By Fr. Francis Benedict, O.S.B.
For more than twenty-two years, the monks of Valyermo have been raising funds to build a new Youth Retreat Center beginning with a new Chapel. This has been the longest single fundraising endeavor in the history of the monastery. The idea of a new Center was conceived by Joyce and Betty Cottage and their intentional lay community which took over the management, cooking, cleaning and giving of retreats at Valyermo from 1979 to 1986. This community saw the urgent need of creating a new Center to perpetuate the monastery’s ministry to young people into the future. This proposal was accepted by the monastic Chapter as a part of its future master plan.
In 1993, Brother Joseph Iarrobino, O.S.B., who had fundraising experience with the Brothers of St. John of God before becoming a monk of Valyermo, decided with the permission of Abbot Francis Benedict, O.S.B. to devote his energies to fundraising for the completion of this dream. From that year, the Chapel has been the initial focus and first objective in the Youth Center’s development plan. Also, with the agreement of the monastic Chapter, this fundraising endeavor would be dedicated to the memory of Brother Joseph’s parents, Pasquale & Anna Iarrobino. He worked together with Abbot Francis over many years to obtain gifts from his family members and from his long connection with classmates from Boston College, where he graduated in 1952.
Carolyn Jordan, the Director of the Youth Retreat Center, who succeeded the Youth Center ministry’s leadership from Joyce Cottage in 1986, continued working with Father Francis (before he became the abbot) and the architects Gaede+Larsen of Pasadena, on the Youth Center master plan. With the death of Mr. Gaede and the many delays in the proposed project due to the Abbey’s other financial necessities and to a slow influx of donations for the Youth Retreat Center project, this early master plan was abandoned.
Ernest Adams, a planner and architect from Newport Beach, in conjunction with Fr. Simon O’Donnell, O.S.B. conceived a new design for the Chapel, one that would hopefully cost less for construction. This followed the decision to utilize pre-fabricated buildings as the basic structure for the two buildings that were constructed prior to the Chapel—the Arts & Crafts Center (housing the St. Andrew’s Abbey Ceramics) and the Welcome Center (a building containing the Abbey Books & Gifts and a new Conference Center). Ernest Adams worked tirelessly to assure that these pre-fabricated buildings (the Arts & Crafts structure from Golden Seal Buildings and the Welcome Center from Yankee Barn Homes) were both modified to bring forth practical and architecturally pleasing structures for the desert environment of Valyermo.
The Chapel of the Annunciation, named in the summer of 2008, was conceived by Fr. Simon to be enclosed within a Gold Seal octagonal roof line. Ernest Adams and Fr. Simon worked on the initial stages of the Chapel design, envisioning a sunken and tiered sanctuary with a wide ambulatory leading to ramps descending into the sanctuary itself. Because of the pastoral need for Penance Services for most youth retreats at Valyermo, six reconciliation rooms were designed into the corners of the Chapel to provide adequate space for confessors and penitents to celebrate this sacrament. These reconciliation rooms were to be in conformity with new guidelines which required privacy while at the same time providing visibility from the outside. Because of the acoustic resonance within the upper portion of the Chapel where the reconciliation rooms are located, it is recommended to play sacred instrumental music or Gregorian chant recordings so as to assure privacy of the sacrament within these rooms.
As the fundraising became more successful and hopes for the completion of the Chapel became realizable, Abbot Francis took over the interior and exterior design of the Chapel in 2007 and 2008. Working with Norberto Gutierrez of The Wood & Iron Factory, Inc. of San Diego/Tijuana, the liturgical furniture was designed and hand crafted in solid wood. This furniture included the altar and candlesticks, the ambo, the presider’s chair, stools for deacon(s) or servers, a prayer bench for the handicapped balcony, the paschal candle stand, the sanctuary light and two tables for worship aids. Two magnificent bas reliefs were designed and crafted in bronze especially for the Chapel: the Baptism of the Lord and the Annunciation. Two holy water fonts in granite were designed and placed in the entry next to the Baptism bas relief. At the center of the Chapel, the gilded bronze tabernacle is seen hanging from the high point of the ceiling. In this design, originally conceived by Fr. Simon, the medieval style repository for the reserved Sacrament is elevated above the altar within the sanctuary. This ancient approach to Eucharistic reservation resolves the issue many Catholics have today: that they cannot find the reserved Sacrament within the main body of so many contemporary Catholic churches.
