North America

Sedona, Arizona: Chapel of the Holy Cross

May 15, 2008

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A chapel is a place where visitors carry their prayers over a threshold. At the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona, visitors from every direction cross a threshold from the high desert into a small house of worship at home in the red rocks.

Just to the right of the entrance, visitors write their prayers in a prayer book, which resembles an atlas listing many locations. Most powerfully, above the prayer book is a painting of Jesus walking along a river enclosed by a canyon. Just like the chapel, Jesus seems carved out of canyon rocks. Folds in his tan robe seem to be sharply cut canyon walls. He looks down toward the prayer book. In the painting's glass, reflections of each visitor crossing the threshold blur into one another almost as a stream.

Many of these visitors are tourists, like me, making one of the recommended stops to appreciate the beauty of Sedona. But at this stop we find an invitation to go beyond the usual tourist experience. Some of us become pilgrims, travelers who "go to a far place to understand a familiar place better," according to author Victor Turner. As pilgrims, we write our own intentions or stop for prayer at the cross in front of the red rock view.

Looking at the view, strangers become inspired to speak to each other. A man asks if I think one of the rock formations visible from the path looks like an eagle head. A spontaneous community forms as others join in their own interpretations of the shapes.

The chapel itself, from a distance, resembles one of the rock shapes. Reddish orange rocks enclose the bottom walls of the chapel. In its window, a single cross seems to extend from the ground, as if weather and erosion had created it, as well. Both the chapel and the path leading to it were designed to disturb the existing rock formations as little as possible.

Marguerite Brunswig Staude had the vision to build on this land when it was remote and rugged, before the surrounding development in Sedona. The story unfolds in Kate Ruland Thorne's Upon this Rock, a book available for sale in the chapel gift shop. The construction supervisor, Fred Coukos, laid the path to the chapel so carefully that he protected a young cedar tree along the upper ramp. He passed along a sack of holy medals, from a priest, to one of his crewmembers, a devout Catholic, to place in the concrete as it was poured.

Today the chapel reflects its Sedona setting in the loving care of the local community. Parishioners from Saint John Vianney Parish have stocked the gift shop with their own creations, such as Zuni-style bear made from cloth by a parishioner, Yvonne Singer, involved in grief ministry. Outside, in the carefully maintained gardens, a sign, cheerfully written as if the rocks authored it, reminds visitors not to climb on, or take photos of, the formations.

Even visitors become part of this magnificent place. My favorite photo of our visit represents this idea. My daughter and I stand in front of the altar and its beautiful view out to the landscape. In the foreground, our faces have not much detail in the underexposed photo as the bright view behind takes prominence. We seem less important than the beauty of the creation behind us. Nonetheless, I can discern our look of joy and surprise that we have found ourselves at the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

Sherry Weaver Smith lives in San Ramon, California, U.S.A.

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