Sunday, January 20, 2008
As I wandered into Huntington Park at dawn at the top of Nob Hill, the sun strained against the horizon, casting long strands of gold and purple across the early morning sky.
Then, a still breeze rustled leaves in the trees, as a flock of excited birds flew directly overhead, and alighted nearby.
Before me, the "Fountain of Tortoises", hinted at a bygone era of romance and elegance.
The decorative sculpture is a copy of "La Fontana Delle Tartarughe", originally set as a centerpiece in the Piazza Mattei, Rome. The original was designed in 1581 by Giacomo della Porta, with sculpted bronze figures crafted by Taddeo Landini.
Pope Alexander VII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to restore the fountain in 1658-1659. As a result, the featured dolphins fell into oblivion, and were summarily replaced with struggling tortoises, instead.
William and Ethel Crocker donated a replica of the original which was installed at Huntington Park after gracing their garden for a number of years.
The Angels appear ready to herald a new dawn.
To my right, a few seniors (mostly Asian) arched their backs gracefully for a moment. Then, each torso half turned - as if to defy gravity - as arms and legs seemingly "pulled" and "pushed" the still air, in a surreal fashion.
I was captivated by their serene faces and the inner glow which appeared to emanate from within the very core of their mortal coils.
Ah, the ancient practice of Tai Chi. And, the inner smile revealing itself, in a Divine moment.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the lush finely-manicured park, a rag-tag band of exercise enthusiasts plied their limbs, and focused on the task at hand.
I silently turned on my heel and headed in the direction of Grace Cathedral (across the street) to attend morning service.
The Cathedral is a descendant of the original Church built in the Gold rush year of 1849 - destroyed in the 1908 earthquake - which was rebuilt on property donated by the Crocker Family.
At Grace, there is not only a keen awareness of the spiritual, but also a forward-thinking philosophy about the "oneness" (unity) of all things.
Inside, near the font, a statue of St. Francis stands with arms out-stretched... seemingly capturing the lofty ideal that Grace Cathedral is, "A House of Prayer for all people".
For starters, the Church is an inner space that resonates with spirit - a perfect respite from it all in the pursuit of prayer - provides an opportunity for insightful contemplation about the wondrous mysteries of life.
In addition, there are a number of exquisite religious artifacts to view.
The "Doors of Paradise", for instance, which were created by Florentine sculptor Lorenze Ghiberti; fashioned for the Baptistery of a Florence Cathedral. Their shimmering gold surfaces beckon the pilgrim up the great stairway to look in awe at the intricately sculpted and nearly three-dimensional panels.
Ghiberti was one of the first artists to apply relief and linear perspective on such a grand scale. Indeed, Grace Cathedral's "Doors of Paradise" tower at 16 feet, while each door weighs one and a third tons.
Ghiberti chose ten familiar narratives as subjects for the main panels, taken from the first books of the Bible, ranging from Genesis to Kings. Each panel contains several scenes from each story, shaped not only by the text and by Christian interpretation, but also by commentaries of the early church fathers and even by contemporary events.
The border panels display Old Testament figures related to, or commenting on, the adjacent main panels, accompanied by busts done in a similar vein. Around the busts are lifelike sprigs of vegetation and bouquets of flowers, inhabited here and there by frogs, crickets and lizards.
In the first panel, the tale of Adam and Eve is featured...their creation, temptation, fall and expulsion. The panel is notable for the "cosmic egg" design of the sublime creation of Eve scene at center and for the poignant backward glance of Eve, outside the gate of Eden.
On the other hand, some allege the adjacent "Cain and Abel" panel is even more powerful, contrasting quiet pastoral scenes with Cain's murder of the favored Abel, and the guilty Cain questioning God, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
The Gothic-style rocky crags seem to echo Cain's violence.
It is worthy of a pilgrimage to Grace to explore the historical piece up close.
