If you find yourself in Los Angeles, in between going on tours to see the homes of the stars or dining at Spago, take a side trip to 555 Temple Street. There, in a corner of the city that’s a little off the beaten track, you’ll find a home for some other stars – the kind you might not have expected to see.
It’s the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels – a big, boxy, modernist building dedicated in 2002 that doesn’t look anything like any church you would find in New York City. Critics have complained that it resembles an airline terminal more than a temple of God. The church was actually designed specifically to withstand earthquakes. As a result, it doesn’t have the big stained glass windows with images of saints that you find in most churches.
Instead, if you are looking for the saints, you will find them depicted very differently. They are on massive tapestries lining the walls of the nave. And they are stunning. These tapestries are said to be the largest collection of its kind in the United States. Created by artist John Nava, they portray in a dramatic and contemporary way dozens of saints, all standing and facing toward the altar, hands folded in prayer. There are 25 massive tapestries depicting 135 saints and blesseds. The image they create is striking. They are in line, as if they are going to receive the Eucharist. It is, in ever sense, the communion of saints.
Above each saint is written his or her name – so you can spot St. Peter, or St. Dominic, or Mary Magdalene. But they don’t look the way you might have seen them in Renaissance paintings. Creating these images, John Nava used for his models ordinary people from around Los Angeles. He even hired a Hollywood casting agent to find people with a particular look, so they actually resemble people you would pass on the street, or people you might know.
But looking at the tapestries, you start to notice something odd. Amid all the famous saints, there are 12 figures who don’t have names above them – including children of all ages. It’s not a mistake.
These people were not popes, or martyrs, or evangelists. There are no churches named for them or universities dedicated to them. They are the saints among us whose identity is known only to God.
We realize, looking at them: they could be any of us.
And we realize, too: we could be them.
I’ve been to see those tapestries in person several times, and I never fail to come away deeply moved and inspired.
It’s been said that church windows are “sermons in glass.” The tapestries at that cathedral in Los Angeles are sermons in cloth. The lesson they teach is so simple, but so eloquent. And it is this: any one can become a saint. The communion of saints is so vast, so all-encompassing, so real. It is available to all of us.
The tapestries tell the story. And what a beautiful story it is. It includes a Native American woman cradling a baby…an African American teenager in blue jeans…small children fervently praying. The communion of saints contains anonymous men and women and children who sanctify everyday life – miracle workers like a banker in Brooklyn or a secretary on Staten Island or a homemaker and mother in Queens.
It might even, by the grace of God, include any of us.
The gospel today shows us the way to holiness — the way, as the song says, to “be in that number.”
It means to be poor in spirit. To be meek. To be merciful and pure of heart. To be a peacemaker. To suffer for the sake of Christ.
None of these is easy. But then, if being blessed were easy, everyone would be a saint.
But don’t we want to try?
This day, we look to these great models of holiness for inspiration and guidance. We ask for them to intercede on our behalf, and to walk with us. The road is hard. We may stumble, and we may fall. But we get up and we go on.
Because we know they did.
And we know we can.
John Nava has said of his tapestries that he hopes 100 years from now, people will look at them and say, “These people were seen as whole, strong humans, full of hope.”
Let us pray that their strength, their hope, and above all their holiness, might also be ours – so that one day we might be blessed to find ourselves among that great cloud of witnesses, that great communion of saints.
[See more on the tapestries at this link.]