My parents visited a little bit ago and, as visitors tend to do, quickly racked up a list of things they saw around me that I've yet to take the time to do. Feeling a bit ashamed of this fact, I took to my bike this morning and checked out one of their landmarks: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (I'll abbreviate it as COLA for brevity from now on), a church that's about a 10 minute bike ride from my apartment.
I've seen this church for quite some time while sitting in no air-conditioning in my truck, Nemo, wondering if dehydration on the 101 is how I will die some day; sweat rolling from all parts of my body as I try to keep my back off the vinyl seat. I'd always thought the structure was some hospital, heavy on religious iconography, which is my brain taking some pretty strong narrative license. This last weekend I was convinced I was going to a museum and lecture with friends, who were in fact taking me to the beach. I'm not sure where I went wrong, but my head made a lot of excuses for why we were headed in the direction of the beach, until finally it conceded: I was going to the beach.
The grounds and construction of COLA are impressive. Sandstone colored concrete tearing into the surroundings like salt crystals with a type A personality. It feels geological in the space, which I guess depending on your views of evolution could be a real uncomfortable sensation. Which brings me to what I will own up front: I'm not one for religion. I believe in people creating frameworks for truth, as long as those frameworks can shift for new information gained. To me, most religions don't do this, so they're not for me, although I know people can practice them in a way that does satisfy this requirement. Footnote taken.
And as I wonder around I try to imagine this place built by the people that practice this in a way I find appealing: I ignore a lot of history and try to see it as a place that advocates exactly what it says it is. And in this mindset there's a lot of interesting things going on.
There's a small wooded area with bronze sculptures of lambs, lions, bee hives and camels, where the path that leads between them is the back of a snake. Little short cuts exist between the turns of the snake letting one wander into Unknown Territories. As a metaphor I kind of liked this, because I think to leave the path of the snake (evil or the thing that is against one's nature) in favor of something possibly scary and unknown, but more to who we believe ourselves to be, I like. "Jump off this path of prescribed destination and check out these lambs!" is what I heard whispered around in that eden. Although my thoughts got dashed a bit when I saw inscribed on a camels back "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God", which while standing among the furnishings of a quarter billion dollar structure seemed a bit disingenuous.
But THIS IDEA of destination and process and always moving to create ones environment is very comforting and what I do like when spirituality is, represented in religion or not, practiced authentically. I think parts of what degrades religion is the absolute, prescribed destinations that it sometimes seems to shout out at people. As a smart man once said recently, "it's better to walk a mile in the right direction than 10 miles in the wrong direction", which I think means that by following the correct path I may end up in a place of uncertainty but at least it's walking towards my destination. We don't just compromise, but lose, when we walk in the wrong direction because of the false comfort it gives us to feel we have arrived somewhere. This garden setup seemed to play on this for me.
Further on there's a sculpture that I can only describe as a vagina being hugged by a cherub. I like this. It is led to by a tunnel-like formation of palm trees, which seems like the whole arrangement is then a nesting doll of vaginas. I honestly don't know what I'm supposed to take away from this, except that it must be a place of great energetic importance.
Beyond the vagina nesting doll is the steeple, which is a wedge of concrete slung into the air like a concrete meat cleaver. I wrote once about gothic architecture that I didn't get the violence of its upward trajectory, although I understood how it effectively cast my eyes to the proper location. This angular echo of God's voice before me seems like minimalist gothic, if that can be such a thing: similar violence, particularly in the mid morning sun (flat like the circle of time), but also effectively turning my gaze up.
I sat in the shade to record some video at this point, because the slanted windows on the church caught a kaleidoscope of 101 traffic. Panel trucks looked the best. Small cars fit on one pane of glass, so they lacked the real drama that the interaction afforded. A hawk started circling over me just as the bells started tolling for the hour. Stuff like that is hard not to take seriously in certain settings; in this instance I took it as I was a blessed individual, however if this had happened at a kids birthday party in the valley I would have taken the hawk and bells as a sign it was time to leave. Context is everything.
I lit 2 candles, which I paid 6 dollars for. It said 5 dollars for a candle, but one of the candles I lit looked a little used, so I thought a dollar seemed fair. I thought of a group of people for each candle as I lit them. Inside, it ends up you can get a candle for 2 dollars, which made me feel like they were ripping off the people scared to go inside, which seemed a bit counter intuitive: you want a siren call for the ears of lost sheep, no? The candles inside were blue, versus outside was white.
I once lit a candle for a woman in a church in Venice and when I walked out the canal stench hit me hard and a boy walked by with a cone of blue ice-cream and I almost forgot I was on earth. And suddenly that candle felt a bit absurd as did a lot of the time leading up to its lighting.
There was a water feature inside that included a pool for baptisms (dunks) and crossing yourself (sprinkles), where the four raised corners provided stoups, which stood guard around the lower, shallow baptism pool (google image search "baptism pool". There's some good ones.) There was a sign that said "Holy Water. No Coins."
One time, when I was in a modern architecture museum, on a school tour, our class was in the gallery showing the progression of chairs through history, and as the tour guide turned slowly pointing out different progressions of design, they gasped pointing towards me, where I sat in a chair from the mid 1950s, apparently.
I feel like accidentally tossing coins in a baptism pool for good luck is in the category of offenses that I committed in that chair; one offense is perhaps more religious, the other obviously more design/history focused.
The line for confession had the feeling of a doctors office: no idea if one was walking into good or bad news and a lot of people on their phones.
I walked out to my bike, stopping briefly to talk with my sister on the phone while perched on a wall, where I was quickly told to not sit. I asked if I could stand there, and they said that was okay: I rose like a steeple.
On the ground around me, carved into the concrete, were different sized circles connected by straight lines. I'm pretty sure one of them is the molecular structure for ketamine.
I guess my observations turned sorta snickering towards the end. Like a lot of "Look at this bullshit!?!", but then I caught myself thinking about how that mindset that wells up in me is the thing that blocks dialogue, blocks the ability to listen, and blocks the ability to connect with others; it's the thing I lob with prejudice as being practiced by a totality of people, creating in myself ignorant pathways. It's always dangerous to label an individual by a single group they're part of.
And we need places that advocate for the authentic conversation between groups that don't have a lot of common ground. I don't think churches (or other places of worship) are this place always, but I think they can be depending on the congregation (or group of practitioners). Whether you believe in them or not, churches at their core can instill the desire to talk with those around you: neighbors and Others. It goes to show that even while looking at ketamine molecules in the blazing reflection of a concrete cleaver, one can have epiphanies.
OH. And if you do visit COLA don't miss the gift shop where you can grab the book "Catholic and Curious" (not what I thought it was about... but it did answer the question "Our archbishop is closing the one and only Catholic church near the airport. Isn't there a requirement that there be a church in or very near an airport?" The answer is No.) or the shirt off, what I found to be, a very sexy mannequin that read "Wake Pray Slay".