Cristo Rey, San Francisco (Exterior)

Carmelite Monastery of Cristo Rey, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Carmelite Monastery of Cristo Rey
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 25 January 2014, 12:00am

The building

The chapel in which the service was held constitutes about 20 per cent of the monastery compound. The compound was built in 1927 and exemplifies the Spanish Revival architecture common to the 1920s. The chapel itself is much more ornate, featuring heavily carved stone columns and other details. Its the most beautiful church Ive ever been in. Above the altar is a baldachin with Solomonic columns, reminiscent of the one in St Peters Basilica in Rome and well-proportioned for a smaller chapel. On the wall behind the altar is a sculpture in high relief of a windswept Jesus with outstretched arms in front of a golden aureola and accompanied by putti (representations of chubby male babies, often confused with cherubim). Ringing the dome in the ceiling above the altar are more putti with almost fierce expressions, holding hands and cherishing various symbols of the faith. Some less ethereal painted statues are also placed around the chapel but do not affect the atmosphere much.

The church

The twenty Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of Cristo Rey are cloistered and lead a secluded life of prayer, contemplation and penance. They abstain from meat year-round and do not leave the monastery compound except for medical treatment. They alternate praying the divine office in English and Spanish, as they are bilingual due to their history. The community was originally founded in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1695, and relocated to California in 1927 as a result of religious persecution. In more recent years they merged with the Carmelites from a monastery in Kensington, California, which closed.

The neighborhood

The monastery is located near the northeast corner of Golden Gate Park and adjacent to the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school. Its a beautiful neighborhood and, like about half of San Francisco, is up a hill.

The cast

The chapel is not a parish and does not have a regular priest. When I approached the visiting celebrant after the service, by way of explaining the reason for some of my questions (and why I was taking notes), I told him I was writing up my experience for a post. He was anxious about having his name posted online, despite my reassurances, so I agreed not to record it.

What was the name of the service?

Extraordinary Form Latin High Mass. It was advertised in association with the Walk for Life West Coast, an annual pro-life protest in San Francisco. Im not sure how frequently public services are held in the chapel

How full was the building?

There were about 60 people in attendance, and 144 chairs, so about 40 per cent full. Some in attendance were in town for the Walk for Life, and some were local. A majority of the women wore mantillas. We could not see the nuns, as they were behind a grille in the right wing of the chapel.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

On the walk up to the chapel, I met a student group from a university in Californias Central Valley who were also there for the Walk for Life. We chatted during the walk and sat together. I did not encounter any ushers or other staff, and no information was handed out about the service.

Was your pew comfortable?

We sat on padded wooden chairs with individual kneelers. They were about as comfortable as a padded pew, but there was more kneeling than I was used to, and the padding was not up to the task.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Because most everyone was visiting, the atmosphere was rather unsure. Between being breathless from the walk and awestruck at the interior, I did not feel settled in for several minutes and was glad the service started late. The organ played quietly during this time.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The first words of the service were sung by the choir in indecipherable Latin. The first spoken words were whispered by the priest in Latin, facing the altar. The first audible spoken words were "Gloria in excelsis Deo."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No materials were provided for the congregation. I saw one person who had brought what looked like a personal missal. Not much participation was expected from the congregation; our responses were mostly limited to "Et cum spiritu tuo." It felt more like we were witnessing the priests devotions than participating in the mass ourselves. I found the rest of the Latin hard to follow because of the echoing acoustics, and at times wished for a printed guide. At other times, I felt like that would have taken away from the immersive and mysterious feel of the service.

What musical instruments were played?

They have a two-manual electronic Allen Renaissance Chapel Organ, System C-6c, which accompanied two choirs: one, the schola of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Oratory, visiting from San Jose, California; the other, the Carmelite nuns in the right wing of the chapel.

Did anything distract you?

Several babies cooed and fretted in the back of the chapel, but the acoustics of the chapel made their exclamations sound surprisingly resonant and lofty, even pleasant. What was more distracting was rubbing shoulders with my neighbors, since the chairs were only 16 inches wide and placed with no space in between.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Most of the liturgy was chanted well by the priest in Latin. The choirs sang mostly plainchant, with the addition of two Renaissance polyphony pieces by the visiting schola. One of those was O Magnum Mysterium by Tomas Luis de Victoria, 1572. They did a fine job and were aided by the acoustics of the chapel.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – The homily revolved around a single gem of a concept. Mystery Father got straight to the point in a humble, unassuming style devoid of rhetorical flourishes. I found this insightful homily to be novel and profound. This kind of metaphorical connection, borne no doubt from contemplation, is something I find the Catholic tradition to be rich in. The echoing acoustics made it hard to understand many of his sentences, though. Speaking very slowly would have ameliorated the echo.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

As the soul animates the body, so Gods grace animates our souls. While it is important to choose life in the sense that all of us there for the Walk for Life had on our minds, it is also important that we choose, pursue, fight for, and cherish the life of Gods grace in our souls.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The architecture and art conveyed massive, bright, roiling, yet balanced splendor in a manner Ive seldom seen. The angelic images and foreign language were a reminder of the expansive population of Gods creation. It brought to mind the title Lord of Hosts and the reality of the doxology: "Praise him, all creatures here below; praise him above, ye heavenly host." The carved figures and lofty ceiling gave a sense of humanitys highest efforts at art and civilization professing the holiness and sovereignty of God.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

As the priest lifted up each of the elements during the mass, an altar boy kneeling beside the priest simultaneously lifted up the back of the priests chasuble, while a second altar boy censed them and a third rang the altar bells. I understand that this lifting of the chasuble is done to relieve the weight of the vestment from the priest's shoulders so that he may elevate the elements to the maximum height, but it looked embarrassing and distracted visually.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Many of the attendees gathered outside the door and chatted with each other. I talked with a lone Byzantine Rite monk whom I initially mistook for being associated with the monastery. Eventually the priest appeared and I asked him a few questions, but it was clear that he was a visitor just as much as the rest of us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were no after-service refreshments.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

1 – This was my first time at a Latin mass. At first I didnt enjoy the Latin, but it definitely grew on me. Still, for a regular thing, I would benefit from more intelligible and participatory worship. If this were a parish with regular such services and I had to attend, I would bring an interlinear missal and be quick to learn it.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Oh, yes. Theres nothing like the strong sense that all of creation is praising and glorifying God for feeling happy that you are too.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The sculpted relief behind the altar, of Jesus looking so active and welcoming at the same time.

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