by John Colgan-Davis
“I’ve often thought of the forest as a living cathedral, but that might diminish what it really is.”— Richard Nelson
One of the great things about being a musician is that you get to go to places and interact with people you do not know and have experiences you could not have expected. You can be talking to someone before or after a set, and then something happens that blows your mind and takes you somewhere you were least expecting.
Such a thing happened to me at a private “Chase the Blues Away” party we played two Saturdays ago. The site of the party was quietly spectacular; there was a hearth oven, wonderful woodwork and wood carvings and some of the greatest fresh-baked pizzas and desserts I have ever had. What was even more special, though, were the people, and one particular conversation.
There was an arborist there, and we began talking about Philadelphia trees – ancient ones in Penn Treaty Park and Haverford College. Huge ones in Awbury Arboretum and trees in special places. And then we both used the term “sacred spaces,” and I was amazed.
I love that term, and I use it when talking about places that produce a feeling in me that goes beyond the normal. That term conveys to me a place that has a sense of mystery and magic – a touch of the divine. It speaks to places that at the same time make you feel powerful for noticing and being in them, and insignificant at the same time beneath the wonderful weight of the mystery the places hold.
And so we began sharing stories about some of our favorite sacred spaces. He talked about places in Bryn Athyn, and I mentioned a Taos Pueblo church in New Mexico, and he started talking about churches too. But he blew me away when he mentioned the Church of St. James the Less on Hunting Park Avenue near Kelly Drive.
I was stunned-speechless. We have driven by that place countless times and just been taken by it. You go down Kelly Drive towards center city, turn left onto Hunting Park Avenue and climb the ramp that passes beneath another one of my sacred spaces, Laurel Hill Cemetery.
And there on the left, the church just seems to magically sneak into view; a perfect, quiet little piece of Episcopalian England placed down in the city. There are some wonderful old trees that you see over the wall of the ramp, and there is a triangular graveyard.
And when you are stopped at the light on Clearfield Avenue, you turn around and see sitting back a ways a quietly elegant church that looks at the same time to be both out of place and perfectly at home. It has never failed to bring wonder and a smile to me when we pass it, and here I had met someone else who shared that sense of specialness about it.
Now I have never been to St. James the Less – we are always on our way somewhere else when we pass it, and I have not found or made the time to just go and see it. But this arborist was not only familiar with the church – he knows people who work there. And he knew some of the history of the church. And most importantly, he can get me in to tour the church and the graveyard! So I will finally be going to see the Church of St. James the Less!
So this little conversation, this between-sets chat with a stranger, turned into something way beyond what I thought it could be. And that is another reminder to me about the joy and importance of being out and about in the world and being open to surprise. And that is another wonderful gift of being an active musician.
(For more on the history of the Church of St. James the Less, visit www.saintmarksphiladelphia.org/saint-james-the-less-church)
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident and a harmonica player with The Dukes of Destiny, one of Philly’s best rockin’ blues bands which played at Pastorius Park on the evening of July 3 (assuming the weather cooperated).