A Pilgrimage to Christ Cathedral

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. 

Isaiah 60:1

“Jesus,” my friend exclaimed under his breath as the first few moments of McMillan’s masterpiece were sonically birthed before us. Despite the all too apparent irony I found in his word choice, I understood exactly what he meant. He was, quite literally, awestruck. I was, too.

The timing of this world-premier performance was oddly synchronous with my own personal explorations into the various uses of cathedrals in our modern age. Before moving from Australia to the United States in mid-2022, I had been speaking with a music director at a nearby Anglican cathedral about performing my own mystical poetry to the accompaniment of their magnificent organ. We had all but gone public with our plans until a week of flooding rains caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the organ, and our plans were caput. God works in mysterious ways. 

Upon my arrival in Southern California, I spent time scouting out the local cathedrals. Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles was the first on my list, and despite the brutalist monstrosity that I found her to be, I nonetheless found peace, sanctuary, and a nearness to God in my visit. 

A few weeks later, I was stranded in San Francisco for a day after I had visited a friend north of the city. With heavy bags and my didgeridoo, I made a micro-pilgrimage from the ferry docks to the top of San Francisco where Google had told me I’d find Grace Cathedral—a magnificent gothic-style cathedral presided over by the Episcopal Church. With the colours of the pride flag lining the stairs to the front door (this was during pride month) and a sign on the entry that ordered mask-wearing to enter the cathedral, I could have flipped a table—if you catch my biblical drift. Nonetheless, I spent considerable time marvelling at the stained-glass windows, the towering pillars, and the ceilings that seemed to so easily call my eyes and heart to turn heavenward. Later in my visit, I sat in the garden outside the cathedral and played a prayer through my didgeridoo. “One day,” I said to myself, “I must play my didgeridoo in this cathedral.” I knew that I would, but I had no idea how soon.

1. So up the hills I wandered 
with my didge and heavy bags,
And my soul received a rainbow coat
When before it had dressed in rags. 

2. And God there met me
And showed me peace,
And there we dreamed
Of flower and fleece,

3. And there I sat
In the garden at noon,
And there I played
My didgeridoo.

4. And then I knew 
What I ought to do;
For God said “Play
In the cathedral, too.”

Less than six months had passed and I received a strange invitation from my friend, Sharon Lebell—the same friend I had visited months earlier.  She asked me if I would join her and a musical possy to perform at a 12-hour reading of Homer’s The Iliad at none other than Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Organised by a group called the International Readers of Homer, this event would bring together people from all around the world to read the entire story of the Iliad, accompanied by a strange but wonderful band that included a giant hammer dulcimer, a piano, trumpets, a didgeridoo, a bass, and some random drums and percussion. We were not well-rehearsed, and nor did we have an all-encompassing plan. We were simply to listen to the readers and respond accordingly.

Needless to say, our experience at Grace Cathedral was as profound as it was unlikely. It was like the first line of a bad joke (a Mormon, a Jew, and a Catholic walk into an episcopal cathedral…). But this was no joke—we all knew that we were participating in the continuation of the Western oral tradition that so vividly began in Homer’s lines;

Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus,
destructive as it was, which gave the Achaeans much grief;
and it hurled down to Hades many strong souls
of heroes, and made them spoils for the dogs
and every bird; and the plot of Zeus was being fulfilled;
sing, from that time when, in the beginning, those two parted in discord,
the son of Atreus, lord of men, and brilliant Achilles.

The day after the event, I sat with Sharon under a green oak tree in her hometown of Woodacre. I asked her to explain what had happened at this event. “It’s very difficult to explain what happened,” she said with great discernment, “because you needed 12 hours to elapse in order to experience what was supposed to happen, which puts me in mind of the half-baked idea that whatever sanctuaries are, they depend on two things: they depend on time… and people with open hearts to be together in the ever-so clumsy way that human beings come together.”

Less than a month had passed and I found myself sitting in an industrial warehouse in Irvine surrounded by artists, theologians, poets, musicians, and local businesspeople listening to three gentlemen (Dana Gioia, Sir James MacMillan, and Carl St.Clair) discussing their most recent collaboration; a modern masterpiece of sacred music and poetry called Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light). In listening to these great men, it was immediately clear to me that I had found once more people with open hearts coming together in the messy way that humans do, though this time in the Catholic community. Dana and Sir James seemed to truly understand that they, as artists of faith, bore the necessary responsibility to create sacred works that pointed to the divine. Their work together was more than a collaboration of artistry. It was a calling, and it was ministry; a ministry that certainly worked on this young artist.

