The Zeal for God’s House, An Architect’s Reflections on Sacred Space

Homiletic & Pastoral Review. January 2012.


"The zeal for Thy house has eaten me up." John II: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 some painting. The shades of brilliant scarlet of 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 the snow-capped Mt. Popocatepetl (el. 17,887 ft) to the north at sunset. 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.

And then, all of a sudden, I looked up and saw...high above the hills to the north...the majestic snow-covered peak of the mountain emerging slowly from behind the lavender clouds, completely dwarfing the western mountains. Brilliantly illuminated in pale pink as if by a spotlight, it appeared like some ancient god towering above the lesser mountains in its distant majesty. No wonder the pagans worshipped this mountain! It's 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 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 to die. 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 the 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 even there it is given little more importance than a plaster statue. It is difficult to find anything of that 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's 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 sacred space infused with beauty.

Sacred Space

But before considering sacred space, perhaps we Americans don't appreciate any special place at all, much less "sacred" because we live in such an immensely large country with so much space, we have lost the sense of the uniqueness of any one place. Historically, we're always been moving Westward. On the other hand, we all do 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 disastrous than we think. Edward T. Oakes in an essay, The Apologetics of Beauty, recalled the massacre of Littleton's Columbine High School on April 20,1999. After the massacre, one native of Littleton wrote an essay describing how the town had changed from the quiet village of his childhood into just parts of the suburban sprawl of Denver:

"I grew up in a town, however humbly, 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 McDonald's 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."

Long before Christianity arrived, mankind has 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 heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork.”
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those men who in wickedness hold back the truth of God, seeing that what may be known about God is manifest to them. For God has manifested it to them. For since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes are clearly seen.... his everlasting power also and divinity...being understood through the things that are made.” Romans 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 and is not necessarily very pleasant either. To we mortals, there can be something terrible and fearful about divinity. In almost every encounter mortal men have had with the divine in the Old Testament, there was usually a radiant splendor but there was also terror precisely because it was “other." After Moses received the Ten Commandments, he had to cover his face since the brilliancy of divinity emanating from it was too terrifying for the people to endure. Each time Christ appeared after the resurrection, the initial reaction was fear, otherwise why did Christ say "Be not afraid?" Peter was so overcome witnessing the glory of the Lord at the Transfiguration that, in his bewilderment, impulsively blurted out something as irrelevant as building three tents! 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!"

What makes any place sacred is that God is there in a special way. It is the exact opposite of Gertrude Stein's famous comment about Oakland, "There's no there there." But how is He is there more than anywhere else since we know that He is everywhere and that without Him all places would simply cease to exist? 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 said, "Remove the sandals from your feet, because this is a holy place." Certainly 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) we read:

"And making a kind of whip of cords, He drove them all out of the Temple, also the sheep and oxen, and He poured out the money of the changers and overturned the tables. And to them who were selling the doves He said, 'Take these things away and do not make the house of my Father a house of business.' And his disciples remembered that it is written, 'The zeal for thy house has eaten me up.' "


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?" since 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 spaces between 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's fairs and Disney Worlds 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. Quoting 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.”

“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 BEGIN 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.” Lao Tse
“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 & 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. Quoting Gilson again, "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 at the heart. 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." And although its role is auxiliary, it is extremely important because it has the ability to help or detract, to contribute to or mitigate against the liturgy itself. Pope Benedict XIV wrote, "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 and there is nothing more sacred than the liturgy of the Holy Mass and Real Presence of Our Lord in the tabernacle.

Furthermore it is challenged to somehow incarnate God’s glory and 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 there could be a connection. According to the Austrian poet Rainier Maria Rilke, “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 again,

"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 men 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 lost them too. We may still be able to speak the truth in syllogisms, like an infallible computer, but the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. 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.” “We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past...whether he admits it or not.....can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” In a world that has tried to dispense with beauty, “Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. Or this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: ”Why not investigate Satan’s depths?" The consequence has been that beauty has not only become incomprehensible but we have allowed the beast of ugliness to take its place. Today "beauty" as the dominent objective for church architecture is practically ignored. No one would dare admit this publicly but it is implicit in its glaring absence in deference to more “serious” considerations. This does not mean that cost, covenience, structure, good planning, lots of parking etc. are not important in church design, it is just that these necessary, ordinary concerns are placed way ahead of any acknowledged desire that the church should look beautiful ...not only for its own sake but for the glory of God. Furthermore, as Balthasar reminds us,

"Once the preception of God's innate beauty and of the inherent and self- subsisting attractiveness of revelation disappear, it becomes impossible for the ordinary citizen of the world to see any value in being religious at all or to see in Christianity the very embodiment of God's condescension."

As Americans we pride ourselves on being a practical, down-to-earth people and leave all that "art stuff" up to others who go in for “that sort of thing.” And as reasonable as this attitude may be when building a warehouse , it is disastrous when building a church for the worship of Him who is beauty itself. Today, it is a subject with which few are comfortable precisely because it is conceived to be "impractical and costly". So on the one hand, we are left with very cost efficient, comfortable, spacious, open, uninspiring, antiseptic and dreary churches that could better function as auditoriums, country clubs or anything but a sacred place to worship Almighty God. 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 His 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 celebrants 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."