San Francisco is interested in spirituality rather than religion, observed Kate Cooper, visiting historian from Manchester, England.
She was speaking at the Forum discussions organized at Grace cathedral, one of the many centers of faith that reflect the tradition of tolerance towards different cultures and beliefs in the Bay Area. This wide range of influences and interests are seen in the architecture of the numerous faith based structures in San Francsico – ranging from a Russian Orthodox church whose spires suggest the flame of a candle to the fascinating Vedanta temple with domes that echo the Taj Mahal.
Over from the Pacific Heights, on Cathedral Hill, is the dominant shape of the huge Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Mary. The distinctive roof is composed of floating “hyperbolic paraboloids” (like the former Commonwealth Institute in London). It has affectionately been nicknamed “Our Lady of Maytag” as, to many, it resembles the central part of a rotating washing machine.
Here too, the changing attitudes to religion and spirituality can be seen. After St Mary’s inaugural Papal Mass with John Paul II, Nobel Prizewinner Czesław Miłosz discussed the difficulties in writing religious poetry, noting that we live in a largely postreligious world. Seeking a return to the roots in 2013, newly elected Pope Francis reminds us that the saints did not have bank accounts and, in his choice of name, emphasizes the importance of the Saint of Poverty (and also the patron saint of San Francisco!).
In North Beach, a building which started in 1948 as a gymnasium has been carefully converted to contain a loving reconstruction of the Porziuncola of St Francis in Assisi. On the entry steps of the chapel are the words “I want you ALL in Paradise”, the franciscan message to the world. It is said that no person who enters the Porziuncola will ever see hell.
San Francisco embraces the full spectrum of religion and spirituality though – not just the traditional – There is even a cult around one of the greatest Jazz musicians of the century.
John Coltrane is celebrated as one of the 90 dancing saints in the rotunda of an Episcopal church on Potrero Hill, while at 1286 Fillmore, near the elegant new Jazz Center is the African Orthodox Church of St. John Coltrane. The liturgy is the uplifting 1964 album of the saxophonists “A Love Supreme”. There is a five-hour Jam session every Sunday and its motto is “If you ain’t happy, you ain’t listening to enough Coltrane!”
On a more contemporary note, Edward Mendelson, contributing editor to PC magazine writes with tongue-in-cheek that, as everyone knows, “the world religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with it’s Vatican in Cupertino and it’s cathedrals the light filled Apple stores”. Cynics would counter that maybe Apple is more like Scientology than anything divine.
Certainly enlightenment and mindfulness are in fashion amongst the Silicon Valley elite. At nearby Twitter headquarters there are the popular meditation courses seen
as a tool to better oneself and improve productivity,while this years Wisdom 2.0 conference was attended by top executives from Linkedin and Cisco. Meanwhile Google employees are taking classes to improve their EI -emotional intelligence in an internally delivered course entitled “Search Inside Yourself“. This has been so successful that that there is apparently a waiting list of 400 and growing.
The California Street cable car rattles its way through the city up Nob Hill. There, surrounded by landmark hotels, the Pacific Union Club and the Masons Grand Lodge is the most visited church of all, Grace Cathedral.
Established during the Gold Rush, destroyed by the 1906 earthquake fires, the present structure was started in 1928 on land donated from burnt homes. It was finally consecrated in 1964, a visual “Europe 101” reminding of the Notre Dame in Paris and maybe the last of the Gothic-style churches. Traditionally conservative it has transformed itself into a forward-looking institution with a dynamic Dean, the Rev. Canon Jane Shaw who came from Oxford via Harvard and Berkeley. She participates actively in the innovative Forum discussions in the Cathedral Hall, the recent ones also attended by Professor Kate Cooper (kateantiquity.com). A newly commissioned work for the San Francisco Opera caused controversy. ”The Gospel of Mary Magdalen” opens with a scene where Mary is in bed with “someone else’s husband” and a lively debate took place in the Forum. Themes such as “The Textual Magdalene – apostle or prostitute?“ were also discussed in the presence of the composer and the mezzo-soprano who came to speak on “the fully erotic but fully spiritual story of Mary and Yeshua “. Other themes for debate have included those on “God and technology” and “Gender Equality” while every Tuesday evening several hundred young people come for yoga on the labyrinth by the nave.This helps to quieten the mind and balance the body.
An exact replica of the Florence Baptistry doors at the main entrance to the church continues the links to the past. The Renaissance originals by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti impressed the young Michelangelo so much that he referred to them as being like the Gates of Paradise. The Florence originals are now in a museum and the molds used for the Grace cathedral doors, were later used to replace those in Florence and only then destroyed.
The labyrinths in the nave and just outside the church doors, another link with early Christianity, were inspired by the one in the famous Chartres cathedral in France. They are much used by contemporary pilgrims who follow the path of the labyrinths from start to finish in contemplation and meditation much like the pilgrims in the old world. The labyrinth has been so popular at Grace Cathedral, that even Google created one at their headquarters for “walking meditation”.
Nearby the interfaith chapel commemorating the 20,000 San Franciscans who died of AIDS, has as its centrepiece the famous triptych that local artist Keith Haring completed just weeks before succumbing to the disease himself.
Many outstanding figures have accepted invitations to speak from the pulpit in the past ,among them the Dalai Lama,Martin Luther King and Lech Wałesa. Contemporary stained glass windows celebrate the achievements of astronaut John Glenn and the ground-breaking E=mc2 formula of the greatest brain of the 20th century, Albert Einstein.
Some have worried that science basically undermines religion. Einstein concluded that “What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind”. Embracing this, Grace Cathedral maintains its relevance and a central part in the public life of the city. No visit to San Francisco is quite complete without it.
There is even a Peets Coffee House in the basement.