Building the More Stately Mansions

Early dusk and slow-swirling fog crept through the medieval city streets of the city of Canterbury as I crossed the green to enter the cathedral. “The yellow fog that rubs it back upon the window-panes” T. S. Eliot called it, in the image of his beloved cats. I passed through smaller doors let into massive carved oak gates — wood near petrified by the centuries, around ancient leaded glass screens, and I was in the breathtaking nave of Canterbury Cathedral. And I was alone. Not a soul — no soul but mine. No tourists, no choirs, vergers, or priests.

That feline fog slipped in with my entrance and was curling high about the clerestory windows and mourning about the distant altar where the murdered Archbishop had fallen. The only sound was of the gathering of night birds chattering outside against the stained glass perpendicular windows, gathering to nestle together among the deep-set stone mullions against the coming cold and damp of the night.

In mere moments in that hallowed space my whole being was in worship. Seated at the very back of that long, hand-hewn canyon; I resisted only the temptation to sink to the red velvet kneeling cushion: after all, I am a Unitarian.

Soaring pillars lifted my eyes and my very spirit to the vaulted ceiling, raising me out of time and body. It needed only moments, I say, for me to be in worship, drawn from myself by those spaces, tombs, painted glass, as thousands before me through eight centuries had been drawn.

Ancient heroes of the faith, frozen in stony immortality, standing silent in the growing shadows or lying upon their tombs arms crossed over their swords — apostles, saints, martyrs, knights, kings and queens — all these were the congregation I joined in prayer, called to worship virtually by that space — sacred space; Sacred in that it is extraordinary — in that it transcends the ordinary.

Centuries ago the builders raised that place, framed those vast spaces with high buttressed walls, stone upon stone, pillar upon pillar, reaching from the ordinary to the heavens, seeking to touch the fingertip of God and to invite God to be among them.

The medieval church, despite its inherent evils, was also the only hope and protector of the wretchedly poor; their only solace; and the only place of beauty in their wretched lives. The poorest of the poor could enter those doors and marvel at the splendor of the vaulted ceilings at dizzying heights. The illiterate could see the old stories of their faith displayed in glorious color on leaded panes of glass.

Longfellow wrote:

Oft have I seen at some cathedral door A laborer, pausing in the dust and heat, Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor Kneel to repeat his paternoster o’er;

Far off the noises of the world retreat; The loud vociferations of the street Become an undistinguishable roar. So, as I enter here from day to day, And leave my burden at this minster gate, Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray, The tumult of the time disconsolate To inarticulate murmurs dies away, While the eternal ages watch and wait.

The gothic perpendicular is not, of course, the only shaper of sacred space. I have experienced that same sense of hallowed place in the stark simplicity of a Shaker hall and a Quaker Meeting House. Someone wrote, “Perfection is not achieved when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing more to take away.”

And sacred space is not limited to traditional religious experience. My spirit transcends the dailiness as surely in such places as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the D’Orsay museum in Paris and the High Museum right here in Atlanta. The old Pennsylvania Station in New York City was probably one of the greatest of architectural treasures. Even — perhaps especially — teeming with hurried travelers, it endowed a glory to art and human endeavor. These are sacred spaces in that, again, they transcend the ordinary. These spaces — works of art and architecture — bring us in from the cold world of the prosaic, lift us up and out of the ordinary, out of the stultifying ordinariness.

In sacred space we experience difference. We are hushed, quieted in voice and spirit. If you’ve been in the Lincoln Memorial, you were perhaps aware that those around you were whispering. It is not a space in which to shout. Has anyone yet broken that silence with a cell phone? The space itself announces its expectation of decorum. It is not a place in which to eat a hot dog. There are no signs, that I recall, reading “no eating hot dogs.” The space itself says it so clearly to all but the most soul-deadened. It is as the voice spoke to Moses on the mountain, “Put off the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Now, having laid the foundation on ideal ground, I have to say something about Unitarian Universalist spaces, the spaces in which we Unitarian Universalists attempt to summon the extraordinary, transcend our dailiness, rise to the sublime, raise our spirits to transforming heights.

As a member of the search committee was driving me into the parking lot of a church I was considering serving as minister, she pointed to a square, glass-fronted building and said, “That’s our main auditorium.” “Look,” she said, with obvious pride,” “there are kids playing basketball in there.” Judging from the enthusiasm of my guide, the congregation was proud of the versatility of this space. They could serve meals in it. Kids could play basketball on its cold, pale hardwood floor. And, on Sunday mornings, they could worship in it. At least, they felt that they could. I doubted that I could.

“Worship.” It is to declare worth: worth-ship. To worship is to raise up the highest values. It is to invoke, experience, and embrace that which — by whatever name or by no name — transcends our individual selves. It is not that a building is necessary to facilitate worship in that sense. I certainly have had religious, worshipful experiences in a circle of good people seated on a pine forest floor. And I worship alone on desert mountains. What I will say is that that worshipful spirit — the spirit which lifts, heals, inspires, and offers hope — can be encouraged and enhanced by the space in which we seek to summon it. And I will say that that worshipful spirit can also be stifled in place or denied place by lack of concern for — even contempt for — the aesthetics of worship, reverence, and awe. As far as I was concerned, a congregation that met in what they called an “auditorium,” perhaps barely aired out from the smell of sneakers and sweat, was not a place for a minister who believed that the central function of a congregation — is worship.

Unfortunately, many Unitarian Universalist church buildings were raised in an era one architect has called “The Brutalism School.” “Every room was square or rectangular;” he wrote, “the sanctuary was made of painted cinder block, called an “auditorium,” and provided no light except that from a video screen placed on what was called the “stage.” “The architecture,” he says, “closes the congregation in on its own knowledge.” This “closing in” was typical of that era — an not so long ago era — when we Unitarian Universalists contented ourselves with the people who had somehow stumbled across us and joined us in our hiding places. It is as if we religious liberals had discovered something precious and were determined to hide our light from the world lest it dissipate among the unworthy.

