Adorning the Worship Space: The Approach Taken at St. Procopius Abbey
January 25, 2008
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Benedictine monks spend several hours in church, praying, each day. We pray each day and every day, through every liturgical season, over a lifetime. The true source of whatever creativity and ideas for decoration are to be found in this article lies in our common prayer.
A liturgist I am not, but a biologist and a teacher. I came to the monastery with experiences in a Chicagoland flower shop chain and in a suburban greenhouse, and from a family where plants, flowers, and gardens were a permanent part of the environment. They were seen as important to have around, to work with, to give away, and to admire. That’s the way it was. A constant refrain, whenever we entertained, was: “No party is complete until the flowers are on the table!”
Once I joined the Benedictine monastic community of St. Procopius Abbey, Lisle, IL, all this training was looked upon as an asset. I was soon asked to handle church decorations, with the request that I steer clear of the formerly-popular symmetrical style that worked poorly, or not at all, in the quite asymmetrical church that had been completed the year before I joined.
Architecture of St. Procopius Abbey
The monks of my community broke ground for their new home in December 1967, the intent being to give the monastery an identity separate from that of the educational institutions it sponsored.
The project was guided by a prominent Chicago architect, Edward Dart (+1975). Hallmarks of his work are Chicago common brick, quarry tile floors, stained wood, angles, and a lot of light! The Abbey Church, located on a sloping high point in the landscape and designed so that the choir and altar area forms a room-within-a-room, has to it a sparse Cistercian feel. The simple and direct lines of the church, of the smaller Lady and Blessed Sacrament Chapels – indeed, of the building in general – provide the setting within which decorations must be planned and executed.
I believe that four principles govern Church décor. Whatever is conceived and executed:
» Must be worthy of the Mystery being celebrated in the space. Any items used must be appropriate to what is being done there. Silliness, frivolity of any sort, has no place. The balance characterizing St. Benedict’s Rule belongs here, as well.
» Needs to be noble. Is the result elegant?
» Has to be simple. Restraint, allowing each element to show its natural splendor, is essential.
» Ought to enhance, not distract from, not overpower the liturgy. Clutter adds nothing. Less can be more.
Materials and Design
Limitations of time and of budget being factors sometimes outside of a decorator’s control, there are various possible ways in which one might approach the decorating process. Some of these include what I call:
» The TV dinner approach: Everything is pre-packaged, or outsiders are contracted to do the job.
» The symmetry approach: An older style in which placement adheres to an axis within the decorating space.
» The more-is-better approach: Working best in larger spaces, where distance is a factor, masses of material, flashes of color, combine to create an overall impact.
» The “garbage” approach: Bringing together what might seem the most unlikely colors, plants, and unconnected, disharmonious elements and trying to form from them a work of art.
Adhering to the four governing principles outlined above, I prefer an approach that draws on the natural elements that are near at hand.
An important advantage I have in planning is the amount of time spent in the Abbey Church, time praying and ruminating, time imagining how to mix and match the components to be used – rocks, bricks, moss, wood, flowers and other plants, the Paschal Candle at Easter. The focal point must always be the altar, while the cross and candle arrangements, the ambo, the presidential chair, are important secondary points. Then I must consider such elements of style as line, color, arrangement, alignment (every plant has a “good side”!), and quantity.
When the design seems complete, there are some final questions to be answered:
» Is it appropriately balanced?
» Is it substantial – does it matter that it’s there? Is it bold – does it say something? But is it both substantial and bold in the context of respect for the Mystery?
» Are the lines clean, the placement proper?
» Are there final touches or clean-up needed?
» Do I look forward to the arrival of the “guests”? Have I prepared well “the flowers on the table”?
This sort of questioning and the “governing principles” are the major contribution I think I can make in this article. Almost all of us inherit the space within which we must work, and few readers are going to have the option of duplicating the sacred space that I inherited thirty-five years ago. You need to accept, ponder, and respect your own sacred space.
An exact copying of my efforts is not, therefore, likely to be effective for most of you. Take what is worthwhile – what works – in your space, take it with my compliments! But realize that respect for your environment might well require adaptation. Don’t be afraid to fail – learn from failures – know why they failed. Remember always, it’s for the honor and glory of God.
Here are some examples of what has worked at my sacred space:
» Paschal Candle: The TV dinner type is common. Try designing your own.
» Brazier: We do this, weather permitting, in the entry courtyard. Bricks and flagstones, creatively arranged, can form a stunning alternative to the Weber grill.
» Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
» Lady Chapel (used as the Chapel of Repose on Holy Thursday).
» Church – Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.
Brother Guy Jelinek, OSB is a monk of Saint Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois.
Photos by Brother Guy Jelinek, OSB