First, a few questions. Why is it important to think about sacred space? Given the dire problems facing humanity, including war, terrorism, hunger, poverty, and AIDS, isn’t it beside the point to be spending much time, energy, imagination and, yes, money, constructing and maintaining buildings that some call sacred? Further, if we believe that God is omnipresent, available to us in every time and place, doesn’t the notion that some places are especially sacred become a problem? Do our sanctuaries and other places of worship stand in the way of a genuine encounter with God, blocking the light, casting deep shadows over our imaginations? Many seem to think so, from Hebrew Bible patriarchs and prophets to contemporary church architects and builders who go about their work in conscious rebellion against the entire tradition of worship-space design and construction. Moreover, the boom in popular spiritualities has given people a host of options for attending to the life of the soul outside the walls of any church. Think of yoga classes in health clubs or concerts in public parks; think of workshops on meditation at your local community center, or a sacred garden in your neighbor’s backyard. Are we not, right now, in the midst of a seismic shift in our conception of what constitutes the sacred and how the life of the spirit meets the constructed environments in which we live and move and have our being?
I was recently involved as a sponsor of a national conference on architecture held at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Planned in the early months of 2001, the meeting was to focus on “sustainable architecture.” Between the planning and the execution of the event, however, two jumbo jets plowed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center a few miles away, changing everything. Suddenly our conference was not just about how buildings, including church buildings, can be energy-efficient, but how our constructed environments define, for ourselves and for others, who we are as a people. We learned, for example, why the twin towers became such a tempting target for Osama bin Laden, and why Saddam Hussein has invested so much of his resources in building palaces and mosques. Clearly, an in-depth discussion of the topic of sacred space leads to painful discoveries. How did it happen, for example, that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem has become the focal point of one of the world’s gravest and most intractable conflicts? Far more often than we realize, our places of worship become settings for conflict and war, both culture wars and armed conflicts.
The cathedral in which we met is, of course, one of the outstanding examples of Gothic Revival architecture anywhere. It is also, with its massive volume and height, one of the world’s great examples of architecture that is not sustainable. Indeed, the unfinished south tower of the cathedral is still sheathed in rusted scaffolding which has been condemned by city building inspectors, a stark reminder of the abandoned building project of the 1970s, undertaken with such visionary reach and optimism by then Dean James Parks Morton. Today the leaders of the cathedral struggle to find resources to remove the scaffolding, and to devise a plan that uses the land and buildings of the cathedral close (precincts) to generate enough revenue to keep their wonderful house of worship standing. One great challenge facing our churches today is how to maintain buildings that have outlived the economic, social, and political realities that made them possible in the first place.
A Rich Liturgical Atmosphere
Of course, Gothic architecture is, for many, the very epitome of the sacred, with its towering columns, vaulted ceilings, statuary, and the stained-glass windows that give visible expression to the narratives of the Christian faith. Moreover, those responsible for leading worship at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine make maximum use of this magnificent space. The rich liturgical service with song and chant, the incense rising through shafts of light that seem to descend from heavenly heights, the ornate vestments of priests and choir, the way in which Scripture is presented and read, the reverberation of the pipe organ—all bring to this space a sense of mystery, recalling Rudolf Otto’s phrase, the “mysterium tremendum.”
And what a wonderfully diverse group gathers at the cathedral for the Eucharist each Sunday. The congregation is as diverse as the neighborhood surrounding it, located at an intersection of populations that include large numbers of Hispanics and African Americans, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews, rich and poor. The gathering of people around the table of the Lord has the look and feel of a microcosm of the entire human family. This human mosaic is all very much to the point, for one of the elements that make a place sacred is that people experience it as a unifying focal point, the axis mundi, around which the world itself seems to turn.
The Tradition of the Meeting House
Of course, it doesn’t take a Gothic cathedral to function in this way. As a Presbyterian, I appreciate equally an architecture that springs from a different root altogether. In 18th-century America, especially in New England, worship often took place in a “meeting house,” usually a rectangular, barnlike structure with gabled roof, plain wood floor, clear-glass windows, and pulpit and pews painted white. A single steeple signified that this building was indeed a place of prayer. These meeting houses were often located at the nexus of the sacred and the secular, serving as both a gathering place for the community during the week and a worship center on the Sabbath. But their architectural idiom was one of stark simplicity, devoid of statuary, visual images, tapestry, or other signs of opulence. The visual focal point in these sanctuaries was the pulpit, up front and center, high enough to be seen by everyone. From such places, God’s Word would be preached, and the good news would radiate around the world, as once again the sanctuary became, for those gathered within, the axis mundi around which everything turned.
