Why Church Matters: Cowley Magazine - Spring 2020
“Every part of these churches seemed to point deeper into the mystery of God, with the angels beckoning me to follow.”
In this Monastic Wisdom reflection on “Angels in the Architecture,” Br. Jim Woodrum follows the angels toward a deeper appreciation of why our church buildings matter and how they can help us to become one with the angels.
“Beauty is not functional; beauty is redolent and transformative.”
Br. Curtis Almquist opens the door to the transformative holiness of beauty (and the beauty of holiness).
“Worship at its best is a dangerous activity.”
Br. James Koester marvels at the power of worship not simply to engage us or draw us into the life of God, but to change us.
“Church is a sacrament of the divine gifts of time and space.”
Br. Jonathan Maury recovers the amazing gifts of time and space, whereby God makes room and humans can encounter the divine.
Why Church Matters: Cowley Magazine – Spring 2020 We invite you to explore the Spring 2020 issue of Cowley Magazine, which takes up the topic of Why Church Matters. We hope this issue will invite you to discover the sacred in the everyday. Explore the online magazine, view selected articles below, or download a PDF.
The Gifts of Time and Space
It is increasing difficult for those of us immersed in consumerist, technological Western culture to perceive the givens of space and time as positive gifts. In an ever more complex, fragmented, information-saturated world, our sense of the sacred, the set-apart, or the holy endures constant challenge. We are tempted to identify “space” as signifying confinement and “time” as a scarcity. Constrained, stressful living spaces and work places, as well as modes of travel – all experienced in a milieu of diminishing available time – hamper our pursuit of wellbeing and meaning.
I want to invite you to consider these words from chapter 6, “The Spirit of Poverty” in The Rule of SSJE, which offer us a different truth and a renewed vision of hope: “When God made room for the existence of space and time and shaped a world filled with glory, this act of creation was one of pure self-emptying.”
This image of God “making room” invites us to the humble reception of space and time as open and free gifts of the creating God. Proclaimed afresh as the context of God’s imparting of being to the entire natural world – animate and inanimate creatures alike – space and time enter again the realm of sacred significance. Here is our awed acknowledgement of the mystery of existence itself: only in space (Cosmic and terrestrial), and in time (Eternal and chronological), are being and materiality manifested and known. Birth, growth, development, decay, death, re-birth, renewal, transformation, and new life are only possible through the interdependent, divine gifts of space and time. Together, these two form the matrix for human creaturely-ness in God’s image and likeness, and for our place within a wider glory. Through the created gifts of space and time, God consecrates sacred places, material and spiritual, and sets apart holy lives in the “now” and in the “always” – a wondrous whole.
From its infancy, humankind has shaped meaning through its divinely-guided embrace of space and time, “making room” (and making meaning) in the hallowing of places and occasions. Inspired human intuition and insight have perceived holy spaces in the midst of nature. Prehistoric standing stones and stone circles were set up as framing devices for particular locales in which people had encountered the immanence of the divine. High hills, commanding mountains and grassy rises; springs and streams of flowing water, great rivers and swelling oceans; vast canyons, deep-cut caverns, and caves beneath the earth came to be revered as meeting places with divinity and portals into transcendence. The dome of the sky, the spectacle of the starlit heavens, the blazing sun, cool moon, and circling planets, provoked humankind to awe and wonder, and to the desire to know what and Who is beyond the ordinary (and behind these extraordinary sights).
A developing religious instinct sparked the desire for set-apart, permanent places of sacrifice and prayer, spaces in which the ineffable beauty of the divine could be reflected. Temples and sanctuaries, oracular and healing shrines, and houses of prayer, were constructed in the anciently-honored liminal spaces of the natural world, employing and adorned with the very stuff of the created world.
So also, humanity wakened to an awareness of the mystery of time, its dimensions of finitude and infinity, its qualities experienced both linearly and cyclically. The round of nature’s seasons; the daily, nightly, monthly, and annual journey of celestial bodies; times of planting, harvest and fields lying fallow; the inevitable and unending process of birth and death became the impetus for religious festivals, personal and social rites of passage, as well as prayer and meditation practices.
Another aspect of the “making room” image in the SSJE Rule asks us to contemplate the paradoxical nature of God’s gifts: the realm of existence flows from and has its origin in the self-emptying or “poverty” of God. God whose being knows no bounds, no beginning, no end – the God of space and time – is the One whose essence is sacrificial self-offering and loving relationship. The eternal union of the Holy Trinity, in mutuality and complementarity, is the living source and sublime pattern for all communities of living creatures. The Rule goes on to recall God’s making room in sharing our creaturely existence in space and time through Jesus, the Eternally-begotten One through whom we are drawn to experience and live God’s nature as our very own. Space and time are revealed as effectual signs (sacraments) of the fullness of life in Christ. They are the divine means through which creation enters into the “mutual self-giving and receiving” of God: Creator, Christ, and Spirit. God is forever making room in human hearts by pouring into them the fullness of God’s own self-offering divinity.
