Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Hermeneutic of Rupture?

An anonymous correspondent sent me her reflections on the recently completed Cathedral in Oakland, California. The writer was determined to enter the space with a mind and heart open to true art in architecture. It was not long, however, before she was made to focus on characteristics of the space which, as she states below, constitute a complete and overtly disturbing departure from tradition. Read the full report:

Reflections on Oakland’s Cathedral of Light
An embodiment of rupture

This past week I was privileged to attend two liturgies at Oakland’s Cathedral of Light. Though I had seen pictures of the cathedral, I anticipated the occasion to visit in person with a mind that appreciates modern forms of art. You could say I wanted to love it. In fact, I was moved by the design of the Cathedral of Light, and was asked to comment on the experience. The observations below are meant to invite discussion about the impact of architecture on the faithful, and about beauty having its own hermeneutic of continuity.

(Because of various connections to the good people of the diocese, I prefer to remain anonymous. My own background is in sacred music, with little more than a basic appreciation for architecture.)

I begin with three positive aspects, and they are all of primary importance. The cathedral is located in the downtown area of Oakland, right on Lake Merritt. A central and beautiful location makes it an optimal place to draw the faithful and serve the wider community. One finds a rambling mausoleum underneath the main church. Complete with illuminated stained glass from the previous cathedral, it stands as a true and tangible claim of building on tradition. Moving upstairs and into the nave, one can readily see the sanctuary lamp and tabernacle situated directly behind the altar. This orientation is proper and consoling for the faithful.

Now I move on to other elements, and will limit most of the discussion to the interior of the building. The surface area strikes me as rather small, with seating for roughly 1,200 faithful. No color could be found in the nave except for one large remaining Easter bouquet and an artificial garland on the ambo. More than anything else, my senses rebelled against this absence of color. How strange and sterile it is to have abundant natural light and yet no warmth.

The half-oval walls on either side enclose the space with 15 feet of sheer cement-block, the exact type used in parking garages, giving a bunker or unfinished basement quality. In the three-part pamphlet series used to explain the cathedral, we are given this explanation, “The nave of the Cathedral is surrounded by a large concrete wall known as the Reliquary Wall. A reliquary is a container that houses the remains or other relic of a saint and the use of the term here reminds those gathered within these walls that they are holy and precious to God.” This is odd reasoning, to say the least. Perhaps it’s too direct to admit that a cement wall is really just a cement wall.

From these concrete blocks the walls turn to patterned, colorless glass and wooden slats with metal bracing, which closely resemble Ikea shelving. The walls rise to nearly 100 feet before embracing a large almond shaped ‘oculus’ window. Perhaps the most overt connection with church architecture is the ‘Omega Window’, a 58-foot image of Christ in glory taken from the transept of the Chartres Cathedral in France. I gazed long at this impressive depiction. Because of the beams on the face of our Lord and the odd posture (in the original He is seated on a throne, but the chair is absent in the transferred image) it seems to be an awkward transplant, enlarged in size yet reduced in meaning.

Stations of the Cross, monochromatic brass if I remember correctly, are fixed at eye-level, intended for private devotion. Lamps hang with names of the apostles on metal plaques. One crucifix and one Marian statue account for the only visible bit of statuary, also monochromatic. Two brightly colored statues and three large paintings are tucked away in the Holy Family side chapel, to my mind the loveliest asset of the cathedral. Another vibrant piece can be found in an unnamed side chapel. Most side chapels themselves are nearly empty, arranged in such a way that it is not possible to see inside from the nave, and each painted one vibrant color.

A large raised ambo dominates one side of the sanctuary, and behind it are dozens of chairs for the choir, an organ, and a piano. It is unclear whether the cantor stand is included in this structure or next to it. On the opposite side one can clearly locate the cathedra with coat of arms and dozens of seats for concelebrating priests. A screen of interlocking rectangle wooden blocks, reminiscent of Lincoln Logs, embraces the sanctuary. The tabernacle is placed inside this screen. The large raised altar is square or nearly so, and according to the official pamphlet contains relics of Saints Francis de Sales, Francis of Assisi, Sixtus, Perpetua, Junipero Serra, Stephen, Andrew, Thomas, Cecilia, John Vianney, Colette of Corbie and Pius X… as well as soil from Auschwitz and precious stones from the Holy Land. I question how much of this is canonically permitted.

In sifting through adulation and printed material explaining the vision behind the new cathedral, several claims to tradition became apparent. One I have not mentioned is described in this way, “There is a history of cathedrals designed in the shape of a cross. Given the Cathedral’s proximity to water, the architects employed an even older symbol of our faith. The footprint of the Cathedral is a vesica piscis (“fish bladder” in Latin), an oval with pointed ends created by the intersection of two circles of the same radius. The shape of the vesica piscis calls to mind a fish, which was used as a symbol by the earliest Christians”… Perhaps someone could comment on any tradition of using the “fish bladder” shape in church architecture.


There exists a splendid and diverse beauty in the tradition of sacred architecture. But tangible connections to this tradition are deliberately severed in the innovative Cathedral of Light. In Catholic terms, it was to me the embodiment of a hermeneutic of rupture.

This provides a good occasion to reflect on the relationship between beauty and tradition. Could it be that lasting, authentic beauty in the sacred arts has two interconnected qualities: 1) That it springs from something experienced and 2) itself provides fertile soil for subsequent developments? If so, we can say that beauty develops organically and thus possesses its own hermeneutic of continuity. Further, if Truth is pure beauty, and is revealed over time, part of the continuum of time as we experience is it an organic development of beauty itself.

The experience of being in the Cathedral of Light proved a stark reminder that one cannot imagine beautiful- even sublime- ideas in the abstract and automatically expect to experience them in physical form. Consider the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes”. Beauty is not born out of grand or convincing ideas alone, but out of shared, experiential points of reference. My brain could revel in the concept of natural light, but my senses needed an illuminated physicality. Something can be wondrous in the realm of idea, precisely proportioned, even magnificent, and yet not beautiful.

Lest anyone be tempted to criticize bishops, I should make it clear that newly installed Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone cannot be held responsible for the new cathedral. He possesses a well-earned reputation for loving tradition and defending the Church’s position on social issues. (Frankly, he inherited a hefty price tag for the Cathedral of Light. As a concrete way to help him carry this cross, those who admire him might consider sending donations.)

Opportunities to build new cathedrals are relatively rare. I would hope that they would be used during these defining years to inspire Catholic faith and identity. The magnificent Cathedral of Light is impressive as a structure, both inside and out. But when the Congregationalist church down the street is more splendidly recognizable as a church, there’s a problem. Perhaps an even trade could be arranged.