Zeal for God’s House: An architect’s reflections on Sacred Space

Something vital has been lost in Catholic church architecture, obscuring any indication that God is truly present there.

“Zeal for your house consumes me.” (Jn 2:15)

The sun was setting over the vast Valley of Mexico as I climbed up to the flat roof of a building at the Montefalco Conference Center to do a painting. The shades of brilliant scarlet from the sunset to the west threw the distant mountain range into waves of blue. I was anxious to get set-up fast in order to capture this strange beauty before it vanished. I wanted, especially, to capture at sunset the snow-capped Mt. Popocatepetl, (elevation: 17,887 ft.). Unfortunately, it was enshrouded in clouds. I fumbled to get everything ready. The eerie silence was broken only by the faint distant sounds of a mariachi band. A breeze came up. The sky darkened. I thought I had missed my chance.

Then, all of a sudden, I looked up and saw, high above the hills to the north, the majestic snow-covered peak of Mt. Popocatepetl, emerging slowly from behind the lavender clouds, completely dwarfing the western mountains. Brilliantly illuminated in pale pink, the peak appeared like some ancient god towering above the lesser mountains in its distant majesty. No wonder the pagans worshipped this mountain!  Its very silence seemed to say that it had been there, hidden all the time, towering above our little, mundane world—watching, waiting, and suddenly deigning to show itself in its own good time to those whom it chose.  It was awesome. I threw my brushes down in dismay. My poor abilities could never, even for a second, capture that silent, terrible splendor.

Is it any wonder that the natives worshipped this mountain? They may have been ignorant of Christianity, but they respected what they could see of the Creator in his works. At least, they had a “sense of the sacred,” something which seems to be lost today in many Catholic churches. Normally, we go to church to worship him, to participate in the liturgy. We go there not only for Holy Mass, but to confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to be baptized, to get married, and for our funeral Masses. These are the most private, personal acts a person can perform throughout his life.  But even when there’s no liturgy going on, we go there to pray before his living Presence in the tabernacle.

And, yet, today when you walk into many Catholic churches, they look like huge, cold auditoriums, warehouses, shopping malls or circus fun houses.  Some are just confusing in their “modern” contortions. Where is the sacrifice? There is no apparent indication of sacrifice but only comfort and provision for every human convenience.  And worship? There is no sign of reverence in that bland, antiseptic atmosphere. And God’s Presence? Just try to find the tabernacle. It is usually hidden out of sight behind a column, and given little more importance than a plaster statue. It is difficult to find anything of awe and reverence that would give any indication that God himself is truly present.

Certainly, something vital has been lost in Catholic church architecture today, so much so that many of the faithful wonder, “What happened to the glory?” Hand-in-hand with the loss of the sacred is the loss of the sense of beauty. So many new and renovated churches are just plain ugly and barren. Some border on the grotesque.  It is not a question of style.  What has been lost is not a classical or gothic architectural style, but a total vision of the church edifice as a sacred space infused with beauty.

 Sacred Space

But before considering “sacred space,” perhaps we Americans don’t appreciate any special place, much less “sacred” places. Possibly, we live in such an immensely large country with so much space that we have lost the sense of the uniqueness of any one place. Historically, we have always been moving westward. On the other hand, we all reverence the sites of Civil War battlefields. We sense the special significance of Plymouth Rock, or of Independence Hall, or “Ground Zero.” We like to return to the places of our childhood. So, perhaps, the loss of unique space is not really totally lost but hidden somewhere, deep down inside all of us. However, there are indications that this loss of the sense of special places can be more harmful than we think.

Edward T. Oakes in an essay, The Apologetics of Beauty, recalled the massacre at Littleton’s Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. After the event, one native of Littleton wrote an essay describing how the town had changed from the quiet village of his childhood, into just part of the suburban sprawl of Denver.

I grew up, however humbly, in a town with a character and sense of place, and I had those things, too. What sense of place can there be in the Littletons of America now, in these mall-lands: where each Gap and McDonalds is like the next, where the differences between things are neither prized nor scorned, but are simply wiped from existence? Growing up in an anonymous landscape, how can anyone escape his own encroaching sense of anonymity? In this world, meaning evaporates.  In a world of monotonous getting and spending, the need to shake things up, to make a mark, any mark, may overpower everything else, including sense.  The trench coat Mafia’s particular brand of evil may have stemmed from a terrible absence, a loss of perspective, that might be one of the unforeseen consequences of the loss of place.

