Body and Soul
A pilgrim uncertain of my way, I come up out of the ground from the Red Line subway and into the hard, midsummer light of Los Angeles in the city’s contested heart. Across Alameda Street, on the west side of the old Plaza, is Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, the Church of Our Lady of Angels, the city’s first church, dedicated in 1822.
The small, noisy and profoundly human courtyard on the north side of the church smells of grilling meat, candle wax and the pomade of bridegrooms. As a Catholic and, I suppose, one of the faithful, I’ve worshiped in this small chapel, and I know its capacity to sustain my faith. But today, I am drawn to worship elsewhere.
Across the canyon of the 101 Freeway, above the blind acropolis of government buildings, is the new cathedral, also dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels. It’s a walk of less than half an hour from the old church and nearly 200 years. As I climb the steps from the street-level gate to the southeastern edge of the cathedral plaza, I’m joined by other congregants, indistinguishable from the tourists and architecture students. I’ve come to receive what I understand to be divine flesh, to examine the longing that brings me to sacred spaces and to experience something that I imagine will be grace.
Behind the cathedral’s perimeter wall, everything except for the green row of palm trees is the color of the California hills after a season without rain. The concrete reverberates with golden light. It’s a relief finally to enter the cathedral through the black mouth of Robert Graham’s bronze doors into a tunnel, rising and narrowing ahead, where the cool light, passed through a band of translucent alabaster and half reflected from the yellow limestone floor, is the color of tarnished gilt.
Whatever symbol of power or metaphor of faith a church might be, it’s also a machine for praying. But even after many visits, I still haven’t learned how to use the cathedral’s spiritual technology. The fault may be in me and not that the walls lack reassuring right angles or that the patterns in the concrete seem too subtle and so skin-like. Most of all, I’m aware of the untouchable authority claimed by its immense volume of ochre light. When the overcast thickens outside momentarily, the tone of the light changes wholly, miraculously, and everywhere at once.
I don’t know what prayers the cathedral and I are saying together yet; I don’t think many believers do.
Some of the worshipers scatter in silence to the rows of cherrywood pews to wait for Mass to begin. Some move closer to John Nava’s tapestries of saints hung against the inner walls of the nave. Some -- propelled by the narrative built into the cathedral -- continue to the bottom of the sloping nave, up the steps of the sanctuary, past the vast altar table (the color of drying blood), to stand at the crucifix just behind.
Secular commentary on the cathedral has dwelled on its abstractions, seemingly more Zen than Catholic, and emphasized, appreciatively, how understated are matters of faith in the building’s structure. But there is nothing subdued or Zenlike in Simon Toparovsky’s life-size bronze figure of a man, black skin flayed, nailed to a post in the moments before his death. Those who have gathered this morning reach out to the feet and knees of the figure on the cross, touching them tentatively. Some lean in to kiss the metal, which is already losing its dark, iron oxide patina. Their consoling embraces recognize the sacredness of the sculpture and make it ours.
The cathedral resists other embraces. Later, during the sermon, the servers bring out a large brazier to illustrate a point the priest is making about prayer. He pours a handful of incense onto the coals and another until the flames drive up a thick column of gray smoke. I anticipate that the cloying odor of burning incense -- a powerful instigator of Catholic memories -- will fill the air. It doesn’t. By an accident of geometry or ventilation, the cloud ascends, spreads into a veil and joins the light it cannot change. The burning incense leaves no smell.
Afterward, at the moment of consecration in the canon of the Mass, a large disk of pale tan bread is held up as high as the young priest can reach into the air above the altar, and the cathedral’s contradictions don’t matter. Bread and wine turning into body and blood is better left to the Catholic imagination, which doesn’t necessarily require this building.
After Mass, after crossing the desert of the cathedral plaza and walking to the bottom of the hill, I stop at the old Church of Our Lady of the Angels, which, in its simplicity, is as abstract as the new cathedral’s sophisticated critique of modernism. Inside, the afternoon light is watery through green glass windows. There is organ music and the rosary being recited in Spanish. A couple are walking up the short, dark aisle, past statues of saints, toward the tall, bright, gilded screen that frames the altar. In the shallow bay on the left is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. At her feet are dozens of snapshots, each picture pleading for solace or at least for the grace to endure. Lying in a glass case in the right bay is a life-size sculpture of the crucified body of a very Castilian Jesus, its wood and plaster painted an innocent white.
In the divided heart of Los Angeles are two pilgrimage churches. One holds a pale god, the other a dark one. One is rooted in the city; the other rises over it. One has been molded over two centuries by the touch of believers; the other is still aloof. Faith will lead us to reconcile what is sacred in both.