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L.A. cathedral’s new sacred space and rituals can offer healing


More than two months ago the doors of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels opened to the people of Los Angeles and the world. From the earliest planning stages, more than five years ago, there had been steady criticism of Cardinal Roger Mahony’s effort to build the cathedral, designed by Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo. At first it was the issue of money and archdiocesan priorities. Many feared that this would shift support away from vital programs and people’s needs. In the final year of construction, the sexual abuse scandal overwhelmed the church. Criticism took on other dimensions. The cathedral began to look more and more like a facade built up to conceal the dark secrets within the church.

In the weeks following the dedication of the cathedral, some of those fears have seemingly materialized. Outreach programs and services on college campuses have been cut. Other programs such as ministries to prisoners and gay and lesbian Catholics were terminated. People lost their jobs. And at the end of October the archdiocese announced the resignation of five of its top administrative officers (NCR, Oct. 11).

All this makes the glory surrounding the cathedral’s opening seem suspect. Many question the validity of such seeming extravagance in the face of need. To them the cathedral represents materialism. When people are hurting, how can a building comfort and heal?

But a cathedral is always more. It is sacred space that resists being defined only by narrow concerns. For the people of Los Angeles, this new cathedral is much more than just a building alongside the other new and innovative architectural structures of a city re-creating itself. The cathedral makes a claim to accessibility as a marker of hospitality. It invites all to enter through the Shepherd’s Gate, there to be met by the “Gateway Pool and Water Wall” created by Los Angeles-based artist Lita Albuquerque. Peering into the water of the pool the viewer sees every language spoken in the archdiocese inscribed in a marble disk. Water pours over the words of Jesus: “I am the living waters.” This marks the entrance to a sacred place where the sacred is the power and soul of the space.

One turns from the well to climb the stairs and cross the plaza toward the monumental doors above which stands a new Virgin Mary created for Los Angeles by the sculptor Robert Graham. This is a bold representation of the Virgin, whose bare arms and bare feet at first sparked controversy among certain members of the committee charged with selecting the cathedral’s art projects. But the committee also saw something remarkably new in Graham’s proposal and encouraged the sculptor to continue. Graham has integrated the symbolism of the Virgin in multiple cultures and historical periods into iconic sculptural forms in his bronze doors. His Virgin, standing on the crescent moon and backlit by the afternoon sun, brilliantly draws on the complex symbolism of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Art critic Christopher Knight said that the cathedral’s art fell far short of the grandeur of Moneo’s architectural form. There is no question that Moneo’s building has the same power of medieval cathedrals, a power that is missing in many other sacred buildings in the modern world. However, this cathedral’s power is a precise balance of abstract realization and materialization of both a divine transcendence and a human immanence.

As Moneo has captured God’s majesty in the building, the tapestries of John Nava embody God-with-us. Nava renders the communion of the saints as if they were people like us, near, familiar and of our time. Nava’s saints are intimates. The tapestries hang from the walls in the body of the cathedral and surround the people as they gather in the architectural space. The profound quality of the tapestries is revealed in the way they bring the transcendent grandeur of the architecture down to the lived experience of the people. Catholic thought has always reasoned that the saints bind together the human and the divine, the sacred and the profane, and the eternal and the temporal. Saints are human and extra-human at one and the same time. Their earthly existence is transformed into a devotion that continues to mediate the seeming chasm between the human and the divine.

More than a hundred saints are represented in the tapestries. Visitors remark about the sense of familiarity they feel as they look into the faces of the saints. Most are canonized saints. There are a few nameless saints scattered among them. In Nava’s representation of the communion of saints what has been laid bare is that there are no divisions between people of the past and the present, between official saints recognized by the church and those individuals who have been elevated out of the people’s popular devotion. Moneo’s building joins transcendence and immanence. Nava’s tapestries join past, present and future.

The meanings and functions of sacred spaces in the world religions are many. They are places where one’s history and identity are fused. They are the places where people’s rituals re-create the foundational events embedded in time and space. Rituals are also the experiences in which people are renewed and sent forth into the world to re-create and make it whole. Humans need rituals in sacred places. Rituals are the bridge between spaces and people.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is not just the touchstone between heaven and earth executed by the extraordinary interplay of architectural form and artwork. The cathedral is glorious and grand, but it is also the epitome of the real, the church on the ground, moving through the world. The architectural space frames the lived, ritual action of a people, saves it and perfects it outside of time.

In one sense we see the cathedral as a building designed, constructed, and controlled by an institutional elite. But sacred places in the history of human experience resist such manipulation. They become larger than the institutions that build them. Cathedrals resonate with the cosmos and the divine. The new cathedral speaks to the religious hunger of our generation, to find the divine mystery once again, to rekindle the human spirit in its quest for something beyond the mundane. The cathedral speaks to the faithful and also to the broken and to those hurt by the institution of the church.

When we leave the cathedral and return to the plaza we see the proof. There amid the olive grove, a visitor might recognize stonework from Jerusalem. Here is another fountain given anonymously by a Jewish family. A Hebrew inscription from an early rabbinic treatise, Pirqe Avot, The Sayings of the Fathers, has been carved into the stone. It is a saying of Shimon the Just who may have been a contemporary of Jesus. Shimon stated that the world stands upon divine teaching, ethical service and loving kindness. The fountain and its Hebrew inscription are material witnesses to how far the church has come in the past 50 years, from its famous Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) of Vatican II to the extraordinary leadership of Pope John Paul II around the church’s historical attitude toward the Jews. But the presence of this inscription also reminds the church of what a cathedral must stand for.

These Hebrew words begin to heal the wounds of past intolerance. In the same way, a greater understanding of the cathedral as sacred space will reveal its enormous importance to Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and how sacred space and its ritual can heal and sustain all those who enter.

Linda Ekstrom is an artist who teaches at Santa Barbara Community College and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and its College of Creative Studies. Richard Hecht is professor of religious studies at the university. Together they are completing a book titled Saved from Matter, which explores the religious cultures of contemporary art.

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002