Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The gem that is the Chapel at Sea Ranch, Gualala, California ...

The Thanksgiving holiday ended with a 3-day trip to Mendocino with a side trip to visit this magnificent tiny chapel beside Coast Highway 1 just a mile or so south of Gualala. It was created by James Hubbell - a San Diego architect and his son, another artist. It is designed for meditation and personal reflection -- holding no more than two or three people at a time, but probably best experienced alone. It is less like a building than a people-sized walk-in sculpture. Everywhere one looks there is an exquisite work of art for the eye to feast on; beautiful mosaics inset underfoot, stain-glass windows, hand-carved highly-polished small wooden benches, a bench lovingly covered in needlepoint to kneel upon, a wrought-iron chandelier overhead that is stunningly right for the space. It is an amazing experience that brought the kinds of feelings I would expect to have when standing under the ceiling with eyes upcast from the floor of the Sistine Chapel. I can imagine visitors 100 years into the future approaching this beauty with the same reverence. It was constructed in 1985 and is not yet well known, but it will be.

Having been a guest at Odiyan, the Tibetan Nyingma Monastery, years ago, with its cutglass library windows and mosaic temple floors, with its colorful gardens for meditation and fine art everywhere to invite contemplation -- one would wonder if Sonoma and Mendocino counties haven't cornered at least two of the important religious sites in the state. Odiyan is just a bit further south, inland from Marshall near Fort Ross, above the Russian River . Though I've visited a number of the California missions, I can't recall ever feeling the reverence there as I've experienced in either of these contemporary places of worship.

The Sea Ranch Chapel is non-denominational, intended for personal contemplation. Odiyan is Tibetan Buddhist. On the hour-and-a-half drive back to Mendocino I found myself silently wondering why such sites draw me inside so deeply without shaking my atheism? What about such places touch my spiritual places so profoundly? What is the nature of the God within me? Can it simply be my response to great art rather then to religion?

We visited St. Marys Catholic Church at Gualala, another small jewel of an architectural triumph. It, too, brought a feeling of deep reverence. It was Sunday afternoon, and there were no worshippers around. It occurred to me that the next time I'm in Mendocino for a weekend, I want to visit this church. But I know that I want to visit when it's filled with worshippers. I want to see it alive and functioning as intended. I want to sit among believers. And I knew that I needn't be a believer to want that experience. I realized that my spirituality was not dependent upon dogma or a belief system -- that it can be tapped into and brought to the surface with or without a creed to adhere to or a god figure to worship. The beauty of design, a combination of art disciplines, witness to the brilliant creativity of any artist capable of conceiving such wondrous spaces, the roar of the ocean and the vastness of the sky and the towering of the redwoods just outside the doors -- all create for me the wonder that feeds what some would call my soul.

I cannot imagine ever entertaining the idea of marrying again, but if I did ... .

Photo: Exterior view of Sea Ranch Chapel on the left. On the right Is a stained glass window viewed from the interior that faces the carved teak door at the entry. Click on these thumbnails for a full picture of this magical place.

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