Love Is the Builder
Catholics love their churches. We build them with love. We make them lovable.
If you visit a remote village in Latin America, the people will be pleased to show you their church—the church that they or their ancestors have raised to the glory of God. Step inside and you’ll find a sanctuary adorned with precious items: skillfully wrought woodwork, stonework, and metalwork, and paintings and statues in the local style. If you linger for Mass, you’ll see a chalice and plate of gold or silver, enhanced perhaps by gems.
The inside of the church may be lavish and rich, while the homes outside are simple and unadorned. And that contrast sometimes shocks people who are visiting from more prosperous lands. It has become a cliché of anti-Catholic prejudice to say that such precious objects would serve a better purpose if they were sold to raise money for food.
The people in the village know better. They know that the money earned from such a sale would feed them for no more than a few days, while the loss would leave them impoverished forever. Without their church—their church—they would be spiritually and culturally destitute. For they’ve built and furnished their church with love, as Catholics everywhere do and always have done.
Such love finds expression in the smallest details of construction and decoration, and in a seemingly infinite variety of styles. You’ll see it in Ethiopia’s ancient churches—carved out of a single massive block of black stone, the size of a small mountain. You’ll see it in Cappadocia’s cave churches—occupied during a time when Christianity was illegal and the faith was forced underground (literally). You’ll see it in the play of dark and light in the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. You’ll find it in the most ordinary suburban churches in the United States.
These churches, in all their diversity, are built according to a common plan, furnished with similar items, and decorated with remarkably standard symbols, scenes, and images. The elements bespeak a love shared by Catholics from all over the world, regardless of language, culture, wealth, or historical period.
Catholics build their churches with love; and our love has a language all its own. Like romance, Christian devotion follows certain customs and conventions—a tradition poetic and courtly—hallowed by millennia of experience.
This book is about that silent language of love. In these pages we’ll examine the structure of a church and its furnishings. We’ll consider the historical and biblical roots of each element in a church, providing basic definitions, and we’ll explain each element’s meaning in the Christian tradition. Why, for example, do churches have spires and bells? Where did we get the custom of using holy water? How does an altar differ from an ordinary table? What are votive candles for?
Every part of a church is rich in meaning and mystery, theology and history. Every furnishing or ornament reveals some important detail of the story of our salvation. Through two millennia, Christians have preserved and developed a tradition of building and decoration. The tradition is supple enough that it could be adapted by local cultures as the Gospel spread to new lands, yet solid enough to protect and preserve the essential heritage received from the Apostles and revealed by God.
If you were making a movie and you wanted your audience to identify an interior immediately as a Catholic church, what would you do? You’d show sunlight streaming through stained glass. You’d angle your camera heavenward, looking upward past monumental statues of the saints. You’d pan across a bank of red votive candles with flickering flames, and then focus on an array of seemingly surreal images: a human heart surrounded by thorns; an eye; a disembodied hand raised in blessing; a painting of a woman standing on a crescent moon; a carving of a dove descending; a lion, an eagle, and an ox, all crowned by similar halos; and a throng of angels.
In the popular imagination, these elements add up to a Catholic identity. But what exactly does each of them mean? And how do all the elements work together? What’s the sense of the symbols? What are we trying to say through the medium of human body parts and exotic animals? Late in the fourth century Saint Augustine, who would go on to become a builder of churches, wrote: “I know that a truth which the mind understands in just one way can be materially expressed by many different means, and I also know that there are many different ways in which the mind can understand an idea that is outwardly expressed in one way.”1
The African saint gives us an important insight for “reading” our churches: One image can convey many layers of meaning, and the same idea can be expressed in manifold ways.
Everything we see in a Catholic church is there for a single purpose: to tell a love story. It is a story as old as the world, and it involves the whole of creation, the vast expanse of history, and every human being who ever lived. It involves Almighty God, and it involves you.
Art and architecture are means of communication. Our churches speak of something remote, beyond the reach of human sciences—what Dante called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”2 But our churches speak also to something deep inside us—in our souls and in our senses—because, as Dante added, the same Love that moves the cosmos also moves “my desire and my will.”
To understand our churches is to begin to understand a love at once unmistakably divine and profoundly human, faraway and yet intimate. When we begin to understand that love, it begins to light up our view of our churches and their symbols.
The love story appears in compressed, poetic form in the Gospel according to Saint John.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . .
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father. . . .
For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 1:1–5, 9–14; 3:16)
John begins his Gospel by describing a God of awesome power, remote in space and transcending time: a Spirit, a Word. This is the God whom even the pagan philosophers knew: the Prime Mover, the One. Yet, precisely where the pagan philosophers stalled, John’s drama proceeds to a remarkable climax: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
From beyond the distant heavens, existing before the beginning of time, God himself broke into history, took on flesh, and made his dwelling—literally, “pitched his tent”—among his people. Yes, God is eternally the Word, but a word is elusive, and not everyone may grasp it.
God, who reigns in heaven, and who transcends all creation and all time, assumed the life of an ordinary laborer, who could be seen and heard and touched. God transformed all creation by his healing touch. He took up residence among his people.
