Monday, January 25, 2016

Problems with the Church in the Round: #2 "Perfection"

Last week I wrote about the problems with the "church in the round", in particular how the location of the celebrant at the center causes a de-emphasis of the importance of the altar as authority over the congregation. In this post I'd like further at the symbolism of the church in the round and how it relates to the eschatology of the Church.

The form of the circle symbolically is one of gathering and binding together. All points of the circle are equally distant from the center point of the circle, being "held together" by that point. The only direction that can be seen in circle has is either inwards or outwards. One cannot really talk about a top or bottom, or front or back or a circular form, at least without reference to something outside the circle itself. Also since it has no real sides like any polygon, one can think of the circle as having an "infinite" number of sides. The circle symbolically then has the nature of completeness and "perfection" as well as infinity. Thus we can see why throughout almost all of human history, the circle is symbolic of divinity. Indeed in Christianity we see an ancient symbol of the trinity, of three intersecting circles is deep with that same meaning.

But this nature of completeness and perfection of the circle is deeply problematic in the design of a Catholic church. The reason for this revolves around the idea of eschatology. Eschatology, as Dr. Denis McNamara explains in his excellent series on the Catholic Architecture, is the teaching about the eschaton, or simply about the end of the world. Christianity, in contrast to the ancient pagan religions, proposed that not only did Christ come to earth to die for our sins, but also that he will come again at the end of times, and that there will be an end of time.  The Church has always looked forward to the Second Coming, and thus has always taught that the people of God are marching toward that end, where the work of Salvation will finally be completed. The Church, through the liturgy of the Mass, teaches about the perfection of Heaven and the world to come, but also gives us a "foretaste" of Paradise. When we receive the Eucharist in Mass, we receive Christ truly and thus partake in his perfection in Heaven, but we still remain in this world, fallen as it is, so it is we still are left wanting more.

But when the circular form is used in a church, the symbolism of the circle conflicts with this teaching. The circle as said before, has a notion of completeness, of perfection and infinity. We lose the sense that there is something lacking, which we are heading towards, namely the perfection of

When you consider the ancient pagans at Stonehenge, you can see this in act, there they saw that seasons changed, but always came back to the same place, a perfect world, symbolized by the circle of stones.

So when we have a church in the round, symbolically it communicates that this church where we stand, is complete and perfect just how it is. Coming to church, being in communion with the people we see "face to face" is all that we need, and there's nothing beyond.

When you couple this with a de-emphasis on the authority and importance of the altar, as we saw in the last post, that notion of community alone becomes even more overwhelming. We begin to lose the sense of being on the pilgrim's path toward salvation, and begin to think that just seeing friends and simply "being nice" to them is all that there is to the Church.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Problems with the Church in the Round: #1 Orientation

The church in the round.
The church in the "round" is a particular form of church architecture that has been all the rage for the past 50 years since the end of the Second Vatican Council. The form of the church puts the altar of sacrifice, admittedly the focus of Catholic worship in the Mass, at the direct center of the church.

Whether it be a new purpose-built church or a church which has been renovated since then, the seating around the altar is intended by the liturgical designers and architects to foster "a sense of community" and to emphasize the "sacred meal" aspect of the Mass. I'd like to take a few posts here to take a look at what sort of ideas and symbols are communicated by this form of church and what sort of philosophical and theological problems arise from those ideas.

The first problem of the "church in the round" is a problem of orientation and emphasis.   The church in the round sets the altar of the church directly in the center of the church. The liturgical designers note that being circular, the seats are all arranged closer to the altar, allowing for ease of visibility. Oftentimes the church floor is sloped downward to the altar, much like in a theater, making the altar easier to see. Aspects of community too then would be emphasized, as everyone could see the face of their fellow parishioners and literally gather "around the altar."