In that event, the casual visitor will be able to marvel at some of the other breathtaking works of art such as: the exquisitely executed stained-glass windows throughout the Cathedral (particularly those by the French Loire studios and Charles Counick, depicting such modern figures as Thurgood Marshall, Robert Frost, and Albert Einstein) the stunning murals completed in the 1940's by Polish artist John de Rosen; and the 44-bell carillon.
Along with its mystical ambiance, Grace lifts spirits with regular services throughout the week, along with inspiring musical performances (including organ recitals on most Sundays).
Grace's male choir has gloriously engaged in song since their inception in 1906, but a boys choir was not added until 1913. The centuries-old tradition of men and boys choirs has since blossomed here and there around the country at other Churches.
The Grace choir is composed of 14 choir men and 21 choristers who have long-standing ties with the community; the boys of the choir are students at the Cathedral School for Boys, for instance, while the men are a professional San Francisco ensemble.
The Cathedral Camerata is a mixed voice ensemble that sings a diverse repertoire of chant, Renaissance, and Baroque mottes and anthems and newly composed sacred works.
A unique attraction is the Labyrinth.
What is Labyrinth?
The sacred "curiosity" is an archetype of a divine imprint found in many religious traditions in various forms around the globe. By walking the labyrinth, an individual discovers, "...a long forgotten mystical tradition insisting to be reborn," according to the insightful Rv. Dr. Lauren Artress.
Labyrinths entered "Christian Prayer life" during the Middle Ages after they were incorporated into cathedrals around Europe.
The "Medieval Eleven Circuit Labyrinth" is replicated on the floor of the Chartes Cathedral where it was placed in 1201.
People around the world use the Labyrinth today to quiet the mind, find balance, and encourage meditation, insight, and a celebration of life.
The "Grace After Hours" program provides the opportunity to walk the labyrinth and learn about its history, in addition to facilitating it as a spiritual tool, as well.
Before departing from the Lord's House, slip into the AIDS Interfaith Chapel.
The Chapel opened its doors for the first time on December 1st, 1995, after the bell tolled at Grace Cathedral in Honor of "World AIDS Day".
The Chapel is a memorial for those who died from AIDS.
Now, the sacred altar here is a place of meditation and healing and remembrance for caregivers and those still fighting the disease.
Throughout the ages, stories of each community have been told through their house of worship...by virtue of artifacts, stained Glass, sermons, and a myriad of activities.
San Francisco's chapter in the "AIDS" epidemic is recalled through the auspices of the Interfaith Chapel.
The Chapel envelopes those who come to pay their respects and proudly displays who San Francisco is as a community ... compassionate, embracing, concerned.
The Interfaith addition was made a reality due to the persistent fundraising efforts of community members, local celebrities, and politicians alike.
Inside, there is a stunning altarpiece, a triptych of the Life of Christ.
Pop Artist Keith Haren started fresh, spontaneously carving into clay. The talented visionary used bronze and white gold patina for the original castings.
In a center panel is the Christ child, cradled by a number of arms below a radiant heart; above, a shower of tears with Christ on a cross above.
On the right panel, figures are ascending to heaven; on the left, there is a fallen angel.
The Interfaith Chapel is a sacred place where generosity of spirit prevails.
According to critics, the Harin piece is a masterful work that is accessible and speaks to many people.
The "Book of Remembrance" is a handmade book that is preserved under glass. Within its precious pages, the names of people who have died of AIDS are inscribed individually by a calligrapher, with the dates of their birth and death.
The book serves as a testament to the loss shared by the community.
Finally, on a top note, it should be noted that since 1995, Grace Cathedral has engaged in conversations with renowned authorities from the world of politics, activism, spirituality and the arts through their program - the Forum - which podcasts each Sunday morning 9:30-10:30 a.m. (except for holidays)
A few months ago, I caught vampire writer Anne Rice, discussing her new book on the "Childhood" of Jesus Christ. On the occasion of that intriguing appearance, she noted that she - henceforth - intended to devote her writing gifts to "God".
Well, after a visit to Grace Cathedral, most are inclined to do that, the experience is so spiritually overwhelming and uplifting.