What’s a nice Jewish girl doing getting sprinkled with holy water? Well, it was at the Blessing of the Bicycles at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine last weekend … and the annual ceremony was actually started by a Jew 13 years ago, so not to worry. Besides, who doesn’t want to feel they have a little extra protection as they ride the streets of New York City?
Moving downtown has landed me right in the thick of things … and it turns out that the American Diabetes Association (the force behind the Tour de Cure, which I biked in last June for the first time) is just two blocks away. When Tour manager Jessica Rosa began contacting the early registrants for this year’s ride back in February, I was delighted to be able to apply some of my skills toward increasing visibility for the event.
One of my projects (in addition to starting a community blog featuring personal stories behind the upcoming Tour de Cure on June 5) was a press release tying the story of one of our Red Riders to the somewhat offbeat ceremony that is the Blessing of the Bicycles at St. John the Divine. The event was originated by Glen Goldstein in 1999, partly as a goodwill gesture to ease the rivalry between the Five-Borough Bicycle Club (billed as “New York City’s friendliest bike club) and the New York Cycle Club, which puts more emphasis on riding for speed and endurance. (Not that they’re “unfriendly” … but their annual “newcomers’ ride” will just about kill you if you’re really a newcomer.)
Even at St. John the Divine—a place that bills itself as “A House of Prayer for All People” (and where French high-wire artist Philippe Petit has been one of the artists-in-residence for decades)—it’s a sight that turns heads: as news trucks and camera crews lurk on the sidewalk below, several hundred cyclists carry their bikes up the cathedral steps and share breakfast pastries while they patiently wait to roll their wheels in through the massive bronze doors. A motley procession of messengers, recreational cyclists, racers, commuters, kids with training wheels—even one woman with flower-bedecked bike bearing a pug in a basket—parades in to the skirl of bagpipes, taking their places beneath the historic Gothic stone arches.
For 13 years, the lovely 20-minute ceremony (performed with a gentle dignity by the Reverend Canon Thomas P. Miller) has remained essentially unchanged but for the fact that the participating cyclists now line the cathedral nave three rows deep on either side. No matter what our motivation for cycling, pointed out Reverend Miller, we were united by the fact that we coursed through the city’s streets powered by no internal combustion save for that within our own bodies—which is only a good thing, he noted, for ourselves and for the air quality of our metropolis.
The prayers are brief, but eerily resonant; does the Bible really mention cyclists? A reading from Ezekiel offers the vision of great-rimmed wheels moving in tandem with the spirits of living creatures: “When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”
The highlight, of course—what everybody’s there for—is a sprinkling of holy water onto the bikes, as Reverend Miller glides efficiently down and back, hurling droplets over the handlebars of all present. (I wiggled my front wheel back and forth in a few drops of water on the stone floor, for good measure.)
The bagpipers (two in kilts; one in bike shorts) played as a riderless bicycle was escorted solemnly up the aisle, honoring the city’s cyclists who had been killed in accidents during the past year. After a moment of remembrance, the celebratory ringing of bicycle bells punctuated the Benediction … but surprisingly, no one seemed to notice that, as we headed out of the cathedral with our bikes, the tune that resounded from the great organ was “A Bicycle Built for Two”!
Heading down the steps at the back, I broke into a huge grin when I spotted Soara-Joye Ross—veteran Broadway performer, “divabetic,” and personable Red Rider who was featured in my press release—dazzling a camera crew. Now, that truly was a blessing!