The Catholic Thing
The Dignity of a Building Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Church buildings are one of the great public signs of the presence of the Church itself. There are other signs as well – the Catholics who live out their faith day by day, the Church that speaks to the culture both affirming and criticizing what is going on. The Church building, however, is one of those concrete signs (no pun intended) that speaks to all with eyes to see 24/7.

Now the building speaks because there are people to see it and hear it. Architects write about the “etiquette” of a building. By this, they mean the way that people can best participate in the building so that it serves them. The famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier said: “space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.” So the space, the light, and the order of the Church building have a particular goal. At best, they are to bring the community that gathers there to a union of appetites and physical postures around Jesus Christ.

Now in a very strong sense, Jesus Christ provides the space, the light, and the order of the community experience. So at least in theory, we could have this experience in a barn. Nevertheless, we all of us need all of the help we can get from the Church building to be united in Christ and not to being distracted about whether I switched off the oven or deposited the checks at the bank. The altar, the pulpit, the windows, the baptistery, and so on speak to our senses and calm them, as well as get them in line for this one experience, meeting Christ in the Eucharist. Now the Church has a well developed tradition of building architectural spaces that performs these functions. Almost two thousand years of this disciplined approach to church building suffered major setbacks in the sixties and seventies when people began to apologize for being Catholic and to think that secular styles “must” be better than the architectural traditions of the Church.

Space and light and order

Sharp angles and disruptive shapes from that period kept us on edge throughout the celebration of the Eucharist. Many churches were designed by non-Catholics and so were simply a hodgepodge of interesting secular elements – glass doors, a crystal bowl for the consecrated hosts, sound systems that approach that of a sound stage, and so on. Those were and are not “the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”

Corbusier may not have always pulled it off in his designs, but he knew that human beings would be using his buildings. One can say that the architectural tradition of the Church has known the same thing all along. It knows how to draw people into the liturgical experience. The traditional architectural forms, such as the nave and transept, high – even vaulted – ceilings, windows that show the saints or scenes from Scripture, all of these things help our spirits and our bodies, our minds and our wills, attain that focus that we do not perhaps even want, looking as we do for distractions even when we are driving. The human being is brought into a liturgical celebration which is the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Humanity meets the humanity of Christ, now glorified. But as a man he suffered for our salvation.

This is where the church building gains its profound dignity. As Aquinas reminded us, in speaking of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: “it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others.” Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by ‘His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three – the Word, a soul, and flesh,’ as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii),” (ST III q.1 a. 1). So even the building is a signal that the Incarnation has happened. God has communicated his wondrous good to us in Christ. This communication continues in this building, which is the precious site of the celebration of the sacraments, and of moments of silent prayer before the Blessed Eucharist. The church building, by its designed respect for the multidimensional mess that is the human being, schools us to a focus on the central moment in human history: when God died for his people. This is the sign that we come across on little side roads and great boulevards, when we see a Church. God has entered history and even on the little country road in the backwoods of Virginia, I am reminded of that wonder, when I see a Catholic Church.

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Mark, September 29, 2010
Great article. Architecture should be an art, not a matter of mere functionality. Giving structure to "space and light and order" should seek to direct the mind to the true, the good, and the beautiful, regardless of the building's actual use.
written by Other Joe, September 29, 2010
Architecture can and sometimes does rise to the level of art. Art may be defined for this purpose as that which transcends the pragmatic and achieves something of the universal, touches on beauty and thereby truth. The secular age we are living through discounts truth, beauty and by definition the transcendental. We should never forget the opportunity for expression that is provided by a church building to all of the artisans, artists and crafts workers. That opportunity can be for artisans , the very thing that makes a professional life truly fulfilling and deeply satisfying. We really do forget that in our secular distractions. There are many forms of prayer.
written by Emina Melonic, September 29, 2010
Just one short comment to otherwise great column: Corbusier may have said and perhaps even intellectually understood the notions of light and space but many of his designs were disastrous. I am thinking of the monastery (La Tourette--forgive me, if it's misspelled) he designed: the whole "Brutalist" movement was closed to any movement of the human spirit. The space is cold and uninviting. One wonders whether this is a monastery or a factory or a communist inspired apartment building. Like many architects, Corbusier was more interested in leaving a "Corbusian" mark on the world rather than utilizing his gifts, which were (as J.S. Bach always wrote) soli Deo gloria.
written by Other Joe, September 29, 2010
Strangely, Corbu's work has generally aged very badly. That must mean something.
written by Scott Hesener, September 30, 2010
At a young age I awakened to my Catholic world in the nave of a grand Gothic sanctuary with high stone walls, carved angels looking down upon me from the rafters and a kaleidoscope of stain glass windows. There was no other building like it. This place was holy.
Recently I belonged to a parish where the architectural lines of the "gathering space" folded in upon itself as if to focus on the people. I remarked to a priest in the diocese how the place reminded me of a bank lobby. Little did I know that the same priest had worked with architects to design that sanctuary...oops! Oh, well.
written by Emina Melonic, September 30, 2010
Other Joe,

I am sure that it means something! Villa Savoye, for exaple, was bad from the beginning. The lady of the house constantly complained how open it was and the fact that the roof leaked! Don't get me wrong, I love minimalism but not when it sacrifices completely building's functionality.
written by Other Joe, September 30, 2010

As a client said of her Wright designed house that leaked - "that's what you get for leaving artwork out in the yard."
written by Steven J Schloeder, October 04, 2010
Thank you, Fr Bramwell. Beautiful reflection on the incarnational meaning of Catholic architecture.

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