Grand Tour 8: A Church Should Look Like a Church

This entry is part 8 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

Sunday, May 6, 2018, Amarillo

Today is a rest day. I go to Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle church and find the building not to my liking. It is a typical modern auditorium-style church with padded pews. The floor slopes down to the altar like the floor of a movie theatre. It is all about making sure that everyone has a good view. If in the pre-Vatican II days we said that we went to hear Mass, now we go to see Mass.

Exterior, St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Amarillo

I didn’t take any pictures of the interior. It does not seem right to be snapping photos while people are preparing for Mass, and in any case, there are always plenty of pictures available on the web. The pictures from Google Maps will give you an idea of the place.

I don’t like churches that are built this way. There are endless posts and articles complaining about the ugliness of modern suburban churches. But ugliness is not really the issue here. The building is not really ugly, inside or out. It is not a work of outstanding beauty, but it is not ugly. But it feels more like an auditorium than a church, as if the only purpose of the building was to give you a good view of the play being performed on the stage.

Is there anything more to a church than that? Is it just a place to watch a performance? A lot more, I would suggest. It is, of course, a dwelling place for the blessed sacrament, and a place to come for private prayer, but those things don’t have any particular architectural requirements in themselves. No, it’s more than that. The church is not just a container for other things or activities, it is itself a sacred object and a sacred space. The sanctuary is certainly the heart of the church, but the whole of it is a sacred space and every organ and limb of it matters.

Consider the different between a classical or gothic church and an auditorium or theatre. Most modern auditoriums are designed mainly with acoustics in mind, the angles and furnishing of the walls designed to serve the ear rather than the eye. Whether the effect is visually pleasing or not is a secondary consideration at best. An older theatre, or opera house in particular, may be ornately decorated, but that ornamentation has one purpose: to express luxury and wealth. It does not tell a story. I says, we are the rich, and this is a place for the wealthy.

Opera house with ornate interior
Dbopp, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

For all that this ornamentation flatters the patrons as they assemble, when the performance begins, the house goes dark (there are never any windows) and only the stage is lit. It is all about the performance.

In a traditional church, there are windows, and those windows not only cast light into the main body of the church, they are also filled with marvelous pictures and patterns in stained glass. The walls are often painted with religious art as well. There are stations of the cross around the church walls. There are statues, tombs, side altars, and baptismal fonts. Look up and the ceiling too is painted, or at least richly decorated.

Interior of the Basilica of Santa Croce (Florence)
Interior of the Basilica of Santa Croce (Florence) by Дмитрий Мозжухин via Wikimedia Commons

Of course such ornamentation is not created without wealth. But the ornamentation is not designed to flatter but to instruct and to inspire. It may perhaps proclaim the wealth of its patrons, but it does not boast the wealth of its worshipers, who may come from every rank and station of life.

An important feature of the gothic church in particular is its height.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral Source: User:Wirginiusz Kaleta HDR processing: User:MathKnight, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

It draws the eye upward, and when the eye is drawn upward it is rewarded by the splendor of the wall and the ceiling. Why upward? Because it is human to raise our eyes in awe. We may not be so naïve as to think heaven is literally above us, but the eye nevertheless turns upward in both reverence and aspiration. In drawing our eyes upward, a great church inspires us to both.

Now you might say that it is unfair to compare a suburban church, even an evidently wealthy one like St. Thomas, with the world’s great cathedrals. But here is my old parish church, St. Patrick’s, in Ottawa, Canada, built in the 19th century for Irish lumberjacks.

St. Patrick's, Ottawa
St. Patrick’s, Ottawa, Pjposullivan, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many such churches in neighborhoods all over the world. If we could build them then, why can we not build them now?

This is not to suggest that every church should be gothic. The point is that a church should not look like a multiplex theatre.

Movie theater
Jorge Simonet, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The point is not that every church should be a soaring gothic cathedral, but that every church building should look and feel like a church building, not like a movie theatre with some church furniture in it. While it has the usual furniture of a church — organ pipes, stations of the cross, altar, tabernacle — St. Thomas in Amarillo looks more like the lower picture than the ones above. If your eyes were drawn upward in St. Thomas — though there is nothing to draw then in that direction — all your eyes would see would be white stucco peppered with pot lights, which is just what you would see in the movie theatre is well.

A church should proclaim that it is a sacred space, which means it should proclaim, in every piece of wood, glass and stone, that it is a place where man comes nearer to God – as near as we can come in this life. This is what the sanctuary lamp reminds us in every church, but, given adequate resources, everything in the design and decoration of the building should proclaim the same message. Wherever the eye falls, it should see the same message proclaimed.

