I have visited many churches over the years.
Some of them have been modern and tidy, while others were old and ruined, all tumbled walls and ivy covered stones. Some have been big majestic affairs, full of stained glass and flying buttresses. Others have been of a smaller design, tiny cloisters for the meekest of hermits.
A few of these churches, I have known because of family or friends who worshipped there.
Most, I will admit, I have visited as curiosities, because I have a love of history and architecture, and the village church is so often the pivot upon which both of those interests turn.
There are some beautiful old churches out there that I’d still like to visit some day. I know I’ll walk their grounds for hours if given the opportunity.
And then there are those things that look like repurposed convention centers, complete with giant video screens and stadium seating. From the photos I’ve seen, they appear to have all the spiritual appeal of a shopping mall, only lacking the requisite Jamba-Juice and Cinnabon.
When we look at all these designs in aggregate, and when we subtract from them all the trimmings and flourish, all the stuff that is more about the audience than the rite for which the space was designed, what we are left with is this…,
No matter how high the vaulted ceiling or how magnificent the windows, we are still talking about an enclosed space, designed to place us at a remove from the physical world, and allowing only a single sliver of light, a single truth, to break through the darkness.
This is not a new idea, nor was it particularly unique to the Christians.
Roman and Egyptian temples, from whom the early Christians took many of their cues, were of a similar design. The purpose being to create a house for the temple god, a sacred and enclosed space in which that being could manifest in physical form.
The early Christians, took this same idea and turned it on its head. The design of the church is not intended to bring God to the people. Those who go around today calling this or that church “gods house” would have been stoned in the streets for idolatry, back in the day.
No, the church is a closed box designed with the sole purpose of removing the worshippers from the distractions of the physical world.
Because the world, we must remember, is bad.
Okay, it’s not actually so much “bad” as it is unimportant. The god of Abraham built the world so that he would have a place to put us. But he did too good a job and we started worshipping trees and rocks and aardvarks and stuff, and Jehovah looked down upon his people and was like, “well crap!”
Actually, Saul of Tarsus puts it a bit more poetically…,
They exchanged God’s truth for a lie and worshipped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
— Romans 1:25
That would be one of the more famous lines from a letter written to the earliest Christian congregations of Rome, sometime in the middle of the 1st century of the common era.
It forms one small part of a general condemnation of all things Roman, and was intended as a warning to the freshly baptized, to avoid falling into old habits, surrounded as they were by impressive temples, communal baths, and the kind of debauchery that comes of a society which never discovered pants.
Now that all seems perfectly reasonable, as long as we accept that there is but the one God and that he created an entire universe that is billions of years old, infinitely vast, and filled with trillions of stars and galaxies, all with the sole purpose of housing us for a few thousand years while we spent our time looking at all the neat stuff daddy built and getting it totally wrong.
The only thing to do, in such a circumstance, is to shut ourselves up in a box and focus all of our attention on that one ray of light. Make that light your truth in the darkness, and reject all that is worldly.
Or maybe you don’t.
I have visited many churches over the years.
But I have also walked in places where the ancient peoples understood that the entire landscape was their holy place, where they found the alignments of mountain and valley, the sun and moon, the rising of the stars and the changing of the seasons. I have wandered through the fields of the gods and felt their breath in the wind and the beating of their mighty hearts in the vibrations of the earth under my feet.
The path to holiness does not lead to a darkened closet. It leads us outside, where we can see, by the light of day, where we stand in the world.
This is the seventh post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property. If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.
It has been a long while since there was an update in this series.
The truth is, there have been many reversals of late that have drawn my attention and resources elsewhere. For instance, only a few weeks ago the water-lines under my house ruptured, and I’ve had to have the whole works replaced at considerable expense. Now there are still the giant holes in my walls, where the plumbers had to run new lines, that are in need of repair.
It’s just one thing after another.
So, the great tree stands limbless and ready for carving. I have the basic design worked out and a small reference model in clay, which I am constantly fussing with. At the moment, however, I haven’t the money to rent the scaffold I would need to reach the upper heights, nor the time and energy to do the actual work.
As for the area surrounding the tree…,
I am still thinking about that. I walk the area nightly, trying to see how it all comes together in my head, and my vision is a little more clear now than it was just a few weeks ago. But we’re still a long way off from a final design.
And I’m fine with that.
In the meantime, I continue to look at the sacred spaces of other traditions, looking for ideas and inspirations, as well as those things to avoid. There is a buddhist temple near me that I’ve been meaning to visit for over a year now. Maybe I’ll get a chance to do that soon.
Now then, I’ve spent too much time cooped up in the house writing this.
Time to step outside for a bit of fresh air and a visit with the gods.