Things to Consider

Language of Mystery

February 06, 2009

JOANNE LÓPEZ KEPESCentral altar with assembly.

The after-dinner conversation ranged over a wide variety of topics, from the latest movies to the space program, from global warming to the age of the universe. One of the youngest people at the table was a college student. He had been listening to the exchange and remarked, “The more we learn about the universe, the more mystery we find.” It seems that the more we learn the more we must admit that mystery surrounds us and, yet, continues to be beyond our reach. In its presence, we stand in awe.

As true as this is in the world of science, how much more it is when we are trying to negotiate our way in the world of belief and worship and ritual. Mystery is at the core of what we believe, a mystery that has the force to transform, not only bread and wine, but also people into the Body of Christ. So how do we honor that mystery and celebrate it? We learn to listen and speak the language of mystery; it is the language of symbol.

This communication through symbol takes place in many ways. Let us begin with the sacred spaces where we celebrate the mystery. The way we arrange the environment of our space for worship helps create the grammar, so to speak, of this language of mystery. In addition, how we act here, every gesture that is made in the worship place, can add to our sense of the mystery.

People taking water from font.It has been said that one should be able to grasp who these people are when entering and walking through a place of worship. What is it that they believe? What do they do here? What binds them together as a community? Is the baptismal font at the entry point because it is the sign of entering into the life of the community? As people enter, do they dip their hands into the baptismal waters and bless themselves as a reminder of their own baptism? Is the altar centrally located so as to be a worthy sign of Christ and the table from which they are fed? Does each person bow before the altar before taking their place in the assembly? Is the assembly seating arranged so as to encourage a sense of awareness of other worshipers? Does it show that they have a part to play in what happens here? The arrangement should say to everyone who enters that what happens here involves everyone, not just as passive observers but as active partners in the liturgical celebrations. It should say that here everyone is an actor in the drama in which Jesus Christ is the lead. Jesus alluded to the mystery when he said, “when two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.”

The setting in which we gather for public worship better serves this purpose and is most complete when the whole assembly is present. The goal in creating a sacred space for worship is to allow the primary symbol of the assembly as the body of Christ to speak. It means providing a setting that is uncluttered and un-busy with images and objects, because this is not a museum but a place where something happens.

I do not mean that our sacred spacesStanding crucifix being reverenced. should be devoid of imagery because imagery and iconography can stimulate and inspire. As an artist I am aware of the effect that color, form, line and texture have on the imagination. The first sacred image one thinks of is the crucifix. A standing one, which can be placed in different locations according to the occasion and touched, has an impact far beyond that of a cross that hangs permanently; sunlight filtered through the vibrant colors of real stained glass is like an alleluia without sound; devotional spaces for Mary and the other saints can use changeable art to call attention to special feasts and celebrations; the use of simple color hangings to denote the liturgical seasons can be used throughout the worship space in such a way as to honor the entire assembly. Yes, we need imagery. But the imagery should always enhance and not detract from what happens here.

Every art student is familiar with the concept of “negative space.” This is the space that exists between the positive forms/images in a work of art. Negative space contributes very much to the composition. In our worship settings and sacred spaces, this could be where the light filtered through a rich stained glass panel graces a plain wall. It could be where one can look out upon the seasonal changes in the landscape through the clear slit of a window. Negative space between altar and ambo and chair says that these are not ordinary articles of furniture but important enough to deserve their own space. Generous aisles are negative space that encourages graceful processional movement.

Gesture of hand blessing man.Something must also be said about the way we use our space and the objects within it so that they can serve as symbol of the mystery. Moving with dignity, speaking clearly, handling objects of sacred use differently than one would handle other objects, using gesture in a thoughtful way so that their meaning is clear are also symbolic ways in which mystery is honored.

What we are about is the celebration of the mystery of God’s presence in our midst. God takes care of the mystery. We do not have to entice it to appear. We just have to step aside, so that mystery and symbol can have their say. Perhaps the role of consultants, architects, planners, and artists is similar to the work of the sculptor, who carves away whatever is not necessary so that what is essential remains.

Joanne López Kepes is a liturgical design consultant in Kettering, Ohio, USA.

Photos:  Copyright by Gerard A. Pottebaum, Treehaus, Inc., all rights reserved.  Used with permission.

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