Architectural Delight

A tour through the churches and chapels

Summer’s sunlight is beginning to fade as the back-to-school sales begin.

Christ Cathedral, Garden Grove

As I traveled down south to speak at a conference on building a literary life, I planned to take a day for myself to explore and discover something new. I find that the well of creativity begins to dry up without that time spent.

Google Maps showed me that the one-time Crystal Cathedral, now called Christ Cathedral, was a mere 15 minutes from my cousin’s house where I was staying.

As I neared the parking lot entrance, the Tower of Hope appeared. I gazed in amazement at the sheer size and scope of it.

The place is remarkable. The Tower of Hope is made with a reflective metal that catches the light. Some sort of marble pantheon stands at its base. A baptistry? A security guard’s office? I do not know.

Before I looked for the entrance to the cathedral itself, I walked around the grounds and explored the bronze life-sized, or larger-than-life-sized, statues along the way. Job caught in the struggle of his suffering. The woman caught in adultery. Christ walking on the water. The return of the Prodigal Son. The men of all these statues were Greek-god-like in their stature, so different from the demure, thin woman caught in adultery.

Nearing the entrance to the glass edifice, a man stood at the door of the glass and made eye contact with me as I made eye contact with him. “You look like you have a question,” he told me.

Although the Cathedral was closed, after some conversation, he offered to show me the interior as a reward for how far I had traveled to see it. We walked inside.

He stood silently beside me, inviting me to take it in and have my reaction to the space. It lifted me up as robust architecture can do; and made me feel the vastness of air and sky.

It doesn’t feel like a glass house. Quatrefoils were added to control for heat, temperature and sound, he explained. I imagined what a different place it would be without them. They had the effect of closing white cotton curtains on a sunny window, distilling the light while maintaining the brightness.

The interior was white, stainless steel, and marble. I knew nothing about the organ before I walked in. The Hazel Wright Organ, with 17,000 pipes, is the 5th largest in the world.

In response to telling him my husband is an organist, my unofficial tour guide took me to the choir loft on a balcony behind the altar. From his phone, he played a video for me of the organist at work. It was amazing.

He explained changes that were made when the cathedral was converted to a Catholic cathedral and, when pressed, offered his own opinions as a designer, a parishioner, and as someone who loves the Lord. He noted some of the weaknesses in the design, some of the more distracting elements and at least one safety issue with marble steps coming to a sharp corner making for an easy fall when one can’t see his feet too easily.

We left the cathedral, and he pointed me in the right direction for mass. The place was warm and inviting, like a large hall with church things placed inside, carpet squares and plastic chairs clicked together, a wooden altar, wooden statues and attendance full of devotion. It, too, had a remarkable pipe organ in the space.

St. Patrick’s Seminary Chapel, Menlo Park

Only a week later, I stood with my husband in the seminary chapel at St Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, where he’s taking classes with the Catholic Institute of Sacred Music.

He, too, showed me the organ in the chapel. Although much smaller, the chapel in Menlo Park is full of warmth, wood, and stained glass.

The Stations of the Cross are painted in oil. The organ pipes are at the back of the chapel, and the organ console is off to the side, a much less prominent place.

As we moved away from the organ, I nearly lost my footing at the sharp corner of the marble steps in the seminary chapel and remembered, with a smile, my tour of Christ Cathedral. No architecture is perfect.

St. Stephen the First Martyr Church, Sacramento

I would see another church a few days later. On July 13, I stood in the dimly lit St. Stephen the First Martyr Church in Sacramento, where the smoke of incense filled the air. Light shone dimly through the low stained glass windows along the sides. From the ceiling hung ornate medieval-style lanterns, piercing through the air like spotlights. Candles lit the sides and behind the altar. The delicate flames shined through the smoke that clouded around the coffin of my dear friend’s spouse.

I marveled at the beauty and the diversity of beauty with which we worship. We are sensory people. The churches I attended in those weeks reflected that.

Beauty can help us connect to something beyond us.

In the United States, we are a very abstract people, full of intangible ideas where the descriptions of a piece of art may say more than the work itself. But there is nothing quite like the breathlessness that comes when encountering something real, material, and full of wonder.

A beauty like that doesn’t always require us to think but needs us to be open to discovery, contemplation, and life.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.