The ultimate locus and temporality of God’s making room is the community of worship, remembrance, and transformation which followers of Jesus have come to call “Church.” For Church is a sacrament of the divine gifts of space and time, as they are realized in the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus – in the here and the now. Church is the incarnation of Christ’s mystical Body. In Church, every person, place, and era becomes the locus and occasion for sacred space and sacred time. Church is the place of gathering to be in relationship with God and with one another in God, the place to live in God’s eternal now (Kairos) in every moment of existence. Through the Word proclaimed and preached, the sharing of the sacramental mysteries of Baptism and of Christ’s Body and Blood, and our participation in God’s own desire to draw the whole world to divine Love, Church does indeed matter, for it is itself a mediator of sacred space and time.
God is ever making room. God is still creating – even amidst our present chaos and stress – a fullness of existence within a fullness of time beyond human imagining, when “All shall be well and, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Dame Julian of Norwich, 14th century).
Living for God
One of the lines in our Rule of Life which I quote most frequently comes in the chapter “The Word of God in Preaching.” There we say that “people are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God” (Ch. 19). This theme of life lived in union with God runs throughout our Rule. We say in the very first chapter, “The Call of the Society” that “our mission is inseparable from our call to live in union with Christ in prayer, worship, and mutual love.” We say in another place that “our mission is to bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us” (Ch. 31). We remind ourselves that “the gospel proclaims that Christ has transformed death by his cross and resurrection and that through our Baptism we have already passed through death with him and have been incorporated into his risen body” (Ch. 48). Almost the very last word of the Rule states that “hope stirs our desire to adore God for all eternity in the host of heaven” (Ch. 49).
Over and again, we remind ourselves that the aim of the life of faith is to help us all to live in union with God, and to invite others to do the same. Father Benson puts it quite simply this way: “we must seek to realize increasingly the purposes for which our Society is called together – to live for God . . .” (Richard Meux Benson, “Of the Objects of the Society” in The Religious Vocation, 37).
Our living for God will, in the end, result in nothing less than our sanctification. Again as Father Benson reminds us: “as He sanctified Himself, so it is for us to sanctify ourselves by the continual surrender of our will to the will of the Father, in whatever way it is manifested, whether it be the will of God in all the circumstances of His external Providence, or the will of God in all the appointments of our Society. We have to realize that the will of God is that to which we must conform ourselves, and in which we have to seek for sanctification. This is our first object, to sanctify ourselves through the truth, to sanctify ourselves in union with the incarnate Saviour, to sanctify ourselves in conformity with the will of God. Whatever else we leave undone, the culture of ourselves must be the constant aim of our life” (40).
One of the places where this sanctification happens is in worship. We Brothers believe that God “has drawn us into our Society so that our calling to be true worshipers can reach fulfillment in the offering of the continual sacrifice of praise. In this life of worship together we are transformed in body, soul and spirit” (Ch. 16). Such a vision of transformation is open to all who desire to live for God.
One of the marks of our life as a brotherhood is worship. Some will remember Father Gross, who used to tell me when I was a novice that “we’d get a lot more work done around here if we didn’t have to eat so much or go to church so often!” But, with all due respect to Father Gross, the object of our life is not work, but God, and our life is shaped as it is so that “worship sanctifies work, continually interrupting it so that we can offer it to God in thanksgiving.”
It is this constant returning to God in worship that sanctifies not only the day, not only the task at hand, but ourselves as well. It is for this reason that Father Benson challenges us when he says that “our life … must be one continual act of worship. It may vary very much in its features, but whatever the life of religious be externally, it must be a life of worship, all its acts pointing towards God with constant elevation” (Richard Meux Benson, Instruction on the Religious Life, Second Series, “Worship,” 10).
This worship of God is not confined to those moments when we are praying the Office or celebrating the Eucharist. Our worship of God takes place every time we turn our hearts to God, for “the Father never ceases from seeking true worshipers to worship him in spirit and truth. God sent the Son into the world to heal and raise us up so that, empowered by the Spirit, we could surrender our whole selves in adoration and be reunited in the love of God. God draws us into our Society so that our calling to be true worshipers can reach fulfillment in the offering of the continual sacrifice of praise” (32).
