Wang Wei, writing in the 5th century, offers us the insight of one touched in prayer. He did not travel away to a foreign location, or a temple. Rather he welcomed, meditated, and prayed at home with a visiting monk. He names the grass, the incense, the lamp, the bells – what I would call ‘ikons into the sacred’. He concludes with the transformative phrase: ‘my life has infinite space’. Or in Jacob’s language: ‘Surely God is in this place’.
The Hebrew Scripture reading today[i], tells of Jacob dreaming of a ramp (think of a Babylonian ziggurat) connecting heaven and earth. The ramp, or ‘ladder’ as its long been translated, is something of a distraction from the main event – which is YHWH coming to stand up-close beside Jacob and gift him with the promises of progeny, land, and abiding presence.
In v.11, before this theophany, there is a pun[ii] linking Jacob’s rock headrest with Jacob’s head. Which alerts us that he isn’t going to understand what’s going on. He’s got a rock for a head!
And sure enough, that plays out. He doesn’t realize where he is (Abraham had earlier stopped and made an altar At Beth-El, now I guess long gone). He doesn’t realize that he is the one being blessed, not the place. He thinks the place is a magical gate.
We readers aren’t surprised by thickhead Jacob. He is a conniving trickster, out for solely his own good. There are no admirable traits about him that we’ve been told. He hasn’t had the transformative experiences yet of being tricked by his father-in-law Laban, wrestling with the angel at the ford of Jabbok, or receiving his brother Esau’s forgiveness.
What we are surprised about is that God would so bless him. This is pure undeserved unconditional gift to one so undeserving. And there is no moral or character transformation as a result of this encounter. The divine gifting wasn’t for the purpose of effecting change, and didn’t.
And Jacob, ironically, doesn’t understand unconditional. He responds (v.20), “If God will be with me… then YHWH will be my God (etcetera).” ‘If’? Really? He is so foolish as to think that he could conditionally set terms for a God who comes so unconditionally.
Jacob anoints the rock headrest as a witness of this event. The ‘sacred site’ though is not the rock or place, but the encounter. The rock though is a symbol that can enable/mediate for those who come in the future to participate in in the divine unconditionally. And the rock is a joke, a symbol for how we can get it wrong.
Somehow, somewhat surprisingly, a church building (a ‘rock’) can enable/mediate a transformative experience of God. But it isn’t like a customer seeking a Christian product coming to a retail store in order to get and consume. Some mission thinking promotes marketing Christianity by rearranging the store’s products like updating or changing the liturgy, theology, music, or minister in order that more customers be attracted. Such thinking is reminiscent of Jacob trying to work the ‘God stuff’ for gain. Change – and human communities like churches are always in a process of change – is rather driven by the desire to open ourselves further to the unconditional gift and all it means.
There are four interweaving, synaesthetic (senses all linked) forces operating in church buildings. They are the ‘work’ of the people (liturgy), the ikons, the design of the building, and the empty space.
Lex orandi, lex credenda, the law of prayer is the law of belief, acknowledges the strong link between worship and doctrine (like speech to grammar). In the lifetime of most of us we have seen a shift from worship being something the minister does with us singing along, to something that the whole congregation participates in; a move from seeing primarily the communion bread and juice as the body of Christ to seeing all who have gathered as primarily the body of Christ.
The word ‘archi-texture’[iii] is a word created to underline that ‘texture’ is made not just by the designers and builders of the original space but is ‘made’ by the lives lived and the relationships lived within it. Liturgy, like ‘body of Christ’, encompasses not just words and music, but lives and relationships.
There is a deep sense in liturgy of holding the world (the pain and joy) in an embrace of both gratitude and healing. It reflects both the ‘already present’ and the ‘not yet’. So we come to worship not just to connect to others, not just to be reminded or motivated in our moral and ethical actions, not just to be comforted or to comfort others, not just to participate in the silence, music, and beauty of this space, but to symbolically and mystically hold the hope and love called G/god in our being and in this place. And in this way through liturgy we participate in the life of G/god, to literally be ‘the body of Christ’, the body of the Sacred.
And it is in our bodies, as well as your minds, that this happens. Our body is a form of consciousness and absorbs the movements, feelings, interactions, and light of this place. Like a typist knowing where a key is without looking, our bodies ‘understand’ this work/liturgy of participating in G/god. But typing is an inadequate analogy, for there is love here – so it’s more akin to the nonverbal knowing between two partners/lovers, or between a mother and a baby.
