Architecture: Our Disposition Toward God

Church architecture has a major role to play in the way we experience the Lord. When we walk into a church that draws our attention toward his magnificence, we can’t help but be somewhat mystified by the beauty of our glorious God; his eternal splendor is shown in some small part through the earthly edifice. However, when we walk into a church that has been constructed not necessarily to give glory to God, but rather to the exaltation of the human person, and toward human progress in autonomy and ‘creativity,’ the difference is immediately clear; we immediately realize the elements of transcendence and mystery are lacking. Although beautiful and prayerful churches can and have been built in almost any style under the sun, the simple and fundamental fact—which we know through these basic experiences—is that some styles are just better suited for showing God, and some better suited for showing man.

Most likely, no one here will be building a church anytime soon (and if you will be, by all means I hope this isn’t the first time you’ve thought about this sort of thing). However, I think it’s entirely appropriate to reflect some on why certain elements are critical in building churches that are specifically suited to Catholic prayer and liturgy, and ultimately in drawing attention toward the focus of all existence: God himself. Unfortunately for those seeking quick answers, knowing how to best draw the mind and heart to God requires a preliminary understanding of who this God is, and how he is known by his Church in her teachings and dogmas. As the culmination of all this, the liturgy—which means the ‘work on behalf of the people’ in Greek—is the concrete yet mysterious expression of all such understanding in a mode both expressive and faithfully receptive. A Catholic church, then, ought to incorporate not simply the proximate whims of an aspiring architect or adventurous parish building committee, bur rather the fullness of the Catholic faith to which it will serve as a home and a means of articulation.

Understanding the faith means understanding the “source and summit” of the faith: namely, the Eucharist. Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist is not only the highpoint of the faith, but most obviously of the liturgy; this has been the teaching since Apostolic times and will surely never change. Thus, the primary consideration one must make in deciding on a church design is, “Will this design reverence and express our belief in Christ’s True Presence in the Holy Eucharist?” I would be so bold as to guess that the feeling we get when entering a church and realizing either God’s or man’s exaltation has much to do with this one point. If the Eucharist is not central in the construction of a Church, what does that say about our theology as Catholics? Both Christ present in the tabernacle and Christ present in the consecration of the Mass need to be given prime place if a Catholic church hopes to achieve its mission of correctly articulating the faith, and the true ‘work of the people’ to adore and worship the Son of God.

On the flip side, what happens when this principle is abandoned? I think nothing speaks more strongly than that feeling of cold emptiness present in churches uninhabited by Our Lord in the Eucharist. Something is missing. If Christ is not at the center of the house, in vain do its builders labor. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, and although he was “rejected by the builders” (of old, as well as quite literally in recent times), he ought to be recognized as the cornerstone of every Catholic church in the entire world. Putting souls in close proximity with the Eucharistic Lord puts them into contact with the infinite mystery of the Godhead, and ultimately with the mystery of their own lives. Instead of expressing our human mystery in unintelligible shapes and gyrating, deconstructionist images that scarcely represent reality as we know it and require a guidebook to appreciate in any depth, why not rely on the infinite beauty of Jesus Christ to adorn our churches?

Really, the question of the human person and its pronouncement in places of worship ought to instead be considered as a question of the person of Christ, and his presence in the place of worship. By turning in on himself, man ultimately idolizes himself. However, by turning toward the Lord—Conversus ad Dominum, as the ancient Church prayed—we find an expression of humanity much more beautiful and meaningful than anything we could muster on our own. So too do we find a way to integrate that humanity with the humanity of the Son of God, giving great glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and living out most eloquently the faith that we profess in the liturgy of the Mass.

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    # by Joe Langan - April 8, 2008 at 8:47 PM

    This post reminds me of a really great book that I read recently, and which you have probably read yourself. The book No Place for God by Moyra Doorly is an excellent essay on the nature of the lack of the transcendent in modern Church architecture, and what we can do to bring back the sense of God's unique presence in our world outside of ourselves, back into our churches. I highly recommend this book. You can find it on the Ignatius Press web page. Give it a look through. You might find it to be a very enlightening read...

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    # by Joe of St. Thérèse - April 9, 2008 at 6:10 PM

    Amen! I absoulutely agree. Great Blog so far from what ive read.

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    # by Andrew Haines - April 10, 2008 at 3:57 AM

    Fortunately (or unfortunately, rather, for those who like to find "creative" ways to do things) the Church gives us all the guidance we could ask for in her documents on church construction and, more particularly, liturgy. The problem is not that the Church has lost focus, but instead that Catholics in positions of authority have lost an appreciation and understanding of the Tradition, which forms the Church's mind, so to speak. The "answer" to building beautiful new churches is not an emphasis on rubrical and positivistic certitude, as most traditional Catholics would immediately jump toward, but rather a monstratio of the genuine love and affection for Christ and the liturgy that stems from an authentic observance of liturgical norms and the preferences of Tradition. In other words, nothing hurts organic progress worse than inorganic resort to traditions that are misunderstood or misconstrued in the public understanding. In patience, we can learn to educate the faithful on what it is the Church is really saying to us. But, patience must precede reform. I think Benedict XVI has been a great example of this...

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    # by †JMJ† - April 10, 2008 at 7:46 PM

    The book I immediately thought of was Ugly As Sin. It was extremely hard to find when I bought my last copy though. As we continue to see the liturgy cleaned up, the proper churches to celebrate it in will only follow I hope.