This means that a church is different from other kinds of buildings. Nothing else (save perhaps the temples of other faiths) expresses the same message or the same purpose. The great gothic cathedrals were not an imitation of any style of secular buildings, past or present. They were a thing wholly apart, in their time as in ours, and their apartness was reflected in smaller churches, down to the humblest village church as well. To enter them was to be moved to silence, to look upon and contemplate the eternal. To enter them, then as now, was not to step back in time but to step out of time.

 Inside the chancel of St Paul's parish church, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear, looking east to the altar. The chancel was completed in AD 685 as the original Anglo-Saxon part of the church.
Inside the chancel of St Paul’s parish church, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear, looking east to the altar. The chancel was completed in AD 685 as the original Anglo-Saxon part of the church. Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The church in the picture above is obviously and unmistakably a church. It was built in AD685. And yet in its manifest churchliness, it feels more a place out of time than ancient.

Again, this is not about beauty, it is about a church being church shaped. Nor is it to suggest that there is one single church shape, or that that shape is gothic. It is rather to say that a church should immediately strike you as a place set apart, a place with a purpose not worldly, a place not belonging to any one race or class of man. And that this should be proclaimed by the whole church, not just one part of it. The whole church should be church shaped. It could be a shape different from any church shape we have seen before, but its shape should immediately shout to us that it is a church and could be nothing else. A church is a sacred space in the whole, and it should feel like that, every inch.

A tourist of no faith should enter a church and stand for a moment in a kind of wonder, as sense of having walked through a door into another world. This does not require great size or any kinds of shock and awe, it merely requires that sense of differentness, of entering a place set apart from the ordinary tasks and entertainments of life. Even if our tourist does not recognize or comprehend its purpose, they should feel at once that its purpose is other.

There is some question about the purpose of stone circles. I think it unlikely that we will every get definitive proof of any of the many theories of their construction and intent. They are simply too far from us in time. But when you stand at Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumberland, UK,  for example, you will know its purpose at once as you look around at the mist gathered on the surrounding hills.

Castle Rigg stone circle
Chris Charlesworth / Castle Rigg stone circle

This is a place where men are closer to the gods. It is a raised place that is surrounded by higher hills on all sides. It is a place that is undeniably numinous. It is impossible (to my eye at least) not to see why it was chosen and what it meant to the people who built it. (We will encounter a couple of other such places later on this trip.) You should feel that same sense when you enter a church, even if the sanctuary lamp means nothing to you. Every church should be an oddity in this sense, an ordinary eccentricity.

I don’t doubt that God is also present at the multiplex, in the ordinary sense that God is present everywhere. But nothing about the multiplex conspires to remind me of this. The multiplex is not a place dedicated to God, not a place where time and eternity intersect. It is a space with a function, but not an identity. Ugliness is not the issue. It is the creation of a space that proclaims itself a place set apart, a place located between the world and eternity. I’m not sure that such a place could be anything but beautiful. But beauty is not the point.

That is my major bleat. Now to a much more minor bleat. St. Thomas provides the order of mass as a download for your phone. There are no hymnals or mass cards in the pews. Major prayers and hymns are projected on the walls beside the alter. This offends me. Can I justify this? Paper may have a long tradition in the church but the church predates paper. Christ is the word make flesh, not the page made flesh, and a projected word is just as much a word as a printed one. The projected word also seems to work well for congregational participation. There seem to be more voices and greater unison than I have heard in non-projecting churches where half the people are still searching for the page in the missal by the time the prayer is over. (Optimization for performance again.) But I am not won over. Nothing about this creates any sense of awe or reverence. If anything, the conspires to disrupt it.

And it reinforces the sense of this being a performance space, not a worship space. A worship space should be wholly holy. If a church should be a timeless place, projection and cell phone seem too much of their time. Perhaps that is because of their novelty. There were no printed hymnals in the medieval cathedrals when they were built. Did they seem as disruptive when they were introduced? Perhaps to another generation this e-church will not be so jarring. But can these electronic elements be integrated into a space that moves one to stillness, awe, and reverence? I don’t know. Personally, I can’t see how.

I should emphasize again, though, that I am not arguing that it is beauty that makes a church holy. Holiness comes from a very different source. Rather, making a church beautiful, and wholly beautiful, is an appropriate response to its holiness. Where the time and resources are not available to do so, the holiness is not diminished. A church in a Quonset hut is just as holy as a gorgeous cathedral. My bleat is this: if you do have the time and the resources to make your church look like a church, not an auditorium, you should do so.

