It is 1 o’clock in the morning. Dense fog clouds my sight on this still night. Each wave crests and falls gently. A breeze rushes over my neck, and chills creep deep down my spine. The sand between my fingers provides a brief, tactile reminder: I am still alive.
Abuse and violence have driven my teenage self to the waves of the Pacific tonight. I sit before the Divine, wondering whether I should join the ancestors. Would it be better to belong to the above and beyond? Another breeze and a whisper, a gentle reminder from God: my grandma loves me, I belong to her.
Mijo, my son. I am hers.
Arriving on her doorstep afterward, I might as well have been the sand on the beach: my soul fragmented, broken into a million pieces, grains slipping through my grandma’s fingers.
Little did I know that my grandma would turn those grains into a stained-glass windowpane. Each fragment of newly formed glass she bound together. One pane for the legacies of our family: “Mijo, you are the expression of many generations surviving poverty and violence.” Another pane for the traditions of our family: food, rest, religious and spiritual practice and a deep care for future generations. A pane for the ground, the earth we belong to: “We belong here and have for generations and will remain for generations to come.” All the pieces belonged together. The light of my ancestors would pass through me.
My grandma created in me a stained-glass window in a cathedral of love she built throughout her lifetime. Walking through her cathedral, you could see the stained-glass windows of my father, her grandchildren, her siblings, her parents, her students, our broader community, her garden filled with roses, the Costas hummingbirds we talked to and images of her profound love for God, Mary and Jesus. Delicate work, pieced together over generations: my grandma’s cathedral rivaled any in Europe and the temples of our Indigenous gods.
How did my grandma become a builder of cathedrals, of holy spaces in the wild, from such broken experiences? The answer lay in her sense of belonging to the Divine, to her people and to this material plane. Her daily practices were reminders of this belonging. Blending Christian traditions and the rituals passed down for generations beyond the gaze of the church, yet always within reach of the Divine, she embodied belonging.
As the beneficiary of her practice, I decided to follow her path to help others belong to themselves, their communities and this earth. I discerned seminary was the best place for me to learn these practices. At the threshold of the education building, I peered down the hallway lined with literal stained glass. As I crossed the threshold, a wind blew over me, the same wind that blew on the beach all those years ago. As I passed each image in the institution, a piece of me shattered, returning to sand.
In some cases, my petrification and my return to dust were necessary. This careful gift was offered me by theologians and scholars who accompanied the breaking of panes that I no longer needed,that no longer served the world we hoped to belong to. In other cases, it was as if a hammer were being used to break each pane – one by one – until what glass was left stood alone, sharp, capable of cutting even the most skilled glassmaker. A critical hermeneutic, a remnant of what was once beautiful.
My grandma’s cathedral was not welcome in this space, but she reminded me that this is where cathedrals are imagined. So I stayed. When she passed away, my sense of belonging went up in flames. Who would continue to piece together the broken? Who would help us find belonging? In service to the church, I saw others who had sharp edges.
I could see the trails of sand left by souls desiring to be put back together. The cathedral’s garden, our turtle island, is deteriorating. Where are the glassmakers? Where are the gardeners? Where are the architects
Cathedral of the future
The shards of broken glass lie on the floor of my grandma’s cathedral. Belonging requires the attention of glassmakers intent on building the cathedral for the future. They can see the value of each grain of sand, each broken shard, and imagine bringing them together. The glassmakers see the sharp edges and know how to work the lead to bind a mosaic.
Cathedrals are not built overnight. They are built over the course of several lifetimes, with the passage of time requiring an imagination for the future. A cathedral’s purpose is belonging — belonging to the community of God, to the Divine and to our ancestors and descendants. Stained glass, earth and wood are arranged to worship together. Gardens, labyrinths and art are created and tended. Baptisms, confirmations, rites of passages, funeral services, high holy days, the Shekhinah, where the Divine dwells: all rituals of belonging take place in and around the cathedral.
To build a cathedral, one must imagine the future, the beings who will belong to the space and to the people. My grandma had this imagination and built cathedrals of love in the wild for future descendants to inhabit. The work happens in community — with the images of the past and the inhabitants of the future.
Will future beings want to belong to this cathedral of love? Did we make it for their sake — or is it a mausoleum to our failed imagination? I imagine a God who is putting these pieces together. Theologians, scholars and pastors among us are putting these pieces back together. So bring your sand, your sharpened shards of glass, and help us build. Together, we will construct cathedrals where our descendants will come to dwell, imagine and belong.