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Everything Is Illuminated

by Michelle Konstantinovsky

The towers of Grace Cathedral, a city landmark, rise 174 feet from street
level. | Photo courtesy of Grace Cathedral

An art installation at Grace Cathedral epitomizes the institution’s role as a beacon of community, equality and hope in the City.

On a recent Monday night at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, a few dozen attendees found themselves quietly lying on the limestone floor of the renowned church, gazing upward at the vaulted ceiling, and very likely feeling transported to an otherworldly place. Regardless of any religious affiliations or lack thereof, strangers had converged after dark at the cathedral’s exterior door connecting the north plaza to the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel inside, ready to take in the sensory experience known as Grace Light.

Limited to just 36 guests at a time, the bimonthly, 45-minute and free — but quickly booked — event is rooted in the simple acts of observation and sensation as participants peer through a delicate atmospheric haze. Over the course of the viewing, a funnel of light by artist George Zisiadis emanates down from the 100-foot-tall eaves, enveloping attendees in a luminous glow as Gabriel Gold’s haunting composition of piano, vocals and various other acoustics reverberates within the cavernous space and fills their ears. The group is split into two: One quietly explores the cathedral while the other lies down to admire the state-of-the-art laser projector beaming light through water vapor; the two groups switch halfway through. The intention of the exhibit, according to its creators, is to cultivate a space for contemplation.

“This work was two years in the making,” says Ben Davis, founder and chief visionary officer of Illuminate, an organization dedicated to creating large-scale public artwork and the driving force behind The Bay Lights adorning the western span of the Bay Bridge. “Part of that was the technical struggle; arriving at elegance is an arduous journey. But more profound were our discussions about the meaning of the experience, its potential to unlock another realm of consciousness, to lay bare the sense of oneness with the universe that lives within and unites all humans.”

Grace Light isn’t the first artistic exhibition at Grace Cathedral, the iconic spiritual landmark that champions social justice, but it is wholly unique. And its origin story speaks to the far-reaching spirit at the heart of Grace, making Grace Light an apt metaphor for the institution in which it’s housed — a longstanding beacon of hope emanating into nearly every corner of the City.

The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young is its ninth dean. | Photo courtesy of Grace Cathedral
The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young is its ninth dean. | Photo courtesy of Grace Cathedral

At the beginning of 2018, congregant and San Francisco Interfaith Council member Michael Pappas introduced the Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young to Davis and Zisiadis, who had been toying around with the idea of co-creating this roughly seven-story cone of light in the cathedra. Young was intrigued and, in turn, introduced the pair to Gold, one of Grace Cathedral’s longtime yoga musicians. Zisiadis helmed the visual piece, along with Director of Events and Cultural Programs Rebecca Nestle, who runs the arts program at the cathedral. Zisiadis then collaborated with Gold to compose the original score. In September 2019, the immersive experience was born, making it one of the local pioneers in the increasingly prevalent category of interactive, all-encompassing exhibitions (case in point: the Asian Art Museum’s teamLab: Continuity, in which participants become part of the projected, digitized landscape).

Grace Light is more than just a crowd-pleasing spectacle; it’s an experience that embodies the soul of the cathedral and its current mission to rejuvenate and reunite the City. If there were ever a 12-month period to designate as the “Year of Healing,” 2021 would be it. Following a year like no other, the leadership behind Grace decided to focus on restoration and rehabilitation as the theme of this year’s programming.

“In this moment of tremendous change and challenge, all of us need healing in some way or another,” Young wrote in a public letter to kick off the year. “There is simply no going back to what we were before. We need to hold on to what we have learned — to the new habits that are sustaining us — but we also need to be made new.”

Throughout its storied history (the parish was founded in 1849, but the cathedral was reconstructed over decades after the 1906 earthquake), Grace Cathedral has perfected the art of blending the principles of community with the urgent needs for progressive thought and action.

“Grace Cathedral exists to make its own contribution to building up the spiritual life of every person regardless of what religious or nonreligious tradition they come from, or what they believe now,” Young tells the Gazette. “From the very beginning, the people recognized the importance of caring for the spiritual life of people in San Francisco.”

As the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the United States, Grace’s reputation is often preceded by its stunning French Gothic architecture. But it’s the activities, events and services that take place behind the famed Ghiberti doors that truly distinguish the spiritual haven from other houses of worship.

“The first priest here writes about ministering to sailors being hanged for mutiny and that a prominent Jewish family recognized the importance of our ministry with a financial gift,” Young says. “We serve as the home church for the Episcopal Diocese of California. Every week we greet scores of visitors and tourists who also worship here.”

While tickets to viewings of Grace Light are free, they book quickly. Check gracecathedral.org on the 15th of the month, when tickets are released at noon. | Photo courtesy of Henrik Kam
While tickets to viewings of Grace Light are free, they book quickly. Check gracecathedral.org on the 15th of the month, when tickets are released at noon. | Photo courtesy of Henrik Kam

In addition to serving as a congregation for about 500 households, Grace Cathedral has proven to be one of the City’s most potent social justice centers — supporting labor rights in the 1930s, civil rights in the ’50s and ’60s, and women’s rights in the ’70s. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was at the forefront of supporting those impacted by HIV/AIDS. Today, there is no shortage of programming devoted to critical issues facing society, such as anti-racism, climate change activism and gender justice/equality. Sacred Ground, for example, is Grace’s online study program dedicated to exploring themes including race, class and personal narratives. And the cathedral has partnered with organizations like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action to address the epidemic of gun violence in America.

Grace Light was intended to complement and attune to the signature architecture of Grace Cathedral. According to Davis, “there is no other place on Earth to have a similar experience.” Illuminate has gifted the installation to the cathedral, and it is now part of its permanent collection, adding to the multitude of one-of-akind characteristics that Davis says makes the site so special.

“People always make all the difference,” he continues. “Grace Cathedral beautifully reflects the romanticized spirit of San Francisco, our city minus its warts. It is a place of non-judgment, compassion, creativity — a safe and welcoming space for all people. The art that fills the cathedral helps set and reinforce that divine spirit.”

Young echoes this sentiment. “Human beings have a deep unconscious life that does not often come to the surface,” he says. “The beauty and the music of this experience surfaces that part of us you might call our spiritual self. It helps us to feel a profound connection to other people and even to all of life. There are always people in tears at the end. They have come close to the Holy. You don’t have to subscribe to a dogma in order to experience the divine in this way. It is open to people who hold many different worldviews.”

Young believes that through its continued creative offerings and commitment to social causes, Grace Cathedral will continue its legacy as one of the City’s main hubs of hope, strength and, yes, spirituality. “Not everyone has the time or the interest to develop a life of deep prayer,” he says. “Grace Light encourages us to find new ways to experience the sense of awe at our existence and the mystery of those moments when we feel profoundly connected to all life and to the world.”

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