Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Spaces We Inhabit, Part I

Mrs. M over at The Kitchen Door has posted an interesting piece on the spaces in which we live. Prompted by considerations involved in moving to a new apartment, she moves on to what she has seen and experienced in various churches and what the different frameworks for worship mean. I am always fascinated by physcial space, and so I thought that in response to her questions I'd give it some thought for a few posts. Today I'm focusing on a few churches, Protestant and Catholic.

The Presbyterian church to which I belong, which I have served as an elder, in which I have participated and been supported in so many ways:

Think austere and elegant New England. The walls are a pale shade of white with a hint of blush, the trim a bit more on the creamy side. Two sets of pews with aisles down the center and down each side. The communion table on a raised platform, a lectern for the readings to the right side as the congregation faces the front, a pulpit for preaching to the left. The cross, a contemporary rendition which I have contemplated a great deal and hope to use as the subject of a sermon someday, hangs from the ceiling over the steps leading up to the communion table. No artwork whatever in the sanctuary. The windows are clear glass panes. The choir stalls are in the front, behind the communion table, and the organ is built into the wall behind them, so the choir is always visible and the music pours directly into the sanctuary.

The Methodist church in which our entire family participated energetically for many years:

The main sanctuary is modeled on a 13th century French Gothic cathedral, huge and cavernous, with breathtaking stained glass windows and elegant piers, columns, and arches. The layout is almost identical to that of my current church, with the exception of the music-related features: the choir stalls are in the left transept, so that the choir is all but invisible to the congregation, and difficult to hear, and the organ is built into the back wall above the balcony. When the church is full and everyone is singing and the organ is playing, the effect is impressive. The pulpit, lectern, and baptismal font are all made of wood, intricately carved exponents of the theme of vine and branches running through the entire space. A Renaissance reproduction painting of Mary and Jesus hangs over the baptismal font.

The sanctuary of my Presbyterian seminary:

Again, New England and austere, but without the intimacy of my home church. High, high ceilings, and high, high, clear glass windows. Now that I think of it, the interior shape must be something of a half-hexagon; the pews do not follow the lines of the walls and the effect is somewhat confusing. (From the outside, the building appears to be a square.) One of my readers may correct me here. Both organ and choir stalls are in the balcony. And here's something Mrs. M mentions in another context: the single pulpit (no lectern) is smack in the middle of the front. I had never heard of such a layout until just before I went off to seminary and wondered what it would look like -- and there it is! To me it seems rather an astonishing illustration of the Protestant emphasis on Word at, perhaps, the expense of Sacrament. It was awhile before I was able to shake off the sense that the human preacher rather than God was at the center of the worship service. When we have communion, it is served from a small table below the towering pulpit.

The Carmelite chapel, where I have spent some time this fall:

Another austere space, this one shaped somewhat like a barn, with white plaster walls. There is a statute of Mary with the baby Jesus in a side alcove, and that's it for artwork. The windows are clear glass and the furnishings are made of wood, with simple and spare lines, and entirely mobile. When I have been there we have always sat in rows forming a semi-circle the long way across the rectangular space, with the altar front and center and the lectern/pulpit off to the right. No choir; a small organ in the back, but I think it can be moved around.

The suburban Catholic church I sometimes attend which is, not surprisingly for me, also a Jesuit church:

You might call this one a contemporary version of the Methodist church described above. It's huge, wide with high ceilings, but no arches, no columns, and boxy rather than rectangular. Most of the stained glass windows have geometric art deco designs, except for those in the front which tell some of the Ignatian and Jesuit story. The organ is in the balcony, which is usually where the choir is, too, although often the music is provided by soloist or small group vocalists and musicians from the front to the right. There are a couple of very small side chapels, and large statues of Mary and Joseph, one on each side in the front, and a large lectern/pulpit to the left. The priests sometimes preach from the pulpit, and sometimes walk down and stand in or wander the aisle There is no doubt that in this church the emphasis is on the celebration of the Eucharist: the elevated altar is huge and set back at some remove from the congregation and the majestic crucifix takes up the entire wall above it.

My current favorite, even though I have only been there once ~ a downtown Catholic church restored over the last decade or so:

Inside, a wonderful semi-Gothic space with soaring arches and white walls and huge stained glass windows that somehow still enable bright light to filter through. A little bit in the way of sculpture and statues, not at all intrusive. There is an altar but, as with the Carmelites, everything is moveable. The day I was there, we sat in two vast semicircles; the reading was from the (beautifully carved) lectern placed toward one end and the homily was preached from the center of the congregation. The communion elements were consecrated on the altar, but the entire congregation of several hundred surged forward and encirled it, as we had gathered and encircled the bapismal font in back half-an-hour earlier for the full dunking baptism of a baby girl. I can't describe this church as well as I'd like since, as I've said, I've only been there once, but its combination of elegant and historical stone, glass, and archways with contemporary and spare furnishings and artwork, its infusion of bright light, and its generous balancing of space for both Word and Sacrament, is completely appealing to me.


Purple said... crucial as it can invite, discourage, interrupt, soothe, among others. I am a big fan of creating a space which is open, expansive, and safe, for all who enter or even those who want to stand at the edge and look in.

Anonymous said...

Lately, we've been putting pictures and paintings back on the wall and it feels much better with just the few that we've already done. About 4 or so years ago, we'd cleared the walls while painting and hadn't bothered replacing them. The house had a slightly abandoned feel to it like noone could be bothered the attempt to beautify, essentially a metaphor for our inner struggles and family dynamics it would seem. Now it feels like an investment has been made and oddly, I feel some hope.

Reading your descriptions, I realized that I was always more drawn to and more comfortable in Catholic church buildings than I'd been in most Protestant ones. The latter generally felt too austere for my taste; the former had more art things and even, at times, weird architecture. I guess I have to admit that I'm more comfortable in a little mess rather than a sterile-looking environment.


Kathryn J said...

I could see those churches in my mind as you described them. Some time ago you posted pictures of the Carmelite church so that was easiest.

My old parish had a classic 100yo church with astonishingly beautiful stained glass. My new church has no stained glass and very little art. I miss the art but love the semi-circle arrangement of pews around the altar; it makes you aware of community and builds a connection to those with whom you are worshiping.

Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts on this.

Cynthia said...

I can't help thinking of the Southern Baptist Church of my childhood. You entered through towering doors into a marble lobby with large, wide spiral staircases on either side. In between those doors, you entered the sanctuary, huge, carpeted, three sections of upholstered chairs with folding seats. I still remember the deep cranberry coloring of the upholstery. The sanctuary had "three" balconies. The first was actually a mezzanine. I remember the walls in a muted, soft blue tinged hue with impossibly tall windows draped in swagged cranberry drapes. Hanging from the ceiling was the largest crystal chandelier I have ever seen in my life to this day. Its bottom was lower than the top balcony.The pulpit was front and center on the podium and the ministerial staff sat in beautiful but not ornate upholstered wooden chairs of either cherry or mahogany. The choir loft was behind them, and behind them was the baptismal which was draped until it was being used. The space created a sense of smallness and security in the midst of formal, contemporary grandeur.

Jan said...

Your words are pictures in my mind. Thanks for the descriptions. I'd missed Mrs. M's piece on space, and so I'm glad you linked to that, too.

Mrs. M said...

This is marvelous-- thank you so much for taking the time to share these. I really enjoyed it.