What’s in a table?

I have a thing about altars, and my friends have been known to accuse me of being exaggerated (they sometimes use another word to describe it). Yet I firmly believe that the altar should be proportionate to the assembly, and that the altar (and its placement) is not incidental to the structure of a church.

I realize that a lot of work has been done in most parishes and the majority parishes that were built prior to Vatican II have been retrofitted with free-standing altars.  However, I was talking with someone recently who mentioned that the cathedral of his diocese did not have a permanent free-standing altar yet and that they were still using a “temporary” particleboard altar. The original high altar is still in place but is only used for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, while the Eucharist has been celebrated daily on the “temporary” altar for almost 50 years!

This brought to mind an old article that Mark Searle wrote where he laments how slipshod the architectural renewal of many churches was back in 1982:

It is extraordinarily difficult to bring the tumultuous history of liturgical renewal in the American parish over the last twenty years into any kind of satisfactory focus.  Perhaps the best way of grasping what happened would be to go into almost any parish church in the land, built before the middle or late sixties, sit about halfway back and allow the environment to tell its own story.  Chances are that the structure itself remains essentially what it was.  The old altar against the back wall is probably still in place, but stripped of its mass cards, its candles, and maybe its tabernacle.  The sunlight continues to filter through the same stained glass windows upon the same worn pews.  The same plaster madonna continues her serene and steady gaze upon the passerby, though it may be that a portable font has edged out the old votive light stand in vying for her modest smile.  The altar rails may still be in place, but the gates have been removed and the starched linens which used to adorn them have long since been folded up and abandoned to some inaccessible sacristy cupboard.  The interior of a Catholic church was never very tidy, but the litter problem seems to have worsened over the years.  The sanctuary, in particular, has suffered.  The once intimidating sweep of steps up to the high altar is now broken with a second portable counterpart, invariably looking makeshift and out of place.  The pulpit, if it remains, goes largely unused: a spindly lectern, with a colored cloth and a microphone attached, has replaced it.  Chairs of undetermined vintage, rescued from the monsignor’s hallway, take up the remaining space.  One has the sense that in half an hour all that has come about in the space of twenty years could be cleared away and the old order restored.  It has not died, it has not even faded away.  It merely sleeps.

Mark Searle, “Reflections on Liturgical Reform,” in Worship, 56, 5 (1982), 411-412.

 Unfortunately, today over fifty years after Vatican II, some churches are still using altars that while meeting the bare minimum requirements are still the result of woodworking project of the pastor and his brother-in-law from the early 1970’s.

The problem is that our liturgy should never be simply “good enough.” Liturgy is never the mere fulfilment of laws and rubrics (see MD25 and SC 11). The liturgical renewal of the second half of the twentieth century was not simply a revision of the liturgical books or a minor reordering of the sanctuary furnishings. It was above all a renewal of the whole liturgical experience to allow the person of today to become, in the words of Schmemann, a homo adorans. This is partly accomplished by helping the person to feel loved when they enter the assembly. The welcoming of the local community and its ministers is paramount to this process, as is the care that is put into the liturgical action itself (music, homily, etc.). But it is also important that we have a particular aesthetic to the church that suits the renewed liturgy. The church must be furnished in a dignified way. But it is not simply a matter of spending money. There needs to be a particular aesthetic in the church, so that the members of the assembly can know where they are and can be helped in their liturgical participation. The importance given to aesthetics in an Apple Store or in a Starbucks café could serve as an inspiration to us.

I am not proposing that we should mimic these “secular temples” in their particular style, a church shouldn’t look like an Apple Store. I am saying, however, that they have a clear aesthetic where nothing is left to chance and that this is vital to their mission. It is interesting to note that Apple Stores are the world’s most profitable stores per square foot. The lesson here is that the small details matter. How often do we see Catholic churches where the details are left to chance and that “good enough” is the aesthetic? Part of the appeal that the Extraordinary Form has is that for many of its adherents the details matter. The wider church needs to learn from this.

This post started with an anecdote about a poorly made altar.  And it brought to mind an article on the design of the tables in the employee café of Apple’s corporate headquarters. This describes how much effort goes into making sure that the tables are just right. Those in charge of our churches should not be afraid to put as much effort into making sure that our altar tables are as perfect. There are many aspects into having fruitful liturgies but, given that most parishes see most practicing parishioners just for Sunday Mass, we should strive to have as perfect environment as possible, and to remember that a table is never just a table.


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