An Invitation to Solemn Joy

Yesterday, the family attended Mass at beautiful St. Dominic’s Church in San Francisco, one of the loveliest churches on the West Coast.

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The neo-Gothic style building is situated in a bit of a valley or hillside on the north side of San Francisco not far from the Presidio. It’s not a particularly large or imposing structure, especially when compared to the Cathedral or St. Ignatius in the City.

The interior, in particular, is very well done. A slightly yellow-tinted stone was used for most of the interior, which gives it a warmth. The many stained glass windows fill it with richly colored light. The woodwork on the confessionals and trim is beautiful German craftsmanship. The proportions are glorious yet still human scale.

I love the high altar in particular. The classic semicircular apse, raised a couple steps above the nave, with an ambulatory which provides access to the sacristy, has the effect of at once setting the sanctuary apart while also allowing people to walk around it easily. The altar piece features Dominican saints arrayed around the Crucifix and Tabernacle. The altar rail, although I suppose unused for decades, is attractive and, more important, still there.

The interior is at once joyful, playful, even, in that Gothic way, and completely serious. The result of all this, and the defining characteristic of St. Dominic’s, is that it is a special place, a place set apart. It could not be mistaken for any other kind of building.

St. Dominic’s is an invitation to solemn, almost stern, joy. In a way more definite than even a burning bush, everything tells you you are on holy ground. You should be silent and pay attention. Something Important happens here.

Built in the 1920s, this building is a concrete expression of the Latin Mass, and not just in having been built to facilitate the rituals. It shares an esthetic with the old Mass, and, much more – they share a spiritual mission.

Having recently been blessed to attend the Ordinary Form of the Mass in the way envisioned (and commanded!) by Vatican II – ad orientem and in Latin – it’s easy to imagine that the Novus Ordo, too, shares that same spiritual mission. It’s also hard not to conclude that the Ordinary Form as done 99.99% of the time in this neck of the woods – ad populum and in English, sure, but more important, with the sensibilities of a game show – does not.

The Mass as actually celebrated by the wonderful Dominicans at St. Dominic’s is, of course, beautiful and efficacious, and we are grateful for having been blessed to attend it. And the artistic and spiritual spirit of the building does seem to have a calming affect, inspiring a level of reverence sadly lacking in most parish churches. But the gap between architecture and the practice that architecture embodies was palpable. It would no doubt foment a revolution of sorts, but I imagine that, for some people, maybe many people, that if they started doing an ad orientem Mass in Latin there, they would never want to go back. They harmony of building and practice would call to them. They would know that they were home.

 

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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