Thirty-three candles float through the darkened main chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
They emerge from a lit stairwell onto the cathedral’s nave. About 30 teenagers and their adult chaperones each hold a candle close, cupping their hands around the flame. One by one, they break off from the group and wander into the dark cathedral. They walk slowly and silently until they find a spot to sit and meditate. They have been told that this is a solo activity, and to think about anything and do so in solitude. About 20 minutes later, a band – guitars, bass, drums – begins a mellow, bluesy introduction to a Hindu mantra ‘Shri Ram Jai Ram’. All of the participants move towards its source, a portable stage in front of the altar. The candles are placed in a box of sand, lighting the way for everyone else and its owner sits down around the band and joins the song.
The rituals are part of Nightwatch Crossroads, an overnight program designed to bring teenagers closer to faith through contemplative activities.
There are two different sections: Christian and Interspiritual. The programs are held on 12 Friday evenings throughout the year, with participants sleeping over in the cathedral’s basement.
“What I hope that we’re accomplishing is to offer the youths a night to unplug and an opportunity to come into a place that is sacred, where every inch of it breathes holiness and respite and sanctuary,” Patti Welch, Nightwatch’s director and the chaplain of the Cathedral School. “We encourage them to be present here because their lives are so hectic and busy and stressful. I work at a middle school, I know exactly what they’re going through.”
When she took over Nightwatch four years ago, Welch created Crossroads: Interspiritual and a secular program called Knightwatch: Medieval. The cathedral has been hosting Nightwatch: Christian since 1975.
Welch created Interspiritual to show Christian youths that other religions are not so different from their own. Most of the participants come from church youth groups from outside of the city. The activities are designed to expose Christians to religions with which they might not be familiar. The youths are exposed to traditions, wisdom and poetry from Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths to emphasize that underlying values like compassion and a call to service course through all these beliefs systems.
In Nightwatch, Welch’s goal is to give the youths a connection with the divine unlike what they might find in their organized religion.
“I want to offer them a different way of experiencing the energy of the divine that gets away from the doctrines and the creeds and the dogma,” she says. “And that’s not saying that any of that is bad but this is an age where kids can get stuck. Our programs are really just about a heart connection and a place to let the world go.” Welch designed the activities with the goal of experiential learning in mind, she wanted to give the kids chance to practice faiths rather than just learn about them.
Knightwatch: Medieval is a completely different experience. The overnight program is meant for kids aged 6-12 and is completely secular. The night is immersive: From the minute the children and their parent guardians walk through the door, they are transported to “Strathclyde,” a kingdom populated by dragons and sword-fighting friars. Everybody is in character (except, of course, security), and the kids are placed into houses and encouraged to come dressed in costume. Welch created the program to give people who may not otherwise have come to the cathedral a chance to witness the majesty and grandeur of one of the largest Gothic churches in the world.
Having seen the success of other sleepover programs such as one at the Museum of Natural History, she decided on a themed overnight stay that fit with the feeling of the space. The program is run as an interactive play that takes place throughout the cathedral. The plot involves a princess who is about to be married but has lost her voice. The kids scour “Strathclyde” to find the antidote to get it back so she can say “I do.” The night ends when the participants are put to bed in cots, which are spread out in the cathedral’s nave. They will wake in the morning, the sun shining through the stained glass window above the altar, eat breakfast and be sent on their way. The program runs twice a year, once that is open to the public and another exclusively reserved for the Girl Scouts.
Nightwatch Crossroads, designed for kids in middle school and high school, costs $85 per participant and Knightwatch Medieval costs $135. All children must be accompanied by adults as Welch and her staff merely conduct the programs and are not responsible for supervision.
Interspiritual, which took place on a recent Friday, began with an orientation and group introduction for its 33 participants. A selection of music and chants from different religions followed. The group sat in a semicircle around a band that provides backup to the religious activities and prayers for the evening. Ambika Cooper, a Brooklyn-based singer, has been conducting the spiritual chants for Welch since she took over the program. Cooper does not identify herself with a religion; rather, chanting and prayers are her main practice. “To me all faiths are true, she says. “They’re what connect me to the divine and the most real part of humanity.”
Cooper sang Buddhist and Hindu prayers, and prayed in front of the group with passion and reverence. The group sang along in a call and response. “It’s not about how well you sing,” Cooper told the participants. “This song is a prayer and the only way to experience it fully is to sing with all your heart.”
Welsh’s husband, Lee Welch, a guitarist who also plays bass, directed the rest of the band: His two sons, Brendan and Evan, on acoustic guitar and Danny O’Brien on drums. O’Brien also conducted the drum circle. Standing in the middle of the group, he raised and lowered his body to indicate volume as kids and adults alike beat their drums in sync to various beats. As the drumming progressed and O’Brien’s smile grew, participants started playing other percussion instruments, such as a wooden block or maracas and invented their own beats, layering the original. The result is a euphony of rhythms and sounds that thunder and echo off the ceiling 124 feet above.
Other religions also feature throughout the night. Welch explains the Jewish ritual of Shabbat and lights two candles in the center of the group as the band softly accompanied two audience members, who sang the traditional Jewish blessing. Readings from the Koran and the Gospel of John follow at the Midnight Eucharist.
Pamela Dear was inspired to attend the program herself when her first son came back from the experience incredibly moved, especially by the 20 minutes he spent meditating in the dark with a candle. Since then, she has brought her second son to Nightwatch and is now coming back with her daughter.
“I love churches and this is an extraordinary place,” Dear said. “There are pieces that are unfamiliar to me but so much of it feels like it’s home. We come from a wooden church and this one’s so different.”
Dear’s church has been bringing a group to Nightwatch for at least 20 years and on this night, drove three hours from Connecticut in four cars to participate.
Other groups from Long Island and Pennsylvania also made the trip to New York for Nightwatch, which has become a tradition and a recurring experience for many. Welch recalls a man who attended the program last month who had already participated 24 times. She also confirms that the solo meditation with the candle is remarkable for many.
“A lot of people tell us that it’s an incredibly powerful experience. That just tells me a lot about what youth are hungry for, and they may not even be able to verbalize it,” Welch said “It’s the silence, and I tell them when I orient them, ‘Remember that silence is God’s first language. If you go upstairs knowing that God is speaking to you in the silence, what’s happening? Be open to whatever.’”