The liturgical designers of this sort of church note that the Council asked for the altar to be "truly central" (p. 91), meaning that it be the symbolic focus of worship.  Therefore, what could be more symbolic of an altar being central to attention than it being literally central as well!  The configuration then was a "win-win" situation, as it both got you community and gathering, but also kept the focus on the altar and the sacrifice of the Mass.

However, this latter aspect, the idea that Christ himself is offered on the altar, that God is present in the church, over time seems to have been steadily eroded. A recent paean to a parish renovation in what we might well assume to be a church in the round, in National Catholic Reporter was illustrative.  While the author talked glowingly about how often she "looked for" her friends and various people, not once did she mention that she looked for God in the church. The purpose of this author's church seemed to be more on socializing than the worship of God in the Mass.

Why then is this sense of sacredness and presence of God so lacking?  There are of course many reasons, but one striking one philosophically is of orientation, or rather the lack of orientation. Despite the claims of the liturgical experts that the church in the round would increase the importance of the altar, the arrangement in fact actually almost nullifies the importance of the altar.  The reasons for this are apparent when we look at the form of buildings, and how architecture is derived from our own human form.

As human beings we of course have the ability to communicate, and most universally through speech. Our speech of course comes through our mouths, and because we only have one mouth, the sound tends to emanate from only one side of our head. Logically then if you want to hear a person speaking, you stand in front of them and face toward their face.  This then is even more important when someone of authority is speaking.  Everyone who gathers to hear them stands not around them but in front of them, oriented facing toward them.

As societies developed throughout history, the places where authority resided, mostly kings and other lawgivers, would be built so that the speaker would stand or sit at one end of a large space, and the audience facing toward him. The shape of the architecture then is determined in a very real way by human nature. This is so attuned to our universal human nature that almost every single example of the architecture of authority is made this way, no matter what time or place the building was made.

In the Old Testament God instituted both the form of the Tabernacle in the desert, and the Temple in Jerusalem and the Israelites would have recognized that a universal form, where the the rational place for authority, was placed at one end of the space, facing the gathered. So even more so for the highest possible authority, the One true God, would the form be appropriate and good.

So when the Christians gathered to worship, the location of God, in the aspect of the Eucharist would be just the same sort of place, in one of highest authority.  The Christians then adopted the Roman Basilica was just as naturally as a duck to water. It is no coincidence that the apse of the lawgiver is located analogously to where the Holy of Holies sits in the Temple.  The form is nearly identical because the nature of the use is identical.  Placing authority at the end of a space, in order to be seen and more importantly heard.

Now the problem of the church in the round and the presence of the sacred and of God becomes apparent.  When the altar is set below and amidst everyone, the authority is lessened, if not negated entirely.  According to our natures, we look to authority to be placed facing us, to be situated even a few steps above us.  What would we think of a judge seated not in the usual raised box bench, but seated at floor level at the center of the court?  The authority he holds would be lessened, as we could look down on him, or be in a position to not even hear him.  So too for a President being sworn in, or delivering a State of the Union address, or even a teacher in front of a lecture hall.

So in church in the round the altar, the priest and the sacrifice of the Mass itself lose the true position of authority, and cannot compete with the overbearing symbolism of the community, the meal and the social gathering or even the rock show. Each "participant" in the Mass then too sits at a position of equal authority, equal even to God.

Now, one could argue the in the usus antiquior form of the Roman Rite, the priest faces away from the congregation.  However this only emphasizes the point further, as God is the authority, the priest faces not the people, but toward to the cross and the tabernacle. 

Then when our NCR author says looking across to the members of the community: "I look for David and his twins. For Marge and her daughter. For Will. For Barbie. For Jerry, due back from India. I look for Rita. If Bob is with her, I know he is having a good day", we know she's not thinking about God, and certainly she's not praying, but instead she's thinking about her friends. This is not because she's a bad Catholic, but it is because the proper object of her attention in Mass, God and the Eucharist, has been removed from the one place where it's location would naturally command that attention and allow her to pray and see God face to face.