Theological Basis of the Chapel’s Design and its Appointments
The Octagon as a symbol of baptism
When one studies the design of ancient baptisteries in Italy, the structures are often built in the shape of an octagon. Two of the most famous are the baptistery at St. John Lateran in Rome and the baptistery at the Duomo in Florence. Art historians remark that the octagon represents the seven days of creation with the eighth side representing the new creation. That new creation is brought about by the gift of faith in Jesus Christ and by our baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity at the command of Jesus. The very symbol of baptism and the new creation is implicit in the shape of the Chapel itself. This octagonal design is seen in other elements within the Chapel.
The bas relief of the Baptism of the Lord
As one enters the Chapel, one immediately sees the large bronze bas relief of the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist. This mystery reminds us of the humility of Jesus the Messiah and his total participation in John’s baptism of repentance which prepared the people for the coming of the Savior and the cleansing of sin which Jesus has effected in the lives of those who have followed him in every generation. Jesus Himself makes the waters of baptism holy. These sacramental waters save and sanctify people of faith by immersing the believer in the mystery of the Incarnate presence of God and in the culminating mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising and glorification. The Holy Spirit hovers over the kneeling figure of Jesus, his arms in the posture of prayer and humility. The Father’s voice, though not depicted in the bas relief, says to those then and for all time: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3: 17). At each side of the bas relief is an octagonal granite holy water font engraved with the symbol of the cross and overlaid with the logo of St. Andrew’s Abbey. As the faithful dip their hands in the holy water, they remember the grace of their own baptism and symbolically renew the pledge of that baptism in Christ.
After the faithful dip their hands in holy water, they enter the ambulatory to the right and to the left. The ambulatory symbolizes that our Christian life, begun in baptism, takes the form of a procession. Our life is a journey, a pilgrimage toward the sacred mysteries revealed in and through Christ. Christians do not remain stationary but move toward the kingdom of God together and are immersed in the sacred mysteries that are celebrated in the Eucharistic sacrifice through which the Christian community and each Christian are gifted with food for the journey, the Word of life and the Bread from heaven.
The Sunken Sanctuary
In most churches, the sanctuary (Holy of Holies) is elevated above the main portion of the building where the faithful sit and participate in the sacred mysteries. The raised sanctuary symbolizes an upward movement visually and the elevation of the individual soul and the community to heavenly places. In the Chapel of the Annunciation, one descends into the sanctuary, the place of worship, as ancient believers descended into the baptismal font. Immersed in the waters of baptism, the neophytes express and experience their dying in Christ so as to rise with Him in the glory of new life. This descent into the Chapel’s sanctuary is symbolically an extension of that reality, leaving the false self and the aspect of the world that is separated from God to become alive in the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.
The Circular Choir Seating
The sanctuary of the Chapel is shaped like a circular monastic choir in which the worshipers face one another, praying together as one voice, one body and one spirit. This Chapel provides an intimate space where together the people can worship God. When monks pray antiphonally—choir to choir—their praise of God is responsorial, expressing the give and take of life together in the Lord. Seeing one another visually in the act of divine worship is a reminder that Christ is present not only in the sacred images, in the altar of sacrifice, in the ambo of the living Word among us, in the tabernacle where Christ is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, but also in the brother and sister individually (Matthew 25) and in the worshiping assembly as a whole. Our Christian life is truly a salvation experience, a celebration of the whole people of God—Jesus as Head and we Christians as members of His Body, the Church. Every worshipping community is a microcosm of that larger reality, which is Christ and the whole Church.
