Church-Building Without Fear in Our Frightening Times: An Advent Reflection for the Shapers of Sacred Spaces

October 26, 2007


Origami Cranes for AdventMore than six years have now past since that harrowing, late-summer day we refer to succinctly as “Nine Eleven,” a curious tag—more number than name—built of two numerals most Americans will likely never again pronounce in succession without eliciting some tinge of pain.

My own recollection of the protracted season of grief that began with the events of September 11, 2001, includes memories of a much downplayed Christmas. My wife had announced long before the holiday was even scheduled to arrive that she just wasn’t in the mood for the usual reveling, not with firefighters in lower Manhattan still sifting through the fragments of so many life-stories turned to dust. Weeks of staring transfixed at the nation’s televised rites of mourning and warfare had left her numb, deflated, dispirited—and it was enough, she thought, to spend the Yuletide quietly regaining the knack for gazing heavenward. Our children agreed, having already lengthened their bedtime prayers to include the needs of everyone caught in the fallout of September 11: the grieving families of real-life rescue heroes killed on the day of the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the shivering children of Afghanistan, the mommies and daddies everywhere forced to work in tall buildings or fly in airplanes. (Even Osama bin Laden made the list. Bearded and crafty-looking in his famous home videos, he seemed to the kids as pitiable a Christmas thief as “The Grinch,” hold up in a cave somewhere, the TV said, a prisoner of his own spite for the world.) So our Christmas was a simple affair, as subdued in its observance as the Advent that preceded it.

Through my work around the country as a consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of churches buildings, I’ve discovered that ours isn’t the only household in which Christmas 2001 and a string of subsequent holidays and family occasions have come as more of an emotional burden than a blessing in the wake of 9/11. (The mere act of celebrating my youngest daughter’s birthday every September 12, for example, never fails to remind me of the smiles I faked for the camera six years ago while picking at cake and ice cream with no stomach for sweetness.) In parish parking lots, vestibules and social halls everywhere, it seems, fellow Catholics still reeling from the events of 9/11and a multitude of more recent tragedies—both natural and humanly-engineered—confront me with various versions of the same questions: “How do we indulge in the usual celebrations of our faith when we just don’t feel like celebrating?” “How do we go about erecting permanent monuments of our devotion to God when so many uncontrollable forces in the world conspire to mock our very belief in “permanence?” Or indeed, “How do we remain true to our calling as members of a race of builders, homo faber, while immersed in a dizzying, free-for-all of a culture that seems so genuinely addicted to the act of tearing things down?” If there is an “Inconvenient Truth” that stares my clients in the face as they scrutinize their reasons for constructing places of worship, it’s more than Al Gore’s hunch that we’ve made a regular mess of the only planet we can call home, the delicately-balanced biosphere we mistakenly perceive as autonomous and “out there” but apart from which our race actually ceases to be. More damning is the possibility that through the sinfulness or greed or sheer folly of our time we’ve irrevocably disfigured the landscape of the human soul, the infinite “in here” that pains each of us when we’re seized by honest guilt or remorse.

The tentativeness embodied in my clients’ questions is significant, arising as it does from parish communities eager not only to give due attention to the church’s sacred rites and seasons but to undertake whole building campaigns, this in the face of daily news-bulletin accounts of how just one Katrina-sized storm, for instance, can level the dreams of countless thousands of other people of faith to whose cries of desperation God seemingly turned a deaf ear. To the daily catalog of earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, forest fires and other “severe weather events” that we endure together along the threads of electronic connectivity that keep us endlessly “informed” are added the indiscriminate acts of violence, organized terror or wholesale warfare our psyches must absorb if only to rouse us from the security of our beds each morning. A bridge collapses in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota) with nothing but physics to blame; yet it’s the images of Twin Towers our post-9/11 minds reflexively impose on the scene, along with the suspicion that an unseen but ubiquitous malevolence is out to get us.

What comes to afflict even the most pious of us, then, whose gift has always been to detect Christ’s presence in the darkest corners of our lives, is a pathology of fear that hardens into inaction. We may dutifully haul out the Christmas tree when the calendar says to, as my family did a half-dozen years ago, but find it difficult to trim it with our customary exuberance, let alone to stake our very lives on the plaster babe who lies beneath its boughs.