Those New England meeting houses are an essential part of the American landscape—both the physical terrain that can be photographed by a camera aboard a satellite and the scenes of memory and imagination that are central to the self-identity of millions of Americans. Indeed, these objects of the constructed environment play an important part even in the spiritual lives of people who do not belong to any church, as more than a few church leaders have learned from the public outcry that erupts when plans for altering the outward appearance of such buildings are proposed. Likewise, church leaders often encounter passionate resistance to proposed alterations of a beloved sanctuary, even when practical considerations make a compelling case for change. The strong feelings that people associate with their physical surroundings tell us something crucial about sacred space. Those who work with the design, renovation, or restoration of sacred space are very much involved in the shaping of the spiritual life of a people.
Experiencing the Holy Elsewhere
Neither a cathedral nor even a visually powerful New England meeting house is needed as a setting for one’s experience of the holy. In certain special, private places in our own lives we have a heightened sense of the presence of God. It can be a favorite bench in the park, a soft place in the grass under the shadow of a tree, or a knoll on the hillside overlooking a valley. In such places one feels close to one’s deepest self, to the outside world, and to the God who holds it all together. These are the places we simply discover; other sacred spaces we construct so that the numinous may be a more regular part of daily life.
An icon hangs on the wall above a dresser in the bedroom where I begin each day in prayer, and a yoga ma
t is lovingly unrolled on an Afghani prayer rug before a time of centering and contemplation. Any real discussion of sacred space involves the interplay between our most private spiritual practice and our public acts of devotion and prayer. Those who design, renovate, or make use of places of corporate worship need to be in tune with the sense of the sacred that worshipers bring to the sanctuary with them, as well as events in the wider culture that shape people’s perception of what constitutes the sacred.
A Place of Shelter and Supply
Several of these questions, themes, and observations were crystallized for me one night more than a year ago when I led an interfaith worship service in St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan. St. Paul’s is Manhattan’s oldest public building (completed in 1766), as well as its remaining colonial-era church. It is a prime example of Georgian Revival architecture, a brownstone beauty surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, with Broadway and Fulton Street on the east and a historic graveyard on the west. Beyond the graveyard lies—the void.
It seemed a miracle to many that on the morning of September 11, 2001, this wonderful house of worship escaped serious damage, even as the entire neighborhood descended into chaos. The miracle was not simply its survival, but also the resilience with which the staff and volunteers of Trinity Church Wall Street (Episcopal), which owns and runs St. Paul’s Chapel, responded. Almost immediately the church was transformed into a relief center. A kitchen was set up. Meals were served. Supplies for relief workers were collected and distributed. The nave became a place of supply and shelter—food, medical care, massage, music, therapy, pastoral counseling. St. Paul’s was at the center of it all, the axis of a mortally wounded world. People began to put up signs on the fence outside the church and on the walls inside—pleas seeking their lost loved ones. Also placed lovingly were flowers, paintings made by little children mourning a loss, hand-lettered posters, and articles of clothing. Every foot of the fence and every available surface of the church interior was transformed into a living memorial. A sacred space indeed!
It was a cold Wednesday evening in January. Our service was designed as a sacred trek, beginning in the nave with music and singing, and in the chancel with the reading of sacred scriptures of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim origins. With each reading, the congregation moved to a new location, walking in procession first down the center aisle of the church to the altar and then to the front porch overlooking the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Streets, where police were still out in force, and where floodlights, a crush of relief equipment, and the vapor from steaming underground pipes filled the air, lending a sense of mystery to the entire neighborhood. For the final segment of our service we moved in procession up the long ramp toward the viewing platform overlooking the void. The pile of rubble was growing smaller each day; but as the wreckage was removed, the magnitude of what was lost seemed more real than ever. We stood shivering in the cold and the silence, contemplating it all. And then the Buddhist monks began a chant, punctuated with the ringing of a bell. We found ourselves caught up in a prayer for peace written by Martin Luther King in another time of war. And the words of our prayers flowed with a sense of urgency and passion that seemed to rise, like the psalm of Jonah, from the belly of the beast itself.
