Monday, May 11, 2009

Catholic Architecture and the Understanding of Sacredness

This past weekend, I attended a Southern Gospel concert at my brother's church. He was kind enough to purchase tickets for the family, so on Saturday night, I, along with my father, my brother's mother-in-law, his wife and daughter; sat and heard a pretty amazing group, The Hoppers. Like many Southern Gospel groups, it was comprised of a family and a daughter-in-law, who simply had an incredible voice.

I watched with slight awe as the church's choir walk to the front of the 'sanctuary.' There were almost 200 people involved and they filled the stage. But as I looked toward the stage, I thought about the differences in a Catholic church and how these differences effect one's perspective toward a Sunday church service.

Within a Catholic building, there is an altar. There is a very good reason it is an altar, for upon altars, sacrifices are made. In the Judaic tradition of worship, animals would be placed on the altar and sacrificed as an offering to God. There were specific offerings such as a sin offering, a peace offering, or a guilt offering. Altars have a very distinct connection in our Christian tradition, which developed from Israelite worship as described in the book of Leviticus.

This is powerful stuff. But instead, let's examine what a typical non-denominational church does with the front of the sanctuary, which is usually nothing more than a large stage area that holds the worship band's instruments and a podium.

Whereas the Catholic is facing an altar, with all of its symbolism and meaning, the non-denominational church is empty, lacking any physical reminders of traditional worship. If an altar is not present, then what has replaced it? Man. Or perhaps even more pointedly, the flesh of man. What do I mean when I speak of "the flesh of man?" It means ego, a desire for recognition and adoration.

The most prominent items that typically exist on the stage (and how interesting that this is the same term used for anything entertainment-oriented) are the worship band's instruments. Even the podium can be portable but it's tough to carry back and forth a drum kit. How does this influence a Christian? One possible way could be that a Christian enters into worship by focusing on the talent (or lack of it) of the worship team. I have witnessed the trap that many churches fall into regarding this area. It always seems as if "bigger" is better and few worship teams would say they're either "big enough" or "good enough." There is always a relentless drive to improve the sound, improve the player's talent, or improve the song roster.

I know there is authentic worship that happens with this approach. But there is also the more common result of a worship team feeling judged by their performance - either basking in the adulation of an applauding audience or feeling dejected after a poor performance. There is the trap of depending upon the people's response to gauge whether a worship service has been successful or not.

Compare this with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The altar is clearly the center of focus. Some parishes have choirs, but according to the rubrics of the liturgy, they are not to be present in the sanctuary. Usually a choir loft is utilized or a small worship team may stand off to the side. The altar creates an understanding of the sacred. Even the lectern, which is used for the readings of Scripture and the priest's homily, is always to the side of the altar. Never in front of it.

A typical non-denominational church has very little in way of sacred architecture. Usually non-denominational churches are in a warehouse or a nondescript building. Bland, uninspiring, and often cavernous. Very little visual prompts are present in order to draw a Christian's heart toward prayer and meditation.

Yesterday, I was able to bring my father to a Sunday Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky. It is a glorious example of Gothic architecture and has the world's largest stained-glass window; which depicts the First Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., when Mary was officially given the title "Mother of God." The Mass was beautiful, presided by the Bishop of Covington. Afterward, I asked my father, "We both visited two church buildings within a 24-hour period. Which one elevated your soul the most and encouraged you in worship?" Without a doubt, he agreed (as did I) that the Cathedral Basilica inspired us in worship.

There is much anti-Catholic sentiment in the world. But I would like to challenge anyone who has such feelings to visit one of those old Catholic churches and evaluate their spirit's response. I can't imagine, for instance, anyone attending the Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica and not being moved.

It's not entertainment. You won't be greeted by huge screens churning out modern and hip images to go along with the worship songs. But you will be confronted with timeless truths that still apply to our spiritual journeys today. After all these years away, I have a fresh appreciation for these grand and glorious churches; for not only are they visually a delight - they have persuaded my soul to go deeper in worship. Alleluia.

1 comment:

Shirley said...

Alleluia indeed. Even walking into one of these cathedrals when there is no Mass being offered lifts your soul. There is an awesome sacredness surrounding the dwelling place of God that can't be replicated by a building used for entertainment, no matter how grand it may be.