Here is a dispatch from my mission in California. Greetings from the land of Bl. Junipero Serra, the intrepid Franciscan missionary that baptized this region, giving all of California a most Catholic essence. How beautiful are the feet of the missionary! He leaves behind a blessing, giving names to all in the name of Christ.
Los Angeles = The Angels
Santa Barbara = St. Barbara
San Francisco = St. Francis
Sacramento = The Most Blessed Sacrament
Even the winds were baptized by the missionaries, the Santa Ana Winds! And there are other wonderful Saints mentioned as well … too many to mention. It were as if the devil himself has paid Catholic California a back handed compliment by planting his jack-boot slavery of degrading pop culture and techno-porn here.
But the missionary spirit must be kept alive and ever present. There are robust little remnants of Catholic culture throughout the state, and there are many wonderful priests and bishops leading with genuine shepherd's care. There is without a doubt a decline of faith.
What is the source of this decline of faith? I am sure there are many, but here is a post card, that I think could be replicated all across the world. The symptoms are universal, and terribly ironic.
On Sunday, June 29th, my assistant drove me from San Francisco to Simi Valley. The drive along the California coast was spectacular. We stopped along the way to visit a monastery, the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur. I was excited to visit, because I had read a great deal of the reforms of St. Romuald, and his Benedictine efforts of the 13th Century. I knew of their austerity, their love of silence. And the location couldn't be more conducive to contemplation.
Alas, I was so disappointed. I was disappointed to find in the bookstore yoga manuals and Buddhist tracts. There were collections of nice Byzantine icons and Thomas Merton books. But as for real authentic traditional material of the Camaldolese monasticism … nothing.
But my disappointment didn't stop there. The chapel awaited a visit and I was even more disappointed. Here 'the cult of minimalism' had triumphed. The chapel was divided in half; the entrance being for the Liturgy of the Word and the inner hexagon room had a centralized barren altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist (no altar cloth … nothing to soften the eye) with no visible tabernacle, and no image of Our Lady. The Crucifix seemed small and non descript in a suspended state. Once I discovered the tabernacle, my amazement for its hiddeness knew no bounds. It was no more than a plain cupboard in a back corner. You would never know it was a tabernacle except for a feng shei orb lamp on a ledge by the side of the wall. A big pottery bowl contained loose pieces of paper, presumably petitions.
There was nothing to attract the eye. It was intentionally severe in its hard simplicity. Nothing was attractive. It was the most purely functional room I had ever encountered. It reminded me of some kind of Roman bath.
How different down the road things were.
Down the road from the monastery was the unbelievable Hearst Castle. Built by an enormously wealthy William Randolph Hearst, from the early 20th century, the Castle became a magnet for people ever since. Hearst built the place, as they said, because he believed "dreams are meant to be shared". In the 1920's and 1930's the Castle hosted countless starlets and silver screen stars. What a place!
You should see it. I am not going to give you a history lesson on how it was created or even why. One guy had money, but he spent it in an explosion of generosity for others. Now it hosts people continuously. It is simply awesome.
Hearst collected all sorts of art from human culture and civilization. Christendom is everywhere. Paintings, statues, ornaments … in a word, beauty. You can't help but feel inspired, and in a strange way, loved … because this fellow shared himself with you. He took what he had and did something wonderful. Did he solve world poverty? No he didn't and I didn't hear a peep from anyone saying California should confiscate the property and give it to the homeless. NOT. A. PEEP.
He wanted to share his dreams. The Catholic Faith is better than dreams; its the real deal, but sadly we are so STINGY with it. Why can't our monasteries look, even a bit like the Hearst Castle? Why do secular buildings inspire more then our chapels and our churches. What a shame!
The next day had me in the heart of Los Angeles. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels has long been on my list of places to visit. So much has been written about it, that I confess, I was eager to see it. I had read all sorts of pros and cons on its construction. But nothing actually prepared me for what I found. Again, the minimalism of the design, the hardness of the lines, the austerity … was profoundly un-Incarnational. It didn't feel like a home, it didn't feel like a place in which you want to pray. Rather, it had a very strong industrial feel to it. Like a big factory. Maybe that is the intended goal. As a factory, it seeks "to make Christians". But we are not products on an assembly line, we are children of God.
Down the street, again, the secular arm of the world wins the arm wrestle for beauty. The Biltmore Hotel, one of the original sites of the Oscars is a magnificent building. Nothing so captures the eye or the soul like the beauty that lies within. Such magnificence speaks, it tells the visitor, 'you are important, you are a person, and you are worth sharing this loveliness with'.
What has happened dear friends is a tremendous role reversal. The Church has fallen into the trap of the industrial revolution, preferring the functional to the resplendent mysticism of the ornate and the beautiful. The Incarnation of the Word should always be our guide for construction and creation. Not the blandness of the functional.
Alas, dear friend, this is troubling stuff. Let us pray!