One church building I’m familiar with is set so far back from a winding two-lane blue highway that it requires two or three passes to spot it. The single sign at the bottom of the long driveway is too small, too faded, to read at anything more than walking speed. And the building itself is round, turreted, and windowless. What does the design say to those who, for some reason, are stubborn enough to approach? “Come any closer and we’ll pour hot oil down on you!” Some buildings say, “Come on in. You’ll love it here.” Other buildings say, “Go away.”

One of our ministers says, “Most of the church buildings in which I have served have looked like Pizza Huts and the difference in trying to create a worshipful mood in a Pizza Hut and in a “new cathedral” is striking.” “Church people who choose a building that looks like a maintenance shed,” she says, “deserve the people who show up.”

The denominational leadership in the ’60s and ’70s — the era in which many of our buildings were constructed — did nothing to help us move away from “American Brutalism.” The person directing the “buildings department” in our headquarters in those days wrote:

We believe that it is a congregation’s vision and mission that drives its more specific goals and objectives which, in turn, will help them to determine the building resources needed. We counsel that their building is just a means to an end – a way of housing their programming and staff to support the programs.

This “official view,” then, was that space doesn’t matter for Unitarian Universalists. All a congregation needs is a roof over its heads and four walls — cinder block will do — to keep the rain out. It simply did not occur to the opinion-makers that the buildings and spaces, if beautiful and exciting, might contribute to the vision and mission of the congregations or that buildings cheap, foreboding, and unkempt would diminish any vision sought from within them.

How did it happen that the people of so visionary and revolutionary a faith came to care so little for the spaces in which they gathered? The basic answer is that we religious liberals have had a difficult time adapting our faith to traditional religious language. “Worship” is one of those words about which there is much disagreement among us. What is the experience we want to have on Sunday mornings and what shall we call it? Many of the spaces in which our congregations meet were simply not built with anything like “worship” in mind. We have come from a time in the history of liberal religion in which what was primary for us was the rational. Feelings like awe and wonder, experiences labeled “religious experience,” “prayer,” even “meditation” — all this was almost uniformly banished for a period long enough to have a lasting effect.

There were exceptions, of course. King’s Chapel in Boston. All Souls in New York City. The beautiful brick building in Lancaster, Massachusetts; designed by Charles Bullfinch; the Frank Lloyd Wright designed church in Oak Park, Illinois, And the Rochester, New York church, designed by Louis Kahn.vI should add, of course, that our own building was created in this same period of Pizza Hut and strip mall religious architecture — and it received two architectural rewards for its departure from the norm.

Unfortunately, the norm remains and is maintained by following some essential rules for avoiding any sense of the holy: First: make the Unitarian Universalist meeting space as devoid of any religious intimation as possible. Avoid any implication that this space might be considered “sacred” in the sense of transcending the ordinary. Make it so the people will feel comfortable eating and drinking in it — to say nothing of playing basketball — in it. Second: Spend as little money on it as possible — after all, buildings are not what religion is all about; so, let it be dirty, cluttered, and crumbling (it will just look “casual and homey”). Third: Place it out of sight, disguise it as an electronics warehouse, and keep the signs as small as possible.

The fear of the religious, the unwillingness to distinguish between sacred and profane, disregard of the extent to which design attracts or repels, and the misunderstanding of “worship” — all this has contributed to our continuing to be a very small movement indeed and has contributed to a barrenness of place that can only hold a barrenness of soul and spirit.

Worship is not necessarily the sacrifice of goats, the placating of an angry god, or the perpetuation of ignorance and superstition. There is nothing “unscientific,” “irrational,” or “superstitious” in the recognition that our sense of well being, our joy in being lifted up above the commonplace and ordinary to be strengthened for return and transformation, is enhanced by beauty, by art, by design, by color, shape, structure, material, light and twilight.

What is worship? “Worship,” writes Charlotte Shivvers, “is a time set aside when mind, body, and spirit might coalesce around transcending values; “worship is an experience designed that we might enter in, give over, and return to our regular lives with a sense of “Oh yes, that’s what it’s all about.” Shivvers says that worship, in that understanding, is an experience that is designed.

Now I’d be among the first to say that worship can be stumbled into. I’ve stumbled into it in desert canyons and quiet ocean inlets. I will not forget the sight of my daughter, Jennifer, at age 12, suddenly encountering the Grand Canyon. She just sat. Still. Quiet. Transfixed. No question at all but that she had been grasped by that which transcends the self and claims the spirit. She was worshipping.

But we require more in our lives than the occasional shot of awe. In our time, we require a steady diet of food for the spirit. This is the reason for creating places of worship and for so shaping those spaces that as we enter them, before a note is struck or a word is spoken, we are prepared to be nourished, calmed, quieted, lifted up out of the ordinary.

We are about to renew, create, and recreate the spaces in which we gather and in which we worship. It has been a long process. One of my favorite quotes during this time has been from Winston Churchill. “We create our spaces and then they create us.” We have been determined to get it right — morally, aesthetically, religiously. We are creating a building which, so far is within our capability, will, first, do no harm and which will enhance and preserve the environment — the interdependent web in which we live. And we are creating a building enfolding spaces, that will call us in, that will lift our spirits, help renew and inspire us, and send us forth again and again feeling “Oh yes, that’s what it’s all about.”

Bless those who founded our religious community. Bless those who built this building by faith and commitment. And bless all those who have made it possible to now build upon it making a home for our spirits in a new time.