The Sanctuary within the Sanctuary
In every Church, there is a sanctuary in which the altar of sacrifice, the ambo for proclamation of the Word of God and the presider’s chair, where the priest takes the place of Christ in the sacred assembly, are placed. Another sanctuary or shrine is set aside for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament within a tabernacle, where the Sacramental Body of Christ is reserved for adoration and for communion to the sick. In the Chapel of the Annunciation at the Youth Retreat Center, the sanctuary with its furnishings is within the sanctuary of God’s holy people. The platform for the altar and the platform for the ambo and presider’s chair are made of oak, setting them apart visually within the otherwise carpeted sanctuary of the faithful. In the center of the sanctuary is an octagonal step below the suspended tabernacle. When the tabernacle is lowered to receive or to repose the Blessed Sacrament, this step signifies the sacredness of the vertical space where the Eucharist is reserved.
This tabernacle is suspended from the highest point in the ceiling of the sanctuary. It is a precious receptacle in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and adored. The tabernacle is made of bronze and specifically designed for the Chapel of the Annunciation. On three sides are angels with folded hands, signifying the prayer and adoration of the angelic choirs. On the top and the bottom of this suspended tabernacle are angels, also in the posture of prayer. On the door of the tabernacle is Christ enthroned, holding the book of Gospels, surrounded by four angels. Christ is seated within a mandorla, also a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem. The tabernacle is gilded to emphasize its importance—the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for adoration of the faithful Christian community in union with the adoration of the angelic choirs in heaven.
The Stations of the Cross
The 14 stations of the cross are a devotion with the Church that began first in Jerusalem in the Holy Land. This devotion was spread by the Franciscans as a form of meditative prayer, both private and communal, to commemorate the passion of Jesus from His condemnation at Pilate’s judgment seat to His burial in the tomb. Since Vatican II, some stations of the cross include a 15th mystery, the resurrection. Its purpose is to remind the faithful that Jesus’ burial was not the end of the sacred story. The resurrection completes the paschal mystery on which our Christian life is based. This devotion is especially used during the penitential season of Lent but is also encouraged at any time in the liturgical year. These stations are placed along the ambulatory, beginning on the right, and remind us that the way of the cross and our participation in the saving deeds of Jesus are an essential part of our pilgrimage of faith as Christians. This devotion fits perfectly with the baptismal themes present in the architecture and theology of the Chapel of the Annunciation. The stations are made of bronze and copper and were crafted in Spain.
The Romanesque Corpus of Jesus Crucified and Risen
This image of the Crucified Christ is hand carved chestnut in a modern style reminiscent of Romanesque carvings and statuary. In that period of Church art and architecture, the stylization is serene and dramatic. Many depictions of the Crucified Savior attach symbols of his kingship (a crown and an embroidered, even gilded, loin cloth). The body is angled in such a way as to portray the giving up of His Spirit to the Father. Yet, there is life in the figure which embodies the reality of death and resurrection simultaneously. The fact that the loin cloth of this corpus is gilded signifies the risen life and the kingship of Jesus, reigning from the cross. Because of this, the Body of Jesus is suspended from the wood rererdos in a cruciform gesture in which Jesus’ Body is the Cross, signifying His death, resurrection, and glorification within the same gesture.
The bas relief of the Annunciation
The bronze original of the mystery of the Annunciation is elevated above and within the sanctuary and is visible from almost every place in the Chapel. This mystery celebrates Mary’s ‘yes’ to God’s invitation to become the Mother of the Savior (Luke 1: 26-38) and is the beginning of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Annunciation is the patronal mystery of the Benedictine Congregation to which the monastic community of Valyermo belongs. In the bas relief we see the angel Gabriel kneeling before the Virgin announcing that God has favored her and invites her to be the Mother of the Savior. Between the Virgin and the angel is a vase of lilies which symbolize her purity and virginity. The Virgin herself is sitting in meditation with one hand on her breast and one on the Word of God. Her gesture is one of surrender and acceptance. Above we see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove overshadowing her and making her womb fruitful with Divine Life. Mary is the Mother of all believers, the woman who continuously pondered the Word of God and whose life became fruitful through the will of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit. This indwelling which she embodied is the goal of the Christian life. Every Christian is to become a tabernacle of the indwelling Trinity, proclaiming the Gospel and the Person of Jesus to the world.