Chapel at Heights School, Potomac, MD photo: Paul Haring

Long before Christianity arrived, mankind had reverenced certain places in nature as sacred. Mt. Fuji in Japan is sacred to the Shintoists, who must make a pilgrimage to its peak at least once before they die. There are groves sacred to the early Druids, as can be seen at Stonehenge. There are people in the Far East who make a festival of going to some vantage point to simply watch the sunset! Even people who have no religion occasionally have a “spiritual” experience when they walk through California’s redwoods, or peer into the Grand Canyon at sunset. St. Paul chastises those who ignore the Creator in his creation: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against the irreligious and perverse spirit of men, who, in this perversity of theirs, hinder the truth. In fact, whatever can be known about God is clear to them; he himself made it so. Since the creation of the world, invisible realities, God’s eternal power and divinity, have become visible, recognized through the things he has made. Therefore, these men are inexcusable” (Rom 1:18-20).

The sense of the sacred lies precisely in the fact that it is not something ordinary, but has to do with the extraordinary. Nor is it necessarily very pleasant, either. To us mortals, there can be something terrible and fearful about divinity. In almost every encounter mortal men have had with God in the Old Testament, there was both a radiant splendor but also terror, precisely because it was the “Other.” After Moses received the Ten Commandments, he had to cover his face since the brilliance of experiencing God  emanated from him, and was too terrifying for the people to experience.  Each time Christ appeared after the resurrection, the initial reaction was fear. Otherwise, why did he say to them: “Be not afraid?”  Peter was so overcome while witnessing the glory of the Lord at the Transfiguration that, in his bewilderment, he impulsively blurted out something as irrelevant as building three tents there! In other words, he panicked. Perhaps, one unknown poet summed it up best:

Let the Archangel
In terrifying grandeur
Step but a pace hitherward
From behind the stars
Our own heart
In violent beat
Would destroy us!    

But how is he there, more than anywhere else, since we know that he is everywhere, and that without him, all places would simply cease to exist?  What makes any place sacred is that God is present there in some special way, the opposite of Gertrude Stein’s famous quip about Oakland, “There’s no ‘there’ there.” Certainly, the Jewish people always considered the Temple the most sacred space of all places.  When God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, he told Moses: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground”(Ex 3:5). Obviously, God himself is very much concerned about sacred space, as A. Frossard has written:

The Lord gave Moses very detailed instructions concerning the dignity to be accorded divine worship. He laid down specifications for the construction of the tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and the altar. He gave Moses guidelines for sacred utensils and priestly vestments. God wanted to give his people a profound respect for the sacred. Jesus Christ underlined this teaching with a new spirit. His zeal for the house of God is fundamental to the Good News.

In St. John’s Gospel (2:15-17.), we read: “He made a [kind of] whip of cords and drove sheep and oxen alike out of the temple area, and knocked over the money-changers’ tables, spilling their coins. He told those who were selling doves: ‘Get them out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!’ His disciples recalled the words of Scripture: ‘Zeal for your house consumes me.’”  

Architecture

Therefore, it is apparent both from the Old and New Testaments that the Creator of all has never been indifferent to the places of worship that his children have built for his glory. Although it is he who sanctifies places, he has given his children the freedom and the creative ability to give them form. So, it is in the art of architecture that we must search for the answer to the question, “What is sacred space?”

Architecture is fundamentally “the art of space.” Etienne Gilson has written: “What distinguishes architecture from painting and sculpture is its spatial quality. In this, and only in this, no other artist can emulate the architect.”  Therefore, we can say that architecture is not the art of a “something,” like sculpture or painting, but it is the art of “nothing.” That is, it is the space surrounding the “somethings.” Except in unusual circumstances, architecture provides the setting, the backdrop, and the atmosphere for our lives. But it is never the main event, except in monuments, world fairs, and Disney World, which must shout to be noticed. There is a kind of humility in architecture which does not call attention to itself. It must be discovered personally.  I quote Etienne Gilson again: “Architecture, being an art of space, attracts all the other arts of space, which obtrude to adorn it, but also to disfigure it, or, in any case, live off it parasitically.”  Or, as Lao Tse put it much earlier:

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel,
But it is on the space where there is nothing that
the utility of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the utility of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
and it is on these spaces where there is
nothing that the utility of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is,
We should recognize the utility of what is not.

And in more modern terms:

Space constantly encompasses our being.
Through the volume of space, we move, see forms
and objects, hear sounds, feel breezes, smell
the fragrance of a flower garden in bloom.
Yet, it is inherently formless. Its visual form,
quality of light, dimensions and scale, depend
totally on its  boundaries as defined by elements of form.
As space begins to be captured, enclosed, molded,
and organized by the elements of form,
ARCHITECTURE comes into being.

