R always wants to see the churches…the mosques, the synagogues, the temples, the wats. Everywhere we go, even if it’s just a walk in the neighborhood, we stop to look at the religious buildings. If they let us inside, all the better.
I would not notice many of these buildings if he weren’t pointing them out all the time. We once walked more than ten miles through Istanbul in a single day just to look at mosques. That was all we did that day. Mosques.
R isn’t a religious person, and I have what would charitably be called “baggage” about organized religion, so it’s taken some effort on my part to fully grasp why he so prioritizes seeing places of worship. (I have, on more than one occasion, waited outside for him).
Because R’s mind is unencumbered by baggage, he’s able to see a place of worship as the place where a community is often displaying the best of itself. Communities pool resources to bring in their area’s best architects, engineers, and artists to build something that celebrates what they most treasure. In R’s words, “They are putting their best foot forward.”
It is in that spirit that I went to see the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The most surprising thing I learned is that Los Angeles is not the “City of Angels,” but rather El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels). That’s who the cathedral, like the city, is named for – Mary. Not angels. I had no idea.
If you happen to go, and you should, take advantage of the free tours. They take about an hour and you’ll get a lot more out of your time there for having done it. Our tour was led by a British man called Thomas. He knows everything. He told us all about the architect and the artists and where the money came from to build the cathedral (short answer: rich people).
The building is stunning, and every single element is rich with symbolism – from the twenty bells at the entrance signifying the original twenty missions to the gently sloping floor in the sanctuary reminding you that life is easier the closer you get to Christ.
The only thing you have to be careful about is that dear Thomas the Docent likes to tell stories about horrific, heart-wrenching martyrdoms and then move jauntily on to the next point of interest before you have had the chance to properly weep and rend your garments.
For example, “The image on this tapestry is of Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a stranger in an Auschwitz starvation cell. The stranger was a father to two children, you see, so he was begging for his life when Kolbe stepped forward. Ten or so people were locked in the cell and after two weeks of starvation he was the only one left alive, so the Nazis injected him with carbolic acid…and over here this chair was built with wood imported from fifteen countries!”
The outside is just as impressive, again with lots of symbolism at every turn. I can’t do it all justice in a single blog post. My favorite of the outdoor elements is a children’s play area that is filled with sculptures of the animals on the Ark.
I will be thinking about this cathedral for a long time, and hopefully I’ll have another opportunity to walk through it again. What I came away with, and what I think the people of Los Angeles are expressing about themselves through this cathedral, is that they value inclusivity, simple beauty, and sacrifice in service to the well-being of others. They are also really into Mary.