In those days the Old City was as hollow as a drum when the grand banks closed at four o’clock. Unlike those that shed their granite fenestration for the drive-up architecture of the suburbs, the domed magnificence of the Bank of Montreal held its sacred ground in the bourse. Empty Catholic convents had gone the way of the limestone livery stables, and monumental warehouses, street after street, made for weathered washboards of neglect.
It was here that I chanced upon “Cathedral in the Night.” I remember the Sunday evening in October when I stood on the Basilica steps—mystified by the plume of light across the deserted city square. Luminous leaves in the yellow urban trees held the heady musk of autumn as I traversed Place d’Armes, and came upon that curious cloud of light.
Drawing near, I surveyed a crowd of people who looked to have spontaneously gathered under an incongruous industrial light one might see on a construction site. In the midst of the crowd, before two folding tables, stood a young, wiry, shorthaired tough, who was standing in front of a loaf of bread, a cup, and a wooden cross filled with burning candles. In the absence of liturgical accoutrements, not to mention material walls, it nonetheless evoked a sanctuary, uncannily made of light.
Hearing “The Last Supper” in perfect French, I was taken by the fluid reenactment, as impromptu the leather-backed celebrant recounted the betrayal of Jesus. He took a loaf of bread and broke it high above his head. Solemnly scanning the motley crew before proclaiming it “The body of Christ!” he declared that the table was not his, nor theirs, but “God’s”—and therefore it was everyone’s.
Lifting the cup, he ritually explained the purported “wine” was grape juice. While the bread was being passed, steam tables rolled out under the power of assistants; and the aromatic meal, wafting through the air, made it worthy of its billing as a supper. As the chalice circulated, I withdrew from the light, knowing that I didn’t belong—breathing a thankful sigh of relief into the anonymity of night.
Because for me, as for most of my peers, the church was at best irrelevant. And for some of us, trusting the church was like trusting the fox to mind the henhouse. Even my own denomination’s righteously liberal tradition ironically owed its pledge to the poor to a history of millionaires.
As intrigued as I was by any personality that clearly outstripped my own, I was still more intrigued by what in God’s name had inspired Hale to become a priest. The short version was that he read for Holy Orders in lieu of seminary, and under Gentry’s mentorship, developed the plan for Cathedral in the Night. I was going to ask about his family past to which Gentry once alluded, when Gentry deftly steered the conversation back to Hale’s ministry.
“Is Cathedral in the Night a church?” I asked.
“I don’t think of it that way,” he said.
“What is it?” I pursued him.
He considered the question. “For me . . . it’s a practice,” he said.
“A contemplative practice?”
“You could call it that.”
“What would you call it?” I pressed.
“I’m not sure I’d call it anything,” Hale said. “It’s a lot more interesting to do it.”
“Do you meditate?” I impulsively inquired.
Gentry laughed: “Has he ever stopped?”
“So, Cathedral in the Night is nothing new,” I said.
“Nothing new,” Hale said.
“The most significant difference between Cathedral in the Night and Christ’s ministry,” Gentry said, “is that unlike our Lord’s, Father Hale enjoys the distinct advantage of a truck.”
“No,” Hale came back, “the most significant difference is that he chose a temperate climate.”
“You wouldn’t go inside if you could!” Gentry said.
Hale may have conceded the point.
“Why not?” I asked him.
He shrugged his shoulders. “When you’re inside, others are left out.”
“And when you’re outside—everyone is in?”
Hale barely nodded.
“Everyone?” I asked, glancing at his Bishop.
“Everyone,” Hale said.
“You see what I’m up against?” Gentry groused, relishing the heresy.
“So, what do you make of Jesus’s claim that no one comes to God but by him?”
“What’s the problem?” Hale came back.
His confidence should have rankled me.
“How can there be a single way?” I protested.
“When the way is including everyone.”
It seemed like a trick answer.
“Christ’s problem with the Pharisees had nothing to do with their tradition. Some scholars think he was a Pharisee. His problem with the Pharisees was that they excluded the people they were called to include.”
“Which people?” I pursued him.
“The poor. The refugees. The people who are still excluded.”
“So much for middle-class Christianity,” I said, looking back at Gentry.
“Jesus wasn’t the first Christian,” Hale said. “Jesus was the ultimate Jew.”
I must have looked perplexed.
“The genius of Jesus wasn’t that he founded Christianity. The genius of Jesus was revealing to the world that Judaism was for everyone.”
“I don’t suppose you’d like to hear Luke’s solution to Christ being God’s only son!”
“To be honest,” I said, looking back at Hale, “that’s my second least favorite claim.
“May I?” Gentry said, goading his priest.
Hale blithely shrugged his shoulders.
“According to Luke, the church has made ‘Christ’ into Jesus’s last name.”
