The Cloud of Witnesses Chapel
by Charles Ajalat
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [saints], let us lay aside every earthly care and … run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith …” (Heb. 12:1-2).
The Cloud of Witnesses Chapel at St. Nicholas Cathedral, Los Angeles, was recently completed, filling a small entry area into the Church with ten large icon panels containing thirty-one life-size icons of Christ and the Saints. The Chapel educates the faithful on the Saints, in words, in icons, and through technology. One indeed feels “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” as one enters the Cathedral vestibule through this holy area from an outside passageway between the Church hall and the Church. The publicity surrounding the Chapel resulted in a very positive spreading of the good news of Christ to both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. The Cloud of Witnesses Chapel was dedicated during the celebration of Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers, where Orthodox Christians from up to 50 Southern California churches attended St. Nicholas.
The Los Angeles Times ran a two-page story on the Cloud of Witnesses Chapel and its iconographer in its Sunday edition the week preceding Sunday of Orthodoxy. The article was thorough and reflected accurately Orthodox Christian spirituality. Incredibly, the Times devoted almost a full color page on the first page of the California Section and a second almost full page continuing the story. The overall piece included four very large pictures.
The parish distributed a brochure containing (1) a description of the lives of Christ and the thirty Saints, (2) prayers regarding the saints, and (3) a description of the meaning of icons (summarizing the Goltz article from The WORD, January, 2006). For those who would rather listen in the car than read, the parish also distributed audio CDs of the Saints’ lives. A touch-screen computer, next to the Chapel, allows the faithful to touch the icon of the Saint, see the icon and hear a short description of the Saint’s life. (The reader may get a feel for this technology by going to the parish website, stnicholasla.com, to “Cloud of Witnesses Chapel,” pressing “play” and selecting any of the Saints by clicking the cursor on the Saint.)
The Chapel and the Los Angeles Times article regarding it have had a wonderful evangelistic impact. Many have called the parish priest, Very Reverend Father Michel Najim, asking about Orthodoxy (including some asking if they could begin the journey to becoming Orthodox). Visitors have come just to see the Chapel, including a former protestant Seminary Dean and an Episcopal priest. The impact on the faithful as they enter the Church has been even more dramatic. The sense of holiness as one enters the Church, surrounded by Christ and His Saints, is palpable.
Every inch of the small domed area is covered with the thirty-one life-size figures (Christ and His Saints) from all over the world and all centuries, showing the catholicity and teachings of the Church through the lives of the Saints, while also emphasizing the North American Church as well. The Chapel covers two ten-foot walls, a lowered domed ceiling, two small walls on either side of the door to the vestibule and two small walls on either side of the door to the outside. The famous iconographer Nicolas Magdalani wrote the icons, doing a masterful job, writing perhaps the best examples of all his outstanding work. The project took an extensive amount of time: Nicolas worked full-time nine months in Lebanon, and spent a very full six weeks finishing them in Los Angeles.
Over the doors entering and leaving the Chapel are the portions of the quotation above from Hebrews 12:1-2. The first part of the quotation is seen as one enters the Church. You face the Archangel Michael on one side and the Archangel Gabriel on the other, as if they are saying, “Be forewarned of the seriousness of your task as you go to meet your Lord in the Divine Liturgy.” Above the door, the quotation appropriately says: “[Since] we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every earthly care …” In this small Chapel one precisely feels “surrounded” by Christ and His saints. And the faithful know well, from the liturgy, the biblical quotation, “Let us lay aside every earthly care.”
Similarly, as one leaves the Chapel to go outside, one faces the Great Martyrs George and Demetrius who appear to say, “You must be prepared to take the faith seriously, take your faith out into the world and be ready to die for the faith as we did.” The remainder of the Hebrews quotation above this door then appropriately says: “and … run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith …” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
When going outside to the world, one looks up, one sees some of Magdalani’s best work in the Chapel: the four evangelists (and St. Prochorus, the deacon/transcriber for St. John), who remind the faithful that we need to take with us into the world “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:13-17).
On one ten-foot wall, Christ is surrounded by ten men saints, five on either side of him. Four of the ten saints are from North America (Sts. Raphael, Innocent, Herman, and Peter the Aleut), and six are from the rest of the world from the unified Church (Sts. Ignatius, Philip the Evangelist, Christopher, Ephraim of Syria, Moses the Ethiopian and Sava of Serbia). On the other ten-foot wall, the Theotokos and Christ are surrounded by ten women saints, beginning from 2000 years before Christ and from all parts of the world (Sts. Mary of Egypt, Helen, Suzanna, Christina, Sarah, Elizabeth, Nina of Georgia, Photini, Barbara, and Tackla).
The stories of these Saints’ lives, emphasized to the faithful through the brochure, the CD, the touch-screen computer, and, for a national audience, stnicholasla.com, demonstrate holiness, repentance, evangelism, martyrdom and faithfulness to Christ in His holy Church.
The Saints remind us that we must also, here and now, be living saints with a small “s.” Through the intercession of St. Nicholas and “of all thy Saints who from the beginning of the world have been well-pleasing unto thee,” may our Lord make us worthy to say to that reminder, “Amen.”
Courtesy of the
June 2006 issue of The Word magazine.