Ruins as a Place of Prayer for All
Today a contentious public debate and an intense planning process are underway with the aim of transforming that void into a memorial. Among the requirements laid out by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for the redesign of the World Trade Center site are the rebuilding of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was destroyed on September 11, and the “recognition of the historic role of St. Paul’s Chapel.” The set of principles the development firm has stipulated for the memorial itself includes respecting the “sacred quality of the space” and encouraging “reflection and contemplation.” Seldom has a state had such an opportunity to engage in the construction of a space that could function as a place of “prayer for all people.” Even before construction has begun, the ruins of the twin towers have become a world prayer center.
Note, however, that religious leaders are not prominent in the planning, design, or construction of the memorial or its surrounding neighborhood. At a time when “spirituality” is seen as a replacement for denominational religion, the realm of the sacred clearly extends beyond the walls of any church, synagogue, or mosque. The entire question of what makes space sacred is being addressed increasingly in the wider circles of secular culture, as well as in the private lives of individuals. Therefore, as this example clearly illustrates, the most important thing to understand about how any sanctuary or other building that people identify as sacred actually functions is how what happens within relates to the world without.
Doors and Windows
Speaking figuratively, the most important parts of any worship space are the doors and the windows. Remembering how the doors of St. Paul’s Chapel were swung open to allow entry and exit to all those emergency rescue and recovery workers, we are reminded that those responsible for the construction, renovation, and use of sacred space need to attend to the traffic flow. How does the activity taking place inside the sanctuary relate to the activity taking place outside on the streets of the city or in the wider secular culture? Equally important are the windows, which not only allow the light of God to shine through, but also provide a view of the world and a sense of perspective on it.
Given the importance of the doors and windows, it is ironic to note that more and more churches are being built or renovated to include a new kind of window—the “electronic window” of the digital age. Rather than a cross hanging on a wall behind the altar, it is now common to see a projection screen, and in the place of stained-glass windows, a row of computer monitors. Indeed, many of the megachurch auditoriums that have been built in recent years in North America have replaced the traditional elements of church architecture with equipment designed for use in secular auditoriums or performance space. As Douglas Hoffman noted in an article on megachurch design in Architecture Week, the Willow Creek Community Church (in South Barrington, Illinois, near Chicago), is “characterized by a distinct absence of Christian symbolism and, coupled with the adjacent food court, takes on the appearance of a suburban mall. The building is intentionally non-church-like because the ministry is to reach those who have rejected or never accepted traditional denominational church ministry.” Likewise, Paul Goldberger mused in his New York Times review of the Willow Creek sanctuary: the building is “friendly and accessible, determined to banish the sense of mystery and otherworldliness that has long been at the very heart of the architecture of Christianity.”
Similarly, in a recent press release on the opening of another such sanctuary, a bulleted list highlighted the new church’s outstanding features, such as its impressive seating capacity. This sentence nearly leaped off the page: “In our new building there are no Bibles and no hymnals, but there are several large projection screens and 20 computer monitors visible from all locations.” This is a church designed from the ground up quite self-consciously as a phenomenon of the digital age.
Because the changes in the nature of our communications media are happening so rapidly, and because they are transforming so profoundly the way we learn and the ways in which we relate to one another, it is clear that those responsible for pastoral
leadership must be aware of both the promise and the perils of the new technologies.
More Than a ‘House of Cedar’
From the very beginning, the people of God have been well advised to approach with caution the task of setting aside in time and space a place where one might encounter the Maker of heaven and earth. Note the warning given by Nathan, the prophet, when King David proposed building a sanctuary in the center of his new capital, Jerusalem. In fact, Nathan opposed the construction of the temple in rather harsh terms, using both satire and humor to attack the notion that it is even possible to build such a thing as “a house of God.” And his reason is worth noting. Since the Lord had been with the people in the past, “wherever they went,” it would not be necessary or advisable to build a mere “house of cedar.” Rather it would be far preferable to let go of those ambitious plans for building a temple and instead allow God to build a “house . . . that will last forever” (2 Sam. 7:5ff). What Nathan had in mind was not a building at all, but rather a living, breathing community of faith that Christians later identified as the body of Christ.
In the past, Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike have seldom been able to heed the warning of the prophet but, like King Solomon, have pressed ahead with their building plans. Given all that we have seen of the good, the bad, and the ugly in sanctuary construction since that time, it is clear that those who undertake the task of creating, maintaining, or living with buildings that people identify as “sacred” need to undertake their work with both caution and humility. And then they must go ahead with a clear understanding that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).