Tag Archives: Pope Francis

Matters of Faith – “If you ain’t happy, you ain’t listening to enough Coltrane!”

ImageSan 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.

ImageOver 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.

ImageJohn 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.

ImageEstablished 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.

628x471An 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.

ImageThe 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.  ImageContemporary 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.

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I HAVE FOUND THE PERFECT PLACE !

big-surBig Sur, California

The drama of the Pacific coastline is one that has always fascinated and inspired travelers.

Henry Miller, the writer whose books many readers describe as a life-changing experience, described the Pacific especially at Big Sur, as an “overwhelming force which is hidden within its obvious grandeur “. On Big Sur itself, he finally wrote “I have found the perfect place”.

North of San Francisco, the fabled Highway 1 is defeated by the rugged terrain of the “Lost Coast” and the wilderness of the King Range. South, this most romantic of roads leads to what was known as El Pais Grande del Sur (the big country to the south or Big Sur).

There, the Santa Lucia mountains seem to erupt from the ocean, giving way to incomparable vistas, unique on earth, where the one common aspect is the haunting presence of that vast majestic ocean.

Charles Olson, poet and intellectual from Gloucester, Massachussetts, declared in his study on Herman Melville (the author who wrote, amongst other classics, “Moby Dick”) – “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy…(it is) the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people”.

The presence of the ocean reminds us of the fierce determination of the early explorers to overcome its unpredictable winds and hidden rocks. Today, speed-breaking sailors and sea-defying surfers throw an equally powerful challenge, literally flying across the water,always on the edge,pushing to the limit. Santa Cruz surfing legend Jay Moriarty (hero at 15, dead at 23) warned “Don’t take anything for granted, because one minute it can be there and the next minute it can’t, and it happens so quick.”

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Fatalities occur all the time on this stretch of aquatic wilderness. Only just last week, the San Francisco Chronicle announced with a banner headline “Tragic Day on the Bay “.  One of the huge racing catamarans, whose 131’ long sail could power the boat up to three times the speed of the wind, lost its trajectory and capsized. On board, double Olympic medalist sailing champion Andrew Simpson, strategist for this year’s America’s Cup was trapped under the hull, unable to escape.

A few months earlier, in October 2012, the defending Oracle team for the Cup, lost its multi-million dollar boat when, unable to make a turn, it capsized and was destroyed by the sea.

The will to overwhelm nature may be there but ultimately the ocean is indomitable. It is awareness of this force that constantly attracts those seeking both peace and stimulation in the rugged landscape of Big Sur, where the mountains and the sky meet the turbulence of the Pacific.

400_frederic_larson_mavericks_surf_contestThe surfers consider the beaches and headlands from Ghost Tree to Pfeiffer Beach and Willow Creek to be hard core. On those waves, with many observing that ”one wrong turn, and you’re hitting the water like concrete at 50 miles an hour”. But in that challenge, one finds much more than just danger. The recent surfing film “Chasing Mavericks” explains “it’s not just about surf, it’s about the one thing in life that sets you free .”

That of course has been the big journey over the ages for “the seekers” out there. For example, the “astronauts of inner space “ as defined by the “Human Potential Movement” at the renown Esalen Institute search for a mind-body connection that comes from within instead of the waves. Esalen’s co-founder Michael Murphy, wrote a classic book exploring the mysticism of Golf and its similarities with the journey of life itself (“Golf in the Kingdom”).

Others participate in the Zen Mountain Center around Tassajara Hot Springs, while higher, at about 1300 ft above the Pacific ocean, the new Camaldoli Hermitage provides peace and refuge to all seeking tranquility. At the Hermitage, the monks follow the ancient teachings of St. Romuald, and St Benedict observing vows of silence. Outside visitors are welcome however, and may reflect on how aptly Henry Miller described this landscape, when he arrived in 1944, as “… the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look”.

The Californian coast, has always felt on the edge of the western world, and not only because it may all fall into the sea when the “Big One” hits, but as the culmination of the “Long Road West” as talked about by American historians.

In much the same way as the tip of Portugal at Sagres served as a launching pad to the searchers of the New World under Prince Henry the Navigator, so did ”New Spain”, and the Camino Real of the Jesuits and the Franciscans, serve as the final link with the edge of that continent.

Out there at Big Sur, at this land of the setting sun, with sunsets that vanish into the sea, you realise that you have reached the true end of the world. Beyond that coastline, there is only a journey back to the beginning, to the Far East, to China, to Japan, and to the land of the rising sun.

Sunset over Pacific Ocean and coast, Big Sur, California

There is a finality to this coast, culminating with movements like California Cool, the Beat Renaissance, and even a governor who, like the present Pope Francis, studied to be a priest in a Jesuit seminary.

Governor Jerry Brown urges the principle of “tantum quantum” – where you take what you need. Less not more. “It’s almost a Buddhist thought, a Greek thought”  he says – a balance that he calls “proportionality”, where “you can never stop the human heart from yearning and you can never stop the universe from being silent “.

Big Sur, is the embodiment of all that is California thus, the drama of the past, the excitement of the present, the thought of the Beats, and a presence of the inevitable. Henry Miller was most surely right – A more Perfect Place could hardly be imagined.

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