I drove home recently—and by home I mean my childhood home—from a meeting in Chicago. Having lived in northern Indiana for over 10 years (followed by two years suffering through the traffic of Northern Virginia), I’m both comfortable navigating “the Region” and not surprised by the dismal trails of traffic stretching under bridges, around construction cones, and over the state border of Illinois and Indiana. There are moments of relief in the tedium, a favorite one being the wide view of the City which can be enjoyed from the Dan Ryan. I find the cityscape a joyful one—and can imagine myself walking down the steps of the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, ready to make my way north to a particularly delicious Armenian restaurant. I’ve long loved the city of Chicago.
Driving home, however, from Chicago, brings quite a different view. That long ride down I-65 South yields decreasing amounts of cars, and increasing amount of cornfields, windfarms, and long stretches of open road (and open pot-holes). Even more distant, the county road that leads to my childhood home (in southern Indiana) is further still from those densely-packed interstate arteries. I know I’m minutes from home when I catch my first sight of that major landmark on the otherwise unpopulated County Road 550: a squat cinder-block junk shop, surrounded by a few half-built pick-ups littering the lawn, and illuminated by the electric glow of a pop machine, blazing brightly in the midst of the dark expanse of empty fields.
Why this building sits at these country cross-roads (and what its function might be) have long been questions I’ve pondered. But, for me, whether this corner lot serves as a gas station, dumping ground, or something else, is not its critical function; this dingy sight conjures for me feelings of comfort, of familiarity, and sweet memory. Why should something so simple speak so warmly?
I know this station serves as a signal—a sign, alerting me that I am in “the right place,” or at least the comforts of “homing ground,” in my great state of Indiana. I admit that perhaps not many would identify something so bleak as beautiful, let alone take heart in the fact that this semi-abandoned lot is the only building in sight for at least a mile. Yet I contend this building is beautiful, and full of meaning.
I’ll attempt to suggest that our worship is a lot like that. In class recently, we’ve been discussing the challenges of “the aesthetic.” How do we choose what types of materials are appropriate, and who can make them? What do you do with well-meaning “gifts” from thoughtful parishioners? At the end of the day, as one student asked, “who judges” what is right and good for liturgical worship?
Art and Environment are important dimensions for the liturgical experience. As the 2000 document, Built of Living Stones,from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops describes with regard to the renovation and construction of churches, “effective liturgical signs have a teaching function and encourage full, conscious, and active participation, express and strengthen faith, and lead people to God” (Built of Living Stones 26). To some extent, I believe that our “liturgical differences” about “effective” liturgy, are most stringent in the areas of arts and aesthetics. While our artistic preferences may have roots in ecclesiological, or theological understandings, at the end of the day, it is the art, the architecture, and the environment which become the battleground in which these preferences and ideologies are expressed. What does a musical preference for chant or for a four-hymn sandwich reveal? Or a preference for paraments—banners and vestments—which match and suit the liturgical season, or are crafted in a certain style? Even greater—what does the shape and style of worship space reveal? Does the structure provide forums for private prayer, or stress the gathered assembly’s arrangement around the sanctuary, or some happy mixture of both?
For some, a sense of the transcendence is required for beauty; and this is a noble desire. Yet, I am confounded by the immense sense of beauty, and good, which I find in that which is mundane. If the soaring architecture of the City on the Lake strikes me as being equally magnificent as an abandoned gas pump, is it something about me which should give me pause?
Of the many liturgical avenues regarding the presence of the holy in the mundane—I’ll offer just one. And it’s about the big one: liturgical space. As noted above, Built of Living Stones, describes quite comprehensively the importance of carefully-defined and planned liturgical space and environment. Yet, such careful design was not possible in my very first “parish,” the one I joined when I left my homeland of Southern Indiana for a college campus in the North: the basement of an abandoned 1960’s office building served as the sanctuary for my Newman Center. Located off-campus, the building was originally designated as “Thunder House,” so as not to too obtrusively announce a Catholic presence in the wider community. This dark little basement, with low ceiling and forest of support poles, was fitted with a raised step for the altar, a single pane of stained glass, and some moveable chairs. This room—nothing if not humble—indeed was a holy place. And, when I think of liturgical spaces, I cannot think of that space without remembering it as magnificent, full of hope, and certainly a forum for God’s grace.
Perhaps I need to improve my priorities—cinderblocks and dank basements are not beautiful. But I believe it may be this indomitable sense of sacramentality—finding the holy in the ordinary, which plagues me. These small things, the arts, our aesthetic constructs, and media, serve as signs which point us to something larger: relationships in the community, prayer, friendship, even the presence of God.
So, the next time you find yourself on a county road and see an abandoned building—or visit a space which may offend “good taste”—perhaps pause for a moment and ask yourself: is it, can it be, a sign for something beautiful?