Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On having opinions

If one more personage tells me that church architecture doesn't matter, I will... well, probably smile and nod and then vent my disagreement quietly to friends and blog-readers.

One particular homilist instructed the gathered faithful (of which I was one) that they should stop criticizing "where the Blessed Sacrament is," "the stain-glass or no stain-glass," how the seats are placed, and other structural peculiarities. What the gathered faithful should do is "be glad" that there is a "place where God is worshiped." They should simply give thanks that they are in a gathering-place/worship-space.

Point taken: Instead of allowing our physical surroundings to dictate our participation in the Mass, we Catholics should be able to recognize the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, primarily, and in the Church body. In a sense, no, the building doesn't matter. Charity is all.

But as true as this is... it needs a little nuance and attention. We are spiritually fed no matter what building we are in when we receive Christ. Human beings, however, are not just spiritual beings. Exhortations to stop criticizing (or, I assume, praising as well) church buildings flirt with gnosticism, that old belief that we can exist on a purely "spirit" diet. The worst offense against charity is a lie, and to say physical surroundings "don't matter" is indeed false.

Because we have bodies, because we learn with our senses, our physical surroundings matter. They are not everything, but they matter. In other words, to be fully human is to exercise our judgment about what is true, good, and... beautiful!

Now, I'm not saying that there is an absolute standard of beauty in churches. But physical aspects of buildings serve to teach or guide the spirits/souls of the worshipers in the church. They can capture our imagination, for better or for worse; they can confuse or clarify, free or bind. For example, I once entered a Catholic church outside Chicago in which the Eucharist was housed at the entrance (in the "gathering space"), instead of behind the altar. But almost every parishioner knelt to the altar before entering his pew. Were they being taught by the architecture to kneel to Christ alone? No. They were confused. And so was my family as we stood around the pew entrance and finally turned around to genuflect toward the door marked "EXIT."

Other types of architecture--particularly modernism and its child, brutalism--come from philosophical schools that deliberately seek a divorce from all tradition. Images, arches, floorplans that evoke memory are bad; blank spaces, door frames, lawn chairs are good. The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronchamps, France, is a premier example of intentionally anti-memory, gnostic architecture. It screams: "The building doesn't matter!" And yet, it sends a message that very much does matter.

Beautiful churches, unlike ugly churches which tend to all look the same, are startlingly diverse in their make and manner. In the USA, we enjoy the gothic beauty of a building like St. Vincent Ferrer, the Dominican church in New York City. It teaches through statues and stained glass; it also evokes a sense of the transcendent in its high vaulted arches. The simpler but still-stunning beauty of the Franciscan tradition is in eidence at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery and Shrine, Hanceville, AL, as well as the new monastery of the Poor Clares of Virginia.

There are also churches that are nearly bare but still reflect something true and good about man, who is nothing, and God, who is all. See the Trappists' Monastery of the Holy Spirit's chapel on the top of this post.

The building matters. It's not everything, but neither is it nothing. Physical beauty and truth in architecture (e.g., making the Eucharist the center of a building's focus) can enrich our "worship experience." At the very least, the building should not be a stumbling block to the "beauty of the infinite One."

Amen. Rant concluded.


church chairs said...

Wow! Nice and informative as well. It would be great if we get some discussion on different kinds of church chairs.

mumsie said...

In support of your eloquent argument: Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Constitution on Divine Liturgy, Vatican II) states that "...Mother Church has always been the patron of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble ministry, to the end especially that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of things supernatural." (#122) God has supplied us with abundant "signs and symbols" and minds oddly attuned to them. Trying to free our minds of symbols for God, as C. S. Lewis wrote, leaves us with an image of the Divine as some kind of cosmic porridge; it's no use pretending we don't need icons!

One might note, though, that the above-mentioned Constitution also states: "And when churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful." A pretty thin guide for architects, which could well apply to that church you remember from Illinois.

Erika Ahern said...

Different church chairs. Seems rather trite. Yes. BUT. I have read "worship space planners" who claim that having individual, movable chairs (such as folding chairs) is preferable to the traditional pew. The question is always, of course, WHY?

If you need folding chairs because you are in an underground church in China and often have to dismantle the worship space in order to avoid police detection, then it seems folding chairs are the way to go.

If, however, you want to emphasize individualism and the transitory nature of all truth and morality, then perhaps you should spend more time in a pew.