Of I.M Pei, Hotels and Civil Religion: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The death this last week of architect I.M. Pei, at the age of 102, brought to mind the circumstance under which we met some twenty six years ago and some theological questions the circumstance occasioned.
It was 1993. I was on staff at St. Thomas Fifth Ave. in midtown Manhattan. On this particular day, I was “priest on duty”, that is, I was to field inquiries that might come in concerning the normal life of the church serving the needs of the congregation and, occasionally, the community at large. Usually, the calls that came in had to do with scheduling baptisms, enquiries concerning weddings, occasional counseling appointments, or parishioners informing us of a family member in the hospital who would like a priest to visit. The call that came in on this particular morning was different. It was a representative of the Four Seasons Hotel Group. He explained to me that within the coming month they would be opening the new Four Seasons Hotel New York on 57th Street between Madison and Park Avenue.
Now, having an interest in architecture, I knew a bit about this building. I had passed it numerous times when I walked to make pastoral calls on the upper Eastside. It was a luxury hotel of 52 stories designed in the art moderne style by I.M. Pei and Frank Williams. The interior public spaces, which I had not seen, were rumored to be one of Pei’s great accomplishments, down to his designing of the furniture, doors and hardware. Even the ceiling of the lobby, with backlit onyx panels selected for pattern and color, was said to exemplify his passion for detail.
The representative explained to me that at the opening of new hotels, the CEO of the Four Seasons Group, Issy Sharpe, always liked to have a religious figure, indigenous to the city or region, to perform a blessing of the new property. In Hawaii they had a native Hawaiian blessing, in Japan a Shinto priest performed the rite and in New York they thought that they should have an Episcopalian take on the task. He further explained that I would be given a private tour of the hotel previous to the opening and on the day I could bring a guest to the luncheon. Best of all, at least to me, there would be an opportunity to meet the architects. I accepted the invitation…
There was, of course, great merriment among my colleagues as we discussed what sort of a prayer one would use to bless a luxury hotel. There were numerous suggestions… “Bless those who sleep here and may it always be a legitimate and moral occasion…” “Remember, O Lord, those who congregate in the bar…” “May the couples who make reservations always be married…”
All of this, however, masked the very real issue of “civil religion”. As the day approached, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable about what I had agreed to do. I had made it clear that I would be dressed as a priest and that the prayer and blessing offered would be Christian in form and content. Yet, I’m sure that the Shinto priest in Japan had said the same. This was a secular event. I was not blessing a house of worship. I was asking God’s blessing on a hotel. It’s a building. It will eventually fall. In the end, I decided that the blessing to be given should have little to do with the marble, stone and wood of the structure. Instead, the blessing should be directed toward people. It should celebrate the creativity of the architects, the work of the crane operators, masons, electricians, and all those who had made the building a reality. Finally, a blessing should be given to those who would work in this place – those cleaners, often migrants, who in this place of luxury would make minimum wage with few, if any, benefits. It was not, and is not, about a place – whether a building, or a city, or a state, or a nation – it is about real people and their very real lives.
I must say, when the day of the grand opening arrived, I was still not sure how such a prayer and blessing would be received. The room was silent as I prayed and, at the end, I made the sign of the cross. All was well… there was no disapproval and I was relieved. The luncheon was lovely, Mr. Sharpe was pleased and, best of all, I had the chance to talk to I.M. Pei about architecture.
Yet, almost three decades later many of the theological questions of that “hotel blessing” remain. In certain places, prayers are said before high school football games. In state and federal legislative bodies prayers are offered at the beginning of each session. As the Supreme Court is seated the clerk says, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” In decades past, this did not seem threatening. Recently, under the current administration and its embrace of and by the religious right, it feels as though things have changed. The vision of our country as a “city on a hill” sometimes seems more of an idol than the beacon of hope envisioned by John Winthrop. I don’t have all the answers to this particular issue, but I do have one guideline for my own thinking and it goes back to that hotel blessing twenty six years ago.
The Incarnation was, and is, about God assuming humanity… not our buildings, our systems, our institutions, our political parties, or even our nation. These are abstract, they rise and fall. The only constant is humanity itself, not expressed as a concept, but as a reality in each and every individual we encounter. I think if we lose that perspective, we may also lose the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ in this time.