catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 15 :: 2008.07.25 — 2008.09.12


Interior formation

How church interiors have formed my faith

My wife and I subscribed to the magazine Nest: A Quarterly of Interiors until it ceased publication in 2004.   This was not your typical “interiors” magazine about how to decorate, or about the latest trends, or a showcase for the wealthy and their designers.  Nest was about design and interior decorating as an essential aspect of having an interior life.  It attempted to show that interior decorating was a human and spiritual activity.  Each issue was created around a theme and each article described how interiors, the spaces we live in, tell our stories. Nest proclaimed in each issue that we are the spaces we inhabit: Not only do they give expression to who we are but the form of our interiors form us as persons.  This has been my experience of church interiors.  The interior of a church both gives expression to what is believed about the church (the people of God) and it is what forms the faith of those who gather together in that place.  Over the years I have had the opportunity to experience a variety of church interiors from medieval cathedrals of Europe to contemporary multiuse auditoriums.  These interiors have shaped my faith, sometimes negatively.  I have been presented with a sense of the faith as a mysterious encounter with the holy, as well as faith as a simple skeleton upon which one can hang any number of forms and user defined components.

The interior of the church I grew up in was a traditional Protestant space influenced by some aspects of the liturgical renewal movement of the 20th century.  The space was clean, not heavily ornamented, and even the large stained glass windows were mostly white and gold with very small colored designs of traditional Christian symbols.  This created an air of awe as the space on Sunday mornings was always basking in soft diffused golden light.  There was nothing to distract from the focal point of the dais with baptismal font on the left, the communion table (that looked more like an altar than table) in the center and a large pulpit on the right.  Behind these was the choir.  Behind the choir hung a large, stylized, unornamented cross.  The space communicated the centrality of the sacraments and the importance of Christian symbolism as long as the visual would not distract from what was to take place on the dais.  This formed me in important ways: the sacraments remain central to my faith, and as a visual artist I have struggled and at times still struggle to see visual art as an important part of my faith.  The odd thing abut the centrality of the sacraments in the design of the space was that they weren’t a major emphasis of the congregation; communion was served only monthly, child dedication had the same importance and significance as infant baptism and I only remember one adult baptism.  The centrality of communion for my faith was formed more because the placement of the communion table than the practice of the congregation.

The sacramental emphasis of the interior of my childhood church made the experience of Roman Catholic Churches and Medieval Cathedrals both familiar and foreign.  I could read the focus of the interior of these buildings’ large central altar with a pulpit somewhere on the side; celebration of the Eucharist was clearly central.  However, in the dim ornate interiors of the cathedrals a new dimension of the faith opened up to me: mystery, beauty and holiness.  I did not miss that to enter a cathedral was entering another world, another place.  I did not need to be told to be quiet and reverent; this was holy ground.  For the first time I came to understand God as totally other, and that this other became human in Jesus Christ and was crucified.  I could see in the dim light, in the decorations and statues, the holiness of God, and I was visually confronted with my God who was crucified for me.  In the cathedrals, sacrament took on its full meaning for me as I encountered in these mysterious spaces the totally other who was crucified.

When I was in junior high, my family joined a church that had an interior opposite of the cathedral, a state-of-the-art, modern auditorium theater with pews instead of theater seats.  There were no permanent signs of faith in the building except one small stained glass window.  The baptismal font was a large tub hidden from view and situated in a wall above the auditorium, the pulpit retracted into the stage, and the communion table was a small, narrow, portable table that lived most of the time in a store room behind the stage.  This was a secular space in which religious things happened.  One did not encounter holiness there, one was to receive the word from the stage in several forms: sermon, play, song, dance, rock concerts and a yearly production that reproduced a life-size version of religious masterpieces.  So in that space one could hear the message of Jesus Christ proclaimed in various media but not encounter God or holiness.  The interior decoration was plain not to distract from what was happening on stage.  Oddly enough many people still called this auditorium the “sanctuary,” though officially it was called the “Worship Center.” The theology of the church was not very sacramental—no need really for sacrament if God is in one’s own heart.   I found during that time that I had difficulty attending to my interior spiritual life when the interior of the place of my worship existed merely as a place to perform, proclaim and receive. I began to long for the focal point of the church of my childhood and the holy ground of the cathedrals of Europe where I could encounter and see God.

Then during college I found my way to a Greek Orthodox Church for the first time. The opulent beauty (in contrast to the simple lines of my childhood church) expressed in icons and decorations overwhelmed me the way the dim light of the cathedrals lead me to encounter God as Other. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to look.  In the Orthodox church I knew even in my confusion that I was before the throne of God, that silent holy place within and beyond time and space, with all the saints and martyrs who had gone before us in the faith.  I was not only in a holy pace encountering the mystery of God but I was also seeing, tasting, smelling the fullness of the Kingdom of God at the end of the age.  Years later, studying iconography as I finished seminary, I learned that what I experienced is what the interior of an Orthodox church was supposed to elicit in the worshiper. The interior of an Orthodox church is designed for an encounter with God and to be a foretaste of the cosmos transfigured into the Kingdom of God, and thus to form worshipers into citizens of God’s Kingdom. The Orthodox temple forms a people who are signs of the coming and present Kingdom of God.

All of these various interiors have formed my sense of the faith and the Kingdom of God.  Part of that formation has been  “reaction formation” as I have in rejected Protestant austerity and simplicity, and especially the pragmatic multi-use space.  I have sought to worship in churches whose interiors encourage an encounter with God as other and help me see what the Kingdom of God is like.  I seek out interiors that support and encourage an interior experience that God is other and holy and yet became one of us to be crucified, so that by dying, God might defeat death.  I believe our churches should form in us the faith and hope that God is transforming the world into the Kingdom. Our church interiors should not only places rejuvenation and proclamation, but places that form us as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

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