(D.K. Ching, Form, Space and Order)

Architecture is also mute. Others make words to describe it, to study it. Words are even needed to build it. But once built, it simply is.  Gilson states: “Architecture does not speak. IT IS. It is developed in a great silence, but man, being a talker, strains his ingenuity to make it speak.”  This silence is most apparent when architecture is used to serve the Church. It should be silent. It is not supposed to call attention to itself because it is not at the heart of worship. The liturgy is the heart of worship. Architecture plays only an auxiliary role. It is the setting. It provides the space for the sacred actions of the liturgy, and, in so doing, becomes “sacred.”  Although its role is auxiliary, it is extremely important because it has the ability to help or detract, to contribute or mitigate against the liturgy itself. Pope Benedict XVI has written that: “Here it is fitting to remember that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist” (Sacramentum Caritatis). Certainly, it cannot play its part properly unless it somehow shares in the great religious mysteries it expresses and serves. There is nothing more sacred than the liturgy of the Holy Mass and the Real Presence of Our Lord in the tabernacle.

Furthermore, it is challenged to somehow incarnate God’s glory with a glimpse of heaven. Man “strains his ingenuity” to incarnate that vision in a human way. This striving is always intrinsic to the nature of the architectural design process. Architects are always striving to incarnate some kind of vision: whether it’s Mrs. Jones’s vision of her new kitchen, or a mayor’s vision of the new city hall. It encompasses the real tension that is found in any creative effort. In sacred space, it happens to be God’s vision; or put the other way around, it is the believers’ vision of God in his effort “to capture the Unseen in the materiality of the Seen,”…silently.

Sense of Beauty

But along with the loss of the sense of the uniqueness of any space—much less, sacred space—we have lost the sense of beauty; and that might be the connection. As the Austrian poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, stated: “For the beautiful is nothing but the first degree of the terrible.” Beauty is a powerful thing. It must be the primary goal of sacred architecture. Pope Benedict XVI suggests that: “Beauty, then, is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. The profound connection between beauty and liturgy should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration” (Sacramentum Caritatis).

Many will agree, but maintain that beauty is only a marginal, relative thing, or merely a matter of “taste” or ornament, or private opinion. However, the Holy Father disagrees: “Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.”  There have always been changing “fashions” in beauty throughout history, but God has instilled in all human beings, in all times, a sense of the beautiful. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: “Beauty is the neglected sister of Truth and Goodness, the three transcendental properties of Being. Without her, we lose them, too.  But no longer loved and fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man.”

To fail to produce beauty in sacred art is to rob God of His glory. The building structure may be in place, the creature comforts may be in abundance—including air conditioning, padded pews, the latest technology may be there, together with plenty of parking spaces—but God’s glory is not.

Finally, this loss of the sense of the sacred place and beauty could be caused by the sad fact that many Catholics have lost faith in God’s real presence in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict XVI had quite a bit to say about the Eucharist in his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (Feb 22, 2007):

It’s within this great sacrament that the sacred and beauty come together.Certainly, an important element of sacred art is church architecture, which should highlight the unity of the furnishings of the sanctuary, such as:  the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo and the celebrant’s chair. Here, it is important to remember that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist.

The photo accompanying this article shows the tabernacle and sanctuary in the Chapel at the Heights School in Potomac, Maryland, which was designed by Mr. Hardinge Menzies in 2008.

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avatar About Henry Hardinge Menzies

Henry Hardinge Menzies was born in Hickory, North Carolina, on April 20, 1928. He
received a B.A. degree from the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)
in 1948. He did a year of graduate work at the University of Southern California. From 1951 to 1955, he served in the U.S. Navy, eventually becoming a lieutenant in active duty during the Korean War. After the war, he received his degree in architecture from the School of Design at North Carolina State University (Raleigh) in 1958. He began his architecture career working for Perry, Shaw, Hepburn and Dean, Architects, in Boston, Massachusetts. Later, he worked for John M. Gray, Architect, in Boston. In 1962, he founded a firm, The Architects Group, with fellow architects, Vince Solomita and Joe Palermo. From 1964 to 1977, he conducted a private practice in Boston. In 1978, he moved to New York City, forming the partnership of Menzies & LeMieux. He later moved his private practice in 1982 to New Rochelle, New York, where he continues to work today.

His design efforts have concentrated on church projects, either designing new structures or renovating older buildings. Three of the more outstanding designs have been: The Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, Connecticut, St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan, Connecticut, and the chapel of the Heights School in Potomac, Maryland. He has given lectures on church architecture in New York and Connecticut, writing a number of articles on the subject, as well. Most of his architectural work and articles can be seen on his website: www.hmenzies.com.