When you have the time and resources to make a space something in particular, your choices express your understanding of both its nature and its function. Those who view such a building, one that was so clearly made for a purpose, are entitled to conclude from what they see just what your values are, just what you love. No one would make similar judgements of a church in a Quonset hut. They would recognize that its structure communicates nothing other than the lack of resources to make anything different. But in a place like St. Thomas, all the choices made in the architecture and the decoration of the building do say something, and they say auditorium, not church.

It is obviously a wealthy parish. The pews are full for 9 am mass, the second of the day. The kneelers are embroidered with biblical verses (different ones, I checked). I can’t help feeling the money could have been better spent on decorating the blank walls. (I also wonder, does it keep people from putting their muddy feet on the kneelers? Or are muddy feet less of an issue here than in Canada?)

They pray for rain. It has been years since I heard a weather prayer from the pulpit. Is that a cultural difference or a climatological difference?

The rest of our day produces only a few minor observations. (This is a travel diary, though you would be forgiven for having forgotten that in the lengthy rant above.)

We go to Jimmy Johns across from the hotel for lunch. Nothing of note here except for the young man who cleans the tables the way only a man would do it: walking round to every empty table with a spray bottle and spraying it with soapy water, then putting the bottle back on the shelf and working his way around the restaurant with a stack of paper towels, wiping down each table in turn. I’m convinced that no woman would do it that way. They would do the whole job on each table in turn, if for no other reason than that they would perceive intuitively that it would be bad if a customer came in and found every free table covered in soap. But the young man sees only the production-line efficiency of the end-to-end task. It means nothing to him that he temporarily renders the entire restaurant unusable if he can shave 30 seconds off the total cleaning task time.

We walk the mall in the early afternoon and buy pants. Malls are dying and this one seems near comatose. Surrounded by a vast parking lot with its own set of interconnected and named thoroughfares, it has only a handful of cars clustered around each entrance. (There are signposts on the thoroughfares directing you to the correct lot to park in for each store). The stores are similarly sparsely populated, though stuffed with merchandise. The carrying cost must be crippling if this is all the traffic they garner on a Sunday afternoon. Or is it because this is Sunday and most customers are keeping the Sabbath in this regard and refusing to go shopping? I used to do that, long ago. It seems quaint now. Certainly not something you would find anywhere in Canada. That’s a bad thing. We will be gone on Monday, so we won’t find out if business picks up during the week.

It’s hot. It’s a dry heat. A very dry heat. But it is still hot. Anna chose the hotel to be a block away from the highway but still walkable to the surrounding malls. But here the map deceives. Seeing a map with a hotel on one corner and a mall on another, you visualize one scale of things. But everything is twice as big, if not more, in Amarillo. Even with sidewalks, that mall (those malls) would be 15 minutes’ walk in the heat and getting to them would involve crossing two six-lane arterials under a freeway bridge in a city where, one suspects, drivers see pedestrians as often as they see UFOs. Nothing here is on a pedestrian scale. It is a city (the little of it we see) that seems entirely built for the car and untenable without it. On the map, the Church is three blocks away. In practice it is a 12 minute drive. At 270,000 population, Amarillo is far smaller than Kitchener-Waterloo, but it feels twice the size. It is checkerboarded with 6-lane treeless arterials from which malls and residential neighborhoods are set back by huge amounts. If Eastern Oklahoma felt like the English countryside stretched, this is a typical modern suburban city stretched as much if not more.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the hotel room reading or writing. This never happens at home.

Back to Red Robin for supper. We have the same waitress as yesterday. She not only remembers us, she remembers which beers we ordered. We also see her take an order from another table and then us and never write anything down. The human brain is a wonderful and adaptable instrument. Anna and I discuss how our own memories work. Anna, who’s worked with schedules of one kind or another her whole career, always knows what day of the week a given date is. I am convinced that writers have a specialized memory as well, but I can’t put my finger on it. I have a shadow of my father’s prodigious memory for verse and passages of literature, but he was a critic and teacher, not a writer. I am convinced that writing fluently requires a specific kind of memory. But I don’t know what it is. It is not a record of phrases – as Orwell said, that is characteristic of bad writing. It has more to do with the ability to call apt images to mind, and find recurrent themes (like “ordinary eccentricity”). That must be an operation of memory and a specialized one, but I can’t seem to pin it down.

Our minds, anyway, fit themselves to our purposes. Our churches should do the same.

Series Navigation << Grand Tour 7: The Best Museum on Route 66 is About Barbed WireGrand Tour 9: Of Tacky Artwork and Enchanting Overpasses >>

1 thought on “Grand Tour 8: A Church Should Look Like a Church”

  1. Mark Nazimova

    I like your observations about religious space. I think among the roles of religious ritual are to make the unseen seen, to direct our awareness to what we have overlooked, and to engage us with that to which we have become inured. The same might be said of designing houses of worship.

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