It is this calling to be true worshippers in spirit and in truth which invites us to “dwell upon the contemplation of God, to acquaint ourselves more and more with God, to fix upon our minds a clear apprehension of His glory, to stir up our hearts with an eager desire for His vision, to strengthen our hearts in the continual sympathy of His revelation, to rule our acts in continual obedience to His commands. Our whole life must be an act of worship. We come out of the world for that purpose, and for that purpose alone. We do not come out of the world merely under the idea that by association we may be able to accomplish certain plans which commend themselves to our hearts. We come out of the world in order that we may give ourselves to the worship of God” (Op. cit., “Worship,” 10).
Such a vision of worship which permeates all life is one of the gifts we Brothers have to offer the Church. By our life we invite the Church: “to rise up to its true calling as a communion of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ and the company of Christ’s friends. We are not called to be a separate elite, but to exemplify the life of the Body of Christ in which every member has a particular gift of the Spirit for ministry and shares an equal dignity. Fr. Benson taught that ‘there are special gifts of God indeed to the Society, but only as it is a society within the Church. The small body is to realize and intensify the gifts, to realize the energies, belonging to the whole Church.’ Our witness and ministry is not merely to separate individuals; it is for strengthening the common life in the Body of Christ” (Rule, Ch. 4).
But worship at its best is a dangerous activity. It is dangerous because worship has the power, not simply to engage us, or draw us into the life of God, but to change us as well. In worship we encounter the God “who makes all things new” (Rev 21:5), including ourselves, as we are transformed by Christ “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). As Father Benson reminds us, “none can come to Christ at Bethlehem and go away as they came … our coming to Christ at Bethlehem changes everything” (Richard Meux Benson, Spiritual Readings: Christmas (1886), 260).
This transformation from one degree of glory to another is at the heart of all worship, as we are slowly and often imperceptibly changed into the likeness of Christ. We may not see the change as it happens, but over time we become more and more the person God has called us to be.
Again as Father Benson so movingly reminds us: “we must look for the development of the life of Christ within us. Each communion should be, as it were, adding some fresh point to the image of Christ within our souls. As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ, which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us. And it is not that it does this merely in some one direction, but as each moment of the morning adds imperceptibly a fresh glow to the whole illuminated hemisphere, so each communion imperceptibly should add a fresh glow, a fresh brightness, a fresh colouring to the sphere of the soul which it penetrates; the whole nature should assume a fresh glory with each communion. As the form and colour of the landscape come out with the sun’s advance, so with each communion the form and colour of our spiritual life, not merely in this or that particular, but in all its complex bearings of form and colour, is to stand out with greater clearness and beauty, each communion bringing its own fresh illumination, and perfecting us in the Sun of righteousness” (Richard Meux Benson, The Religious Vocation, “Of Communion” (1939), 160-61).
If it is true that each Communion adds a fresh touch of Christ to us, so too does each act of reconciliation through the exchange of the peace; each act of offering, whereby we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies as bread and wine on the Table; each act of sending forth to love and serve the Lord, in the dismissal. Each of these moments in worship has the power to perfect us, not just as individuals, or even as a particular community, but as the Church gathered in a particular time and place – and beyond all time and all place.
Worship then is not something we simply offer to God. It is a participation in God’s mission, God’s purpose, God’s dream for the world, which is to reconcile all things in Christ (Col 1:20). On my worst days, I sometimes wonder if any of what goes on in our chapel makes a difference. On my best days, I know that it does, because even though I cannot tell in the moment, I do know that it changes me, it changes us, it changes the Church. In changing us more and more into the image of God, our worship changes the world, bringing evermore into reality the dream of God for all creation.
Our Rule reminds us that people are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God. One of the ways in which we proclaim that good news is through our worship, not only formally, as on Sunday mornings, but whenever we open our hearts to God. When we do that, we discover again the joy of living in union with God.
The Beauty of Holiness
The Holiness of Beauty
Beauty is not a veneer. Beauty is not entertainment, nor a lovely distraction, nor the domain of the privileged. Beauty is essential for life. Beauty is of the essence of God. The psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29:2, 96:9). The worship life of the church is infused and informed by beauty mediated through all of our senses: what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps 34:8). In the Genesis creation account, God creates, and then God observes that it is all very good. In the fullness of time, when God takes on human form in Jesus, we experience the reclaiming of the original blessing in creation. It is good, very good.
Beauty is infinitely evocative. Beauty belongs to an ancient triad called the “transcendentals,” gateways through which all of creation both reveals and knows God. The transcendentals are beauty, truth, and goodness. Goodness relates to the will; truth, to the mind; beauty, to the heart, feelings, and imagination. The transcendentals are attributes of God and, therefore, of God’s creation. Beauty, truth, and goodness infuse one another, and each is a portal to God. We have been created in the image of God. Thereby, what is most important is not what we may say about God, but what God’s creation says about God. We have been created “to participate in the being that flows from God, and to manifest God’s beauty in the depths of our nature” (David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite,” in Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa, 112).