He has been a member of the American Institute of Architects, the Menzies Clan
Society, and the Society for Catholic Liturgy. From 1998 until the present, he has
been included in the publication: “Who’s Who in America.” He has held architectural registrations in: Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Connecticut.

Comments

  1. avatar Angelo Directo says:

    Great article! Thanks for your thoughts, Mr. Menzies! I can appreciate how important it is for people in a church to help support the liturgy through reverence and participation. The architecture is our reminder of the sacredness of the place, and our faithful piety in the liturgy is what activates that it. I’ll never forget attending the canonization mass for St. Josemaria in St. Peter’s Square back in 2002. There were hundreds of thousands of people attending that mass, but at the moment of consecration, there was a profound and astounding silence. It was a very sacred moment which all of us certainly felt and experienced.

  2. avatar Joseph DeMaria says:

    Dear Henry,
    It’s refreshing to see someone take a stand on Beauty as you have. Modernism has conditioned us into believing it is something relative, ” in the eyes of the beholder”, but of course it’s not as you’ve shown. No one could deny the absolute beauty of the revealing of the snow capped mountain you witnessed. Similar absolute beauty is what our church spaces should convey.Our tradition believes that Beauty,Truth & Goodness are one in the same. Thank you for helping keep that tradtion alive in your architecture & writings.

  3. avatar Fr. John says:

    Mr. Menzies puts in such positive terms the need to recover the sacred in liturgy, liturgical music, and liturgical space, as well as in life itself. May this inspire many to implement sacredness wherever it belongs.

  4. avatar David R. Oakley says:

    Three cheers for Mr. Menzies for an outstanding article which dares to go to the roots of sacred architecture.

  5. avatar Eduardo de Asuncion says:

    Mr Menzies uniquely exhibits not only a profound depth of liturgical-architectural experience but an uncommon breadth of insight at the nexus of the sacred and the profane, the western tradition and what one might call its “eastern” counterpart, the supernatural and the temporal. Such depth, such breadth form the scope of his work, of equally uncommon dimension as exhibited albeit in small part in this article, a traditional yet modern mimetic of the “living Presence in the tabernacle” whom he consciously positions at the center of his aesthetic with scientific focus to accentuate the action and “argument” of the Mass.

  6. Henry Menzies is exactly right, and his powerful message needs to be broadcast widely in our times. The whole perception of beauty–in a sunset or an artwork or a gracious gesture–conveys the sense of a gift. In church design, we give the very best we have in order to thank God for his great gifts to us, especially the breathtaking gift of Himself in the Eucharist. Bravo, Mr. Menzies!

  7. avatar Frederick Marks says:

    Menzies is so right! The beauty of Cologne Cathedral inspired Robert Schumann to compose his magnificent “Rhenish” Symphony. The fact that men and women of the intellectual caliber of Ronda Chervin and Sir Kenneth Clark have been moved to conversion by marvels wrought by Catholic artists, points up the unbreakable bond between beauty and truth. One of the purposes of divine worship is to give glory to God, and if art and architecture, along with altar vessels and priestly vestments, do not conduce to this end, they are worse than useless. Likewise in the case of parishioners. If they arrive ingloriously dressed, they need a “dressing down” of the right kind — i.e. from the pulpit (since they probably aren’t the type who read church bulletins)

  8. avatar Luis Cabral says:

    You are right on target when you argue that “there is a kind of humility in architecture which does not call attention to itself.” Alas, the lack of humility you refer to is quite noticeable in much of modern art. If the painter, or the performing musician, or the conceptual artist do not have enough “shocking value” then few will pay attention to their creation. This leads a strong bias away from beauty and in favor of calling attention to the artist rather than the higher values art is supposed to reflect. So, to paraphrase your point, there is a kind of humility in art which does not call attention to itself — and certainly not to the artist.

  9. avatar Jon Lecanda says:

    In the search of different perspectives about Beauty I found this great article. I liked the analysis that refers to the lost of beauty in some “modern” sacred places. I also agree that reclaiming a sense of the sacred will enhance God´s Glory, as Mr. Menzies points it out. Overall, I found very suggestive insights that may give light to real problems in our society (so distracted by the tumult of human affairs).
    To rediscover both Beauty (Pulchrum) and Love (Agape, Caritas) through Architecture is an urgent task indeed. Someone who wrote brilliants assays on the Pulchrum, Von Balthasar, asserted that “genuine love between persons is probably much less common than one thinks, although most people think they have had some share in it and that they really possess it for brief moments, it is as rare as great works of art, which tower here and there above the mass of what masquerades as art”. As rare as the reflections found in this article. Thanks.

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