Sunday, August 3, 2003

An interesting reflection on the LA Cathedral

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.

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