It should not go unnoticed that all throughout the month of June, Southern California had been in the cold embrace of what I’ve come to learn is called “June gloom”. During this time, Southern California is generally covered in dark clouds, only occasionally giving way to the brief sprinkling of sunlight. Nonetheless, on the final evening of this world-premier performance of Fiat Lux, the setting sun shone brightly upon the tall chandelier steeple and mirrored walls of Christ Cathedral. As I wandered the grounds before entering the building, I was once again pleasantly surprised by the peace I found in the presence of another strange cathedral that I had believed would not measure up to the towering glory of the gothic cathedrals I adore. This place was, and is, sacred and full of life, and there I found sanctuary. I entered the cathedral and sat in the western corner, waiting for my friend to arrive—a Jewish writer with a Gurdjieffian upbringing (again, we could have been the start of another cheesy joke). 

As MacMillan’s masterpiece began, my soul was once more set alight in a sacred space, travelling to realms distant and near, low and high, dark and light. I was reminded of the words recorded by disciples of the great Sage, Heraclitus; 

The poet was a fool
who wanted no conflict
among us, Gods
or people. 
Harmony needs
low and high
as progeny needs
Man and woman. 
– Heraclitus.

MacMillan’s Fiat Lux seemed to me to so perfectly reflect the messiness of the spiritual journey, wherein it could be said that the darkness from which the soul awakens is just as integral to one’s path as the light to which one is welcomed. Fiat Lux began with dark and muddled phrases that made me feel uncertain and unstable, as though I were sinking slowly into the formless abyss. Then entered the regal horns, and the singers’ layered melodies, and my soul was returned to the place and moment, and more specifically to the icon of Christ that hung on the Eastern wall of the cathedral. My eyes were fixated on the face of Christ, and everything became feverishly real to me. I couldn’t move, and all else but Christ’s face became a blur and a distraction. Then entered my soul these words; “I will never be the same again.” The sound, the space, the light of the setting sun, and my journey to this place—I realised—were not separate items in this experience, but rather they were all one thing; a confirmation of my sneaking suspicion that God still speaks and works through us and for us.

I was brought to tears of ecstasy in the final movement as the chorale burst powerfully into the lines of Dana Gioia’s hymn, Cathedral of Light;

Upon this rock,
Our cross and spire    
built in a land
of quake and fire.

Fragile as glass,
bright as the air,
the angled walls
folded in prayer.

Under the sun
of western skies,
we re-enact
the sacrifice.

Bread of the earth,
fruit of the vine,
the tortured flesh
revealed divine.

The ancient words
fill this new space,
redeeming us
with unearned grace.

this crystal spire
built in a land
of quake and fire.

As the piece came to its restful end, it was clear to me that God had worked through the hands and hearts of MacMillan and Gioia to create a much-needed work of sacred music that would and did, create awakening experiences for those who would listen, and those who would see. I was grateful to the Catholic community who had the vision and faith to support the creation of such a towering work as this, and my mind returned once more to the words my friend Sharon had said: “you had to be there.” Sure, I was and am honoured to have been invited to cover such a groundbreaking cultural premiere, but how could I reduce my experience to mere praise of harmonies, orchestration and composition? I cannot. Rather, I say to you, you had to be there in Christ Cathedral, and you had to be in the Western corner facing the icon of Christ, and you had to be sitting next to a Jewish writer, and he had to say “Jesus!” when he himself was overcome by the profundity of the sound and space, and you had to have gone on your own pilgrimage to this place, seeing many sacred spaces and their profound uses along the way, and visiting with communities that are coming together to reimagine what sacred experiences can be made of today. 

This performance of MacMillan and Gioia’s Fiat Lux felt both like an ending of something, and a beginning of another. A death, and a birth. After returning home, I received the words to this poem that I hope will forever mark this event as sacred in my own life, and perhaps in the lives of many more. 

A poet, young, a master, wise,
An invitation to lift my eyes
To a brighter light ‘neath these Southern Skies.
A poet, young, a master, wise.

A Golden Sun, a steeple, bright,
A chandelier reflects this night,
And my Soul is torn from a dreary plight.
A Golden Sun, a steeple, bright.

A way is made for those who seek,
Just as cradles rock when babies weep,
And mothers sing as they find their feet.
A way is made for those who seek.

A cloudy night, a vision clear,
An Angel heard; “The Sun is here,”
A new song, sung,  a Saviour near.
A cloudy night, a vision, clear.

A poet, young, a master, wise,
A light revealed before my eyes
In this sacred space; let the spirit rise!
A poet, young, a master, wise.