Sunday, February 3, 2013

Book Review: The Church Building As A Sacred Place

"How can we recover the sense of the sacred in our temples and shrines? We seem to have lost the ability to make new buildings which exude that ineffable sense of the 'sacred' which can be rightly called the presence of the Almighty. Why is it that few of our churches built in recent decades intimate that the church building itself and the celebrations taking place within it are sacred?"
- From the book, The Church Building As A Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal, by Duncan G. Stroik

I was privileged to be given this book for a review. The day I received it, I gasped at its large size, breathing in the lovely scent of thick, quality paper while feasting upon the rich, vibrant images of stunning cathedrals and churches from all over the world.

This is my kind of book.

Not only is the book itself a delight to hold and read, the content itself is (as I shared with Thomas M. Dietz, who contacted me) "right up my alley."

I cannot fully express how starved my soul was during the years I spent attending non-denominational churches. How hungry I was for the visual cues that would direct me toward the sacred, that would remind me of the beauty and grandiosity of our Creator, His Son, and the Holy Spirit.

During those years away from the Catholic Church, all I had to look at were the bare, cream-colored walls of a multi-purpose room which had a stage set up for the worship team.

When I was part of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Cincinnati, Ohio, I co-led an artists group. We received permission to have an installation, featuring the art work of our members. I remember working away with Ben (not his real name), the other leader as we gently hung the paintings and framed photographs. Ben was into "found object" art and had created a special piece that was displayed outside the building. He had strung together a collection of found objects that were carefully hung from the roofline, dangling a bit like a large strand of Christmas lights.

Ben's installation was about reminding us that we were all "found objects" God had pulled from the trash but He joined us together to make something beautiful. I was oddly touched as I would gaze up at Ben's work, realizing that no matter how broken or ugly I felt, I was still loved by God and deemed worthy of the saving power of His Son, Jesus Christ.

However, we were asked to take down the art after three weeks. And then it was back to bare walls. The same happened with another church I attended. Artists would be appreciated for a few weeks but then the request would come in to remove the art and "get back to normal."

The problem is, as Stroik so eloquently describes, a lack of understanding what the sacred is and how important it is to preserve it.

An appreciation and investment in the sacred was demonstrated by my ancestors. In Cincinnati, Ohio, there is a beautiful Catholic church called Old St. Mary's. My parents were married there. When Old St. Mary's was being built, the many immigrants who settled in Over-the-Rhine at that time would take the bricks home and bake them in their own ovens. There was a pride in knowing that they were literally part of building the church.

When I attend Mass at Old St. Mary's, I am reminded of the hard work and sacrifice that went into erecting such a building to the glory of God. For those who so invested themselves, I am deeply grateful and respect them for their contribution. Stroik's book examines the history of sacred buildings and sends out a call to return to such an investment once again.

The book is divided into four parts: The Church as a Sacred Place: Principles of Church Design, Church Architecture Today, From Bauhaus to God's House: Modernism and Modernity, and Renaissance and Revival.

Within each section are chapters devoted to such topics as: the altar as the center of the Church, the purpose of a church, myths of contemporary sacred architecture, and even advice to pastors and laity who are planning to build or renovate a church building.

Some of my favorite sections nailed our culture's deteriorating interest in producing beautiful buildings. From Part II, Church Architecture, Chapter 7: Spontaneous Shrines and Temporary Churches:
Interestingly, while most people can appreciate historic art and architecture of high quality, they do not expect much from contemporary buildings -- perhaps because we think that modern buildings are unique in history, since they are functional, built on a budget and express our age. Thus, we have gotten used to the buildings we visit on Sundays and Wednesday nights being not unlike doctors' offices and shopping malls on the outside, while on the inside they are not even that nice. It seems our priorities have changed.


Stroik goes on to say that many Christians live in homes that are quite beautiful, filled with lots of images and having "transcendent" great rooms, and yet their churches are the opposite of their homes.

He the asks, "Why is it that many of us would not spend money on a beautiful well-built church but would be happy to live in a mansion?"

It is a profound question, one that would likely make most Christians uncomfortable if they really thought long and hard about it.

The book is filled with such observations and pondering. Page after page shows visually stunning cathedrals, both the exterior and interior, alongside the barren and at times brutal images of what I'd call the hideous modern church buildings. How walking into a church that resembles a grim prison cell is more preferable than one that resembles a sacred place of worship, is beyond me. But some committee voted for it.

And since I came out of the "mega-church," I especially appreciated Stroik's thoughts on it. (Part IV Renaissance and Renewal, Chapter 15: Can We Afford Not to Build Beautiful Churches?). He calls such buildings that house mega-churches, "un-architecture."

Following the design principles of the sports coliseum, shopping mall, or office part, it is dropped down in the middle of a large piece of land convenient to major highways and surrounded by a large sheet of asphalt. It is the "media church," the here and now, in which the ultimate architectural philistinism has triumphed. The transience of the American population, the preeminence of the parking lot, and the short term life of an institution build around an individual preacher or a contemporary psychology results in a building that needs to be big, cheap, and built fast.

Wow. Did he nail it, or what?

I think that for many of the younger people who attend my local Traditional Latin Mass, they instinctively recognize how such buildings come up short when it pertains to being transported into a higher realm for worshipping our God.

I spoke to another architectural friend at length years ago as he explained the spiritual significance of  our Catholic parish's building. My eyes grew wide as he revealed the significance of the doorways, the way the pews were arranged, the steps leading up to the altar and how it correlated to the relationship to the Christian,  Jew, and Gentile when we have a Solemn High Mass; and how the altar represented Christ. He said, in essence, that the building itself was to be a place where heaven and earth met. And... it is to be a place where mystery exists alongside faith.

When he said that, the image of all the ugly mega-churches and ghastly modern church buildings flashed before my eyes. I thought about our own parish, which is a traditional Catholic church building with stained glass windows and a beautiful altar with soaring spires and statues of Jesus, Moses, and Abraham within it.

I thought about how I relished entering into that building, knowing there was a clear line of demarcation from the world and I was now on holy ground. Personally, I believe we all need such a sacred place, a place where we go to meet our God and remember the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. To me, these types of meditations are not easily had when one sits inside a box. But when I'm surrounded by inspired architecture, I am humbled and realize how much we need such buildings.

This lovely book has much to offer, not only to the architectural world, but for Christians who yearn to discover once again sacred places that transport them with their beauty into a realm where the eternal and divine meet. Within such buildings, we are transformed and reminded of the unchanging nature of God, and our relationship with Him.

The book can be purchased from Liturgy Training Publications. I highly recommend it. Also, it would make a beautiful gift for anyone who loves Catholic church architecture and enjoys the philosophical examination of it. Whoever is blessed to receive such a gift, will be grateful.