As I was planning my “Introduction to Liturgy and Sacraments” syllabus earlier this semester for my undergraduates, I was somehow deluded into thinking that it made sense to talk about “liturgical art and liturgical music” in the same class session.
What was I thinking?
In the grand scope of the course, in which we’re trying to cover the history of sacraments, liturgical theology, each sacramental rite, the liturgical year, daily prayer, and, oh, by the way, “spirituality,” lumping arts and music together seemed reasonable in the bright moments of pre-semester hope.
The day arrived for the discussion—we read parts of Built of Living Stones and Sing to the Lord—and then the questions came. I had expected the energy to center on Catholic music (I’m a musician, so I’m a little self-interested). But, the most compelling observations—and wonders—came with respect to architecture. Why are churches built the way they are? Why does my church look like this? What does the way they are built mean (if anything)?
One student wanted to know why his church had eight sides. Another student eagerly looked up—her church had eight sides, too. I asked them, “Why do you think it has 8 sides?” They had suggestions: “So people can see each other.” “So we get that sense of community because the congregation sees each other.” “So people can see the altar better.” I waited for more. Another student helpfully offered, “How about, for sound? Aren’t the acoustics better?”
All these things may be true—but there’s still something more. I asked them: “We just talked about the theology of Sunday. What day of the week is Sunday?” Lightbulbs began to blink. Sunday is the first day…and the eighth day. That’s why a church might have eight sides.
I don’t begrudge my students not immediately seeing this connection—some of them are quite new to thinking about liturgical theology, let alone applying it to their concrete experiences of worship. And yet, I do wonder how typical these young people’s practice in reading the symbolic structures around them is.
In my own experience, some of the more significant post-Conciliar symbolically-driven architectural initiatives are being remodeled, or absolutely deconstructed. Blessed Sacrament chapels are being converted into spaces to house statues. Baptistries are converted into…spaces to house plants. Should we be surprised that a church built with a slippery eschatological motif driving its walls be left standing, silently, misunderstood and perhaps even maligned as not befitting the dignity of the celebration of the Mass?
We don’t know how to read symbols. This is an old and yet markedly continual issue for the Roman Catholic faithful. Yikes, even at the National Basilica of Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Washington, DC), people are throwing money into the baptismal font!!!!
Though Catholics may be bad, this isn’t a Roman Catholic lacuna alone. I observed the paraments adorning the worship space of a neighborhood congregation, intended for the Lenten season. The arts and environment committee (or another helping hand—bless his or her heart) had selected a purple cloth…adorned with four lighted candles.
I don’t think we’re even ready for a “blue-ish” purple vs. “red-ish” purple conversation here.
The lack of awareness regarding theological and liturgical symbols impoverishes our understanding of salvation history, our formation in the Christian life, and our awareness that creation might continually teach us about the living light of God—which we experience in our very bodies.
How can we start “practicing” reading symbols? What ARE the symbols we experience in worship? How do we invite people to consider them—and to care? I don’t have solutions right now. But this is a project we must address—when we imagine the liturgy—or liturgical catechesis—of the future.