sentiment, on “a vibe,” than on any assertion of cosmology. It’s religion for the sake of religion, religion’s cultural trappings, that hold the appeal. Not God. They don’t make prophets like they used to. In any case: I get it. I understand the want. I understand the emptiness.
In Accidental Churches, I will collect and describe the unexpected places where religiosity seizes me, places where the emptiness is briefly filled, places where my wayward sentiments are arranged into a recognizable shape, a design; Religion. In doing so, I hope to chart my relationship to faith and faith’s relationship to architecture, or something. I can think of no better place to begin than with the Minneapolis Skyway.
It was a hot day. Chris and I had just left a coffee shop and, buzzing with caffeine, were tackling the major issues of our day. “All those viruses are going to be unleashed when the arctic thaws,” Chris said in his singsong Minnesotan accent, making me wish I could get all manner of bad news delivered this way. “Another pandemic might be right around the corner.”
Doom is abstract until its teeth are firmly planted in your neck. I know this by comparing present dooms with impending, likely ones. “Yes, I’m sure everything bad that can possibly happen will happen,” I said, employing a trick I’d learned to fool my anxiety into complacency. If you accept the worst possible thing, everything else feels manageable.
“Sure,” Chris said. It was one of my first trips after whatever you want to call the previous iteration of the pandemic. At this point, we were vaccinated, Delta was running rampant, and the brief window of optimism that had cracked open in May had slammed shut. Still, it was nice to see a friend.
We were headed to the Skyway, an activity I’d insisted on. The Skyway System is a series of enclosed pedestrian walkways linking buildings downtown over the span of several city blocks. I’d always assumed they were built out of some fierce winter necessity, a way for workers to avoid having to step outside even for a few unbearable minutes in the cold. This isn’t really so, much to my disappointment.
The Skyway System, like every other human endeavor, was essentially a commercial gimmick. It was meant to attract shoppers back downtown from the then flourishing suburbs. It got the job done. The shoppers returned, enticed by the notion of hovering slightly above the street. Some of the walkways are large enough to house shops of their own.
Chris knew the way. We entered Target Center, a multipurpose arena. “I can’t believe this is where they feed people to Bullseye, the enormous Target dog,” I said, to no response. I quickly learned there was no central design principle for the walkways. Each one is privately maintained by the building it is attached to, resulting in clumsy diversity.
Some are air-conditioned, some are not. Some were closed, and others were open, each with their own politics and outlook on working hours, visitors, and the plague. Some have tile floors like public bathrooms. Others have slate gray movie theater carpeting with anemic geometrical designs: red squares, squiggly yellow lines, and other meek contributions.
The only uniform element was the quiet, the surreal and uneven silence. Foot traffic was sparse and shuffling. Multiple businesses had closed, either permanently due to the pandemic or because the few office workers that had returned had gone home for the day. The shops were pristine. Freshly waxed, slick floors without a custodian in sight, a deli with chairs turned upside down on the tables, unclear if this had been done that afternoon or over a year ago.
Silence isn’t mere quiet. It is the expectation of sound, unmet.
As a child I spent most of Catholic mass with my thoughts bouncing lazily around the walls. I would depart my body and allow the vague shapes of the readings occupy my thoughts, the deserts and the fires and the martyrs. This is the feeling I associate most closely with religion; a non-thinking, induced illustration occupying the mind, a numb forgetting of the flesh.
Walking the Minneapolis skyway, I returned to this state of Apartness. Outside myself, I was able to consider the project of my being with greater clarity.
I was having what ended up being a common summer. It seemed everyone was trying to sprint on broken legs: vaccinations had reintroduced the possibility of gathering with familiar faces, but also lent a certain nausea-inducing velocity to activities. Make up for lost time. Say yes to drinks, yes to sex, yes, yes, yes. Meanwhile, the past year hovered over everything, unmourned, or at least not mourned properly.
I had recently been given a tarot reading in which my question had been “will I find love?” The result was “The Tower” card, inverted, a flaming fortress falling upside down and flanked by various lovers in the cards around it, fleeing. As with any tarot reading, there were positive ways to interpret this. “You’re going through a metamorphosis right now,” my guide said. Still, my general understanding was, “not ideal.”
Oh well. The nice thing about tarot and astrology and its attendant practices is you can choose when to be a skeptic and when to be a believer.
After my book came out, I entered a depression the likes of which I’d never encountered before. That’s not to say it was worse, necessarily; only different. The prevailing feeling was one of tangible lack, that a thing that had once been central to my life was no longer there, and I was pacing in circles around the lip of the crater, wondering what to replace it with and coming up short.
I see the problem, I thought, meandering into yet another walkway. This one was sleek and lengthy like an airport terminal. My mind is an unlit torch. We humans are built to be obsessed, to be consumed by something, anything, or else we sink into nihilism. This is a dangerous human: churchless, looking for something, anything to attach themselves to.
This might be how people end up in all manner of unconventional communities, many of them digital, most of them cults devoted to pain or paranoia. They become unwitting worshippers, unaware of their own zeal, pushing each other farther and farther into a practice, a devotion, until they are unrecognizable to the society they live in. People will make fun of them and develop a macabre interest in analyzing them.
At least they have something, I think (macabrely).
We entered yet another walkway, this one more brutal than the rest, the air hot and completely still, unstirred for what felt like months and months, dark stains blooming here and there on what appeared to be the ugliest carpet ever laid.
I thought it would be a perfect spot to shed my old self, a self easily brutalized by the push and pull of optimism and dread. I would have to become a different creature altogether, one that could manage to find happiness even in the gray areas, even in the between-times, even here, even now.
“If purgatory were a place, it’d be this,” Chris said. “Absolutely,” I said. We trekked down the path, sweatily but not unhappily. For a little while, we were distinct from the world below.