The early Christians said that when Jesus descended into the river Jordan he sanctified—made holy—all the waters of the earth, commissioning them for the task of baptism. In his mother’s womb he sanctified motherhood. At a family table, God handled ordinary food and made it to signify an otherwise unimaginable heavenly banquet. He wandered in the desert and traveled in boats and visited towns and cities. In doing all this, he blessed creation and hallowed it as a sign of his own eternal life.
Every Catholic church is built to tell this story, the story of how “God so loved the world.” Every church is built to dispense the life-giving water and magnify the light that shines in the darkness. Every church serves the heavenly banquet at its family table: the altar. Every church is built as a memorial of God’s sojourn among his people—and of his people’s rejection of him. Front and center we keep the crucifix.
Our churches tell a love story, and they bring us salvation, and so we love them all the more. So much of Catholic identity is built into the houses we build for worship. Everything about our churches, inside and out, is a unique material token of the most profound spiritual love. Jesus has spiritualized the world, but he has done it by putting flesh on pure Spirit. That reality is reflected on the walls of every Catholic church.
Saint John of Damascus, writing in eighth-century Syria, pondered the things in his church and was moved, he said, to “worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and willed to make his dwelling in matter, and who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring the matter that works my salvation. . . . Through matter, filled with divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me.”3
Theologians call this the “sacramental principle.” Other authors, speaking colloquially, refer to it simply as “the Catholic Thing.” That’s how closely a Catholic’s spiritual identity is tied to these material realities.
The sacramental principle tells us that, since the Word became flesh, God has begun to heal and restore his creation. Spiritual light can now shine through the material world. Because of the touch of Jesus Christ, matter can now convey God’s grace. On one level, bread and wine; on another, oil, candles, fabrics and paint, bricks, blocks, and filigree—all these can mediate God’s presence in the world.
Jesus’s disciples, still today, can sense the dramatic effects of the Incarnation. With the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins we can look upon a world “charged with the grandeur of God”—and we can reflect that grandeur through the material objects and symbols present in our churches.
Reflecting God’s grandeur is something we are drawn to do. It fulfills a need we have as Christians who have been redeemed. We want to praise and thank the Lord who has saved us. But it also fulfills a basic need we have as human beings; for the God who redeemed us is the God who created us, and he designed us to love beauty, to find delight in it, and to make beautiful things that tell us of the greater beauty of divine glory.
Christians need churches. It is said that for centuries the Benedictine order forbade the founding of a new monastery until the group of founders included a monk who could make bricks—and another who was trained in turning those bricks into church walls, raised according to the ancient models. From generation to generation they passed on the tradition of beauty, love, and wisdom that they had received, a tradition that libraries could not contain, yet one that we’ll try to survey with you in the chapters that follow.
What is a Church?
Before he was the Deliverer or the Lawgiver, Moses was a visionary. His first encounter with God happened while he was leading the flock of his father-in-law through the wilderness. When he came to Horeb, which was known as “God’s mountain,” the angel of the Lord appeared to him in the flames of a bush that was burning yet was not consumed by the fire. Moses stepped forward to explore the curiosity. From the fire, God called him by name. “Here am I!” Moses said. And the Lord told him: “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses did as he was told, and the voice from the bush identified himself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, we are told, because he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:1–6).
Moses found himself on “holy ground,” and the realization filled him with a holy fear, a sense of awe.
A Catholic church is, by definition, “holy ground.” The official documents define a church as “a sacred building designated for divine worship” (CIC 1214). Mount Horeb was sacred because of the special presence of God, and that same presence is what makes a Catholic church sacred. God is present there.
A church does not need to be a great work of art in order to be a sacred place. The philosopher Josef Pieper said: “A building does not become a church by virtue of its architecture, but by virtue of its consecration.”1 Some churches indeed are masterpieces, but even they are not “art for art’s sake.” A church is a building with a useful purpose. Like a firehouse or a hospital, it provides a public service. That’s the root meaning of the word liturgy, which Christians use to denote their official worship. Catholic liturgy is a public service conducted in a public building. The religious law governing churches demands that parishioners be able to enter freely for prayer and worship, especially during sacred celebrations (CIC 1214 and 1221). Thus, a church’s form must accommodate its ritual function—or the church will be judged a failure.
This may seem contradictory—for a church to be a “public building” and yet at the same time a “sacred place.” But remember that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is in the church that the God-man takes his place among his people in every time and place. The church is the holy ground where the divine Word is “made flesh” in the act that is most central to Catholic life: the sacrifice of the altar, the Holy Mass.
A church is built for the sake of the altar inside. The altar is built for the sake of the Mass. And the Mass is offered for the glory of God and for the salvation of his people.
Jesus himself set this order in place. On the night he was handed over to his persecutors, he shared his Last Supper with his Apostles. It was a solemn ritual meal, recognizably in the Jewish tradition, yet it also represented something new. For Jesus took bread, broke it, and said: “This is my body.” Then he blessed a cup of wine and pronounced it to be “the cup of my blood.” As he shared these with his Apostles, he gave them a clear instruction: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19–20).