Hoping to bolster my own faith as much as my clients', I’ve begun to enumerate publicly the reasons why it matters that the Church persist in its work literally of building up the world and, for that matter, why we followers of Christ should go on mounting each year the blessed and noisy and glorious spectacle that is Nöel. “We Catholics build,” I make clear, in a statement that has grown into a kind of declaration of purpose, “because we cannot do otherwise, convinced as we are that God inspires and blesses our work and is more intent upon renewing the face of the earth (Ps 104:30) than with obliterating it”:

Our task is a great one and frequently requires us to steel ourselves through a good bit of play-acting. No greater is it, though, than our charge in baptism to stand surrogate each day for the Christ who would have us all be fashioned into dwelling places of the divine. . . .

We are believers, builders, co-creators with God of a landscape of redemption here on earth. Our view is always forward, never back, for a place not yet fully realized in the holiness of space and time and human experience. . . .

We build on the remnants of ancient Jerusalem;
on the bones of Golgotha;
on the dust of Rome;
on the rubble of empires and kingdoms and nations;
on the bloodied sod of countless battlefields;
on the ash piles of Auschwitz and Dachau, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;
on the bombed out centers of London, Dresden, Beirut, Belfast—of Sarajevo;
on the scars of Oklahoma City;
on the scrap heaps at Ground Zero, resting places of what were once
twin columns in a ledger-book of steel and strength.

We build for a world desperate to know whether beauty and grace endure—whether God himself endures, somewhere, in the tangled mess of the modern, human heart. Chapels and churches and cathedrals, all of them, we’ll keep on building—incubators of Christian charity—even as other towers rise and fall around us.

And the miracle that we’ll perpetuate within their assuring embrace will be the same that has galvanized Christians from the beginning:
bread will continue to be torn as flesh,
wine will continue to be spilled out as blood,

people will continue to be transformed at a simple table—

a community made stronger than any masonry, any metal, stronger even than death.

Through our buildings we will declare ourselves the tissue and bone that hold the world together in spire of itself, the Living Stones (1 Pet. 2:4) out of which God will make his most enduring tabernacle, until Christ comes again in person to fetch us to another house he has prepared for us, where no terror, no trouble will ever take us from his presence.

Whether the parishes I serve see their decision to erect places of worship as something heroic and fundamentally prophetic is hard to say. Their efforts may simply flow from an ancient, Christian instinct that upholds the value of life and love despite the inescapable temporality of all that we hold dear. “In architecture,” the Yale art historian, Vincent Scully, once wrote, “love conquers and endures. . . . [Love] builds everything that counts and takes care of it.” Even love that has been welded into the mightiest steel frames, however, must withstand the forces threatening always to destroy it. Eros and thanatos are forever locked in mortal combat; the smoldering debris piles that came to rest near the banks of New York Harbor six years ago attest to this. Time and healing, however, have lent even this place a terrible but not altogether meaningless serenity, its hallowedness having been popularly agreed upon. Soon, in fact, if we can trust the city’s planners and politicians, brand new buildings will spring from the foundations of those that once stood there. Hymns and seasonal carols more festive than those performed in recent years will be sung at its edges, swags of laurel and evergreen will replace the black crepe that once wreathed it. And Christians gathered in new-built churches and old will welcome the God-come-down-to-earth of Christmas, Prime Architect and Giver of Meaning, who delights in our stubborn brick-laying, marvels at our industry, and dares to inhabit our greatest joys and deepest anguish.

Michael E. DeSanctis, Ph.D. is Professor of Fine Arts at Gannon University, Erie, Pennsylvania and a consultant to parishes involved in the construction and renovation of places of worship.  He is the author of Building from Belief: Advance, Retreat, and Compromise in the Remaking of Catholic Church Architecture(Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002) and Renewing the City of God (Meeting House Essays Series, No 5) (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1994).

Image: Origami Cranes Mobile by Lucinda Naylor photographed by Michael Jensen

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