What I’m suggesting is that the space where we assemble as the body of Christ to some degree shapes and makes us, and it too becomes part of the bodily knowing. Sacred space is therefore more than straightforward nice-looking shelter and functionality.
It is important too to recognize that part of the liturgical and spatial content is a discontent, an ethical fault-line, an un-completeness, that challenges our desire to be content with the way things are for the people here, and pushes us to expand our hearts, spaces, and vision to include those on the periphery of all and any society. And this is emancipatory, and scary.
Ikons are not only little orthodox paintings, but windows, communion table, candles, pulpit, etcetera. Like Wang Wei’s grass, incense, lamp, bells. They are not value-free, and some are idols. The purpose of an ikon is to open the imagination to the infinite; to the face of the other. And the purpose of an idol is to fix the infinite so that it is finite and controlled; and looks like our face. Most old churches have both, and live with the tension. When the idols aren’t restrained though there is trouble; usually manifesting over numbers and finances.
The design of a church building has an obligation to reach for the ‘mystery being celebrated’ – in light and colour, edge detection, depth, pattern, symmetry… It also interacts with the space outside – think of the three grand trees on our street-side. The design also in that reach accounts for the sounds, smells, and touch of a space, as well as how our bodies will move around in it and interact. Dieticians might say ‘we are what we eat’, architects might say ‘we are where we meet’. Design of spaces is important in that they create and produce habits.
There is a sustained philosophical/theological thread that runs through religious thinking that links beauty (with all its subjectiveness) with the divine (in all its sublimity). It’s no wonder that some of the most inspiring, breath-snatching buildings in the world are built for the purpose of encountering the mystery, wonder, and transcendence of God, and of encountering each other in ways that lead to the just reordering, repair, and flourishing of the immanence of God in human communities.
One such building is the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Beautiful, superlative… but also mad and heretical. The French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, writes “Sagrada Familia causes modern space and the archaic space of nature to corrupt each other. The flouting of the established spatial codes in the eruption of a natural and cosmic fertility generate an extraordinary and dizzying ‘infinitization’ of meaning.” The corrupting interaction is to bring about something new, not belonging to State or Church, nor even ‘theological divinity’, but something more natural and primordial identified with sacred transcendence.
While writ large in Gaudi’s masterpiece, many church buildings in all their archi-texture (not just design) at their best embrace the corrupting interactions of structure and madness, orthodoxy and heresy, finitude and the boundless beyond.
The last interweaving force in sacred space is emptiness. A use-less space. Without utilitarian value, and therefore always in danger of being absorbed into somebody’s project to erect something in it, or used to store excess furniture and clutter. Emptiness offers, firstly, ‘breathing space’ (to offset feelings of being confined or constrained); secondly, ‘inaccessibility’ (beyond the reach of even a cobweb broom); and, thirdly, a doorway into ‘the sound of silence’.
The Jesus question of any church is: ‘Is it emancipatory?’ Is this place a nurturing ground for the instruments of control that empires and hierarchies have always used? A place that breeds compliance. Or is it a place to inspire revolutionaries and resisters, dreamers of a just and equitable world, prophets and poets?
I used the word ‘emancipatory’ earlier to point to the moral imperative to resist the temptation to make church our clubroom, a temptation which like an idol imprisons us in our own image and needs. Rather, like ikons, emancipation leads us to engage with the face of the other, the needs of the world beyond, with the mad and heretical, who often we first encounter as threat. A church proclaims ‘infinite space for all’ in a world where space is controlled, sold, and leveraged for gain.
A church building, the sacred space of a community shaped by the people, liturgy, ikons, and structure there, is first and foremost a symbol – like Jacob’s rock. It is symbol of grace given, unconditionally, that can never be earnt, deserved, or repaid. So, it stands as a beacon, shining out into the gloomy world of winners and losers, spending and expendables, proclaiming by its presence that gift and grace are free, and freeing. And that the faces of all, are the faces of G/god, are the faces of the beloved and unloved, are the faces that belong, and are safe here.
Like Jacobs’ rock it is also seen as a joke. Nobody, even you and me, quite believes that gifts come free. Our needs, the needs of our faith community, and the needs of its building pull us, to counter-proclaim that space is finite, resources are finite, and everyone can’t possibly fit.
On that rock though of the impossible unconditional encounter and gift, knowing the pull to always make it conditional, we and our forebears have built this church, inhabit and are this church, resist its idols and reflect its ikons, care for its content and live discontent, always knowing that it is by grace we are, by grace we belong, by grace we give, and by grace we receive.
[i] Gen 28:10-22