Monday, August 5, 2013

San Francisco Diary: Grace - Personalizing the Anonymous

On Friday, Mark and I went to Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. It is the largest edifice of its kind on the west coast and rivals the National Cathedral in Washington. 

It is a little known fact that I was once an Episcopalian. In point of fact, I probably still am, technically. I was raised Catholic, but for reasons that I won't go into here, at the beginning of my senior year of high school in the little town in Southern Illinois in which I was raised (Carmi), I joined the Methodist Church. I can still remember the audible gasps in the First United Methodist Church of Carmi, Illinois when it was announced in church by Dr. Harrison Peyton that I was being "received" into membership in the church because of the Methodist "full faith and credit clause": they recognized my baptism in the Catholic Church as valid.

A few years later, when I was attending the University of Illinois, I decided, again for reasons that I won't go into here, to join the Episcopal Church on the campus of the U of I: St. John the Divine, a gorgeous little chapel.

So as I looked at possible things to see last Friday and saw Grace Cathedral, I decided (I dragged Mark along) that I wanted to visit the edifice. We didn't really know what we'd find there, but what we experienced - primarily the Interfaith AIDS Memorial Chapel found to the side of the main entrance to the Cathedral - was moving.

I'd like to quote from the brochure that is handed out to Cathedral visitors with respect to this chapel:
"Every year since 1988, World AIDS Day has been observed on December 1 to remember those who have died and to further messages of hope, compassion and understanding about AIDS on a global basis. Even before these traditions started, Grace Cathedral began in 1986 to set aside its own day to observe the impact of AIDS within its congregation ... On December 1, 1995, the bell tolled at Grace Cathedral in honor of World AIDS Day, and an interfaith chapel was established to provide a sanctum of understanding, comfort and remembrance ...
"Everything in this chapel has been created with love and beauty, hope and celebration abound. It is a critical contrast to the fear, shame and devastation that often surround the disease.  

When I first looked at the above panel, which is the focal point of the AIDS chapel, all I saw were squiggly lines. That was before I read the following:
"Just two weeks before he died from AIDS in 1990, pop artist Keith Haring completed an altarpiece - a triptych called The Life of Christ. Starting fresh, without preliminary sketches, Haring began spontaneously carving into clay with a knife ... While [the triptych] reflects the life of Christ, it has also been noted that it reflects the life of Haring: a rising career as an artist, couple with an increasingly visible role as a social activist; the sorrow of losing his lover, friends and his own life to AIDS ..."

The thought that came to me as I was working on this post was how this piece of art is reflective of life. So much of humanity, so much of life, seems like squiggly lines until one focuses and is provided some context. Then what was invisible becomes visible; what was out of focus comes into focus.

Opposite the Haring altar piece hangs a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Again quoting from the Cathedral brochure:
"Grace Cathedral has displayed a portion of the AIDS quilt since 1988. Within the Interfaith AIDS Memorial Chapel, the quilt block is rotated on a regular basis, representing the tens of thousands of names and memories that are sewn into the fabric. Each panel, which measures three feet wide by six feet long - the size of a human grave - is created in homes across the country by friends, lovers, and families to remember the life of a person lost to AIDS."
In the corner next to the quilt, in a glass case, is the AIDS Book of Remembrance. "Within it," states the brochure, "are the names of people who have died of AIDS, [each name] inscribed individually by a calligrapher, with the dates of their births and deaths. Seeing these names memorialized reassures [their loved ones] that they are not forgotten, and - for strangers - personalizes the anonymous."

One of the displayed pages of the Book of Remembrance

As I looked down at those names, I couldn't help but think back where I was in the mid-1980's - both geographically and mentally. I had moved to Vancouver - the "San Francisco of Canada" - in 1986 during the height of the AIDS crisis, and had turned my back ~ because of my own homophobia ~ on what was happening in the midst of our society, and on hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands who were sick and dying. I have written before on my blogs of how I have felt ashamed of my conduct then.

And so, I lit another candle in that sacred space in San Francisco on Friday morning - both in memory of those who died and as penance for my own sins; of the darkness through which I traveled for so long and in celebration of the light that has come into my life.

1 comment:

  1. I so love what you have to say: humanizing the invisible to become, in essence, more human. I love what you're discovering: it resonates with me. xo