I practically guffawed: “I didn’t know he had one!”
“It’s Joseph-son,” Hale said.
As the laughter was subsiding, Hale easily went on, “‘Christ’ means ‘the anointed one.’ According to the Scriptures we can all be anointed. Stephen the Christ, Henri the Christ, Claire the Christ,” Hale said. “Hell, Ben—even Ben the Christ!”
“And how can four of us . . . be one ‘Anointed One’?”
“Jesus Christ, Ben—when we’re one!”
The truth is, these days I struggle to remember who is living and who is dead. I wonder if this was what his followers meant when they spoke of Jesus’s “resurrection”: that by remembering their friend, his death came to a life that was destined to change the world forever. It may have been more than empty metaphor that Jesus walked through walls and on the water—conjuring a presence more real than any dream that any of us had ever dreamed.
So, I had to wonder if I had spent my life looking in all the wrong places. Far beyond the church, I had submitted to walls that only acted to divide—rather than surrendering to this vast creation as the singular way to thrive. It was Hale who knew that God was a river which infused the whole of creation; it was Hale who knew that rather than let it pass him by, he had to jump in.
Because thanks to Hale, the world had changed, and it would never be the same again. Nor would its future, which always owes itself to an equally infinite past. As random as had been my first encounter with “Cathedral in the Night”—as I strolled the Old City, a prosperous attorney, enjoying his privileged life—in about the same time as Jesus’s ministry, its course ineluctably changed: carrying me down a river of life which was destined to flow into the sea.
Praise for For Theirs Is the Kingdom
“Carlisle elegantly and evocatively describes the rarified world of Ben Cabot, a peripatetic Boston Brahmin who, like the great Montreal cathedral at the center of his tale, loses the ground under his feet. Amid wood-paneled walls, fine scotches, and expensive toys, Cabot slowly disassembles his spiritually burdened, privileged life. Carlisle offers his readers delicate meditations on interconnected themes, distributing his story into chapters reminiscent of Chopin’s études. We glimpse faith in search of acts, privilege in search of duty, artifice in search of beauty, and ambition in search of purpose. Carlisle’s timely and important book helps to frame today’s social upheavals”
—Stephen Harris, Professor of English, The University of Massachusetts
“The personal story of a young American thrown into the world of jealousy and greed in the Episcopal Church. Riveting, painful, and brilliant!”
—David Staines, Canadian literary critic, university professor, writer, and Member of the Order of Canada
“In his Gospel, Luke tells us that during the visitation, Mary tells Elizabeth that God ‘has filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent away hungry’ (1:53). This, it seems to me is, at the heart of Chris Carlisle’s novel. Beautifully written and engaging, it tells a story of unadorned Christianity. Jeans not collars. Feeding the poor. Housing the homeless. Christianity on the streets, in the manner of Jesus.”
—Barry Moser, American Book Award-winning illustrator of The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, Alice in Wonderland, and A River Runs Through it.
“Here is a novel that will stick with you long after you’ve read it. Carlisle writes about what the worlds he knows and has spent his life pursuing, asking the quintessential questions about life’s meaning and offering, among the witty and charged exchanges a wealth of profound answers for the reader to ponder. How does someone born into privilege begin to awaken and escape its gold tentacles and seek one’s true home and the new life it brings with it? How does one even know what to look for? For Theirs is the Kingdom will take you on that journey, leaving you to rethink much of what you may have thought were the answers and were not.”
—Paul Mariani, National Book Award Finalist, author of poetry, Ordinary Time, professor, biographer
“One of the best characters in Christopher Carlisle’s novel, For Theirs is the Kingdom, is the city of Montreal. Westmount, the Old City, Place Ville Marie, Le Plateau, the Golden Mile–they call play a part in this story of a man’s search for a fulfilling life path. Attorney Ben Cabot meets a sad bishop at Saint Joseph’s Oratory atop Mount Royal and a renegade street priest on Place d’Youville and finds that the church has been looking for God in all the wrong places.”
—Dick Teresi, Coauthor of The God Particle, a contributing writer to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic
About the Author
Christopher Carlisle is an Episcopal priest who briefly served in a parish before becoming the Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Massachusetts, where he created a uniquely innovative sanctuary of learning, worship, and the arts. Carlisle earned a B.A. from Columbia University, a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University, and a Master of Divinity degree from Yale University. Having devoted much of his life to storytelling—recently by way of the Street Stories media project with Visionaries, Inc. and aired on public television stations across the country. Carlisle’s For Theirs is the Kingdom, is inspired by two outdoor communities he co-founded, comprised of rich and poor, young and old, traditional “believers” and “non-believers,” whose singular commonality is an appreciation for the radical vision of Jesus. Carlisle is married, has four children, and lives in western Massachusetts.