Beauty speaks to and through our senses and transfigures our mind, because beauty is magnificently ordered. Beauty teems with harmony, rhythm, the splendor of shape and form, evocative meaning, sometimes eliciting our enchantment and wonder, always connecting us with something More, its Creator. Beauty rightly liberates us from the narrow confines of our rational minds. The great Swiss priest and scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), spoke of the “theological aesthetic”: to perceive through holy people and holy images the objective glory of divinely revealed truth. Creation matters.
In our experience of beauty, we are enveloped in the signs of God’s magnificent presence among us, God’s immanence. Simultaneously, we are pointed onward to the attraction of God’s glory, God’s transcendence: God, from whom and in whom all has been created. Beauty envelopes us with its Source. Panentheism describes this. Not pantheism: everything is God. But rather, panentheism: everything is in God. All of creation is iconic: a window through which to know, reverence, and worship God. Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, recalls the elder monk, Zosima, telling the youngest Karamazov son, Alyosha, that creation is “an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part … the world a mirror of infinite beauty … beautiful as in the beginning of days.”
Beauty attracts, sometimes very powerfully. We can be smitten by what we find beautiful. However if we worship what we find beautiful – that is, if we give ultimate worth to what we find beautiful – we will be disappointed, and we may get lost. Beauty, to be experienced most wholly and freely, needs to be experienced in the context of its Source. What we find beautiful is participating in the glory of the Creator. We, as creatures, have been given the inspiration to be makers or re-makers of beauty (John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, 48). Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Spanish friar and priest, writes of this longing for the beautiful, whose beginning and end is in God. In life, what we are first attracted to are God’s creatures, and they say, “‘What you are looking for is not here, but God has passed by, scattering beauty as he went.’ What attracts us in creatures is something of God’s beauty. The creatures are honest: they tell us plainly that they are not enough to fill that hole in our hearts” (Cantico Espiritual, can. 4 & 5). What we find beautiful is always a participant, a creature, not the Creator.
Beauty can be a very powerful channel for healing. When life has been ravaged by pain or loss, by disorder or distress, by chaos or fear, the experience of beauty can be a very balming, calming, re-ordering channel for re-righting our soul. On occasion I will be invited to listen to someone speak about the distress and debris of life that is infecting their soul. Their experience of life is death-dealing, and they are disconsolate. For these dear, suffering souls I am not inclined to suggest a tough spiritual exercise. I more often send them to a museum, to a flower shop, to a concert, to a delicious meal, to a wildlife park, to a pool of water, to a playground to watch children, to a forest or mountain. It’s to reacquaint them with what they’ve forgotten, what may have been lost or stolen from them: that amidst life’s sometimes appalling suffering, chaos, and death, life teems with beauty. Beauty is so weighty; the experience of beauty will very powerfully rebalance the fulcrum of our life. The great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), said: “A person should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What do you find beautiful? Beauty is worth attending to; you are worth attending to beauty.
The Anglican theological tradition is sacramental, that is, we recognize outward signs in creation as channels of God’s inner work of grace. How splendid it is to order our prayer and worship with a generous splay of beauty. Very gracious. The psalmist sings to us: “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 96:9). Beauty is not functional; beauty is redolent and transformative. Beauty is worthy of our attention as we order both our corporate and personal prayer. Beauty may be a very large instrument in our lifelong conversion to Christ. As we read in the Letter to the Colossians, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). Beauty is of the essence of God, in whose image we have been created. Pray your life beholding the beauty of God that surrounds you and fills you.
for everyday living
Br. Jim Woodrum follows the angels toward a deeper appreciation of why our church buildings matter and how they can help us to become one with the angels.
in the architecture
WHY CHURCHES MATTER
Two summers ago, while our community was on pilgrimage in Oxford, I found myself surrounded by angels. We were visiting the Church of St. Mary and St. John, on the Cowley Road, where SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, had been vicar. Inside, everywhere I looked, there were angels in the architecture: in the stone, glass, and wood. Of all the beautiful things in the church – the pipe organ, the stained glass, the altar and reredos, the arches – it was the angels that piqued my curiosity. Why were these angelic figures everywhere? What did they mean? And what were they trying to tell me?
I grew up in an evangelical tradition that did not talk much about angels, which is ironic, because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word “angel,” meaning a bearer of good news. While my mother didn’t speak about angels, she certainly seemed devoted to them. Upon entering my parent’s home, the first thing you would notice would be two curios filled with angels. There were cherubs, angels with trumpets, boy angels, girl angels, cupids, as well as a rather menacing angel standing on the head of a dragon-like creature with his sword in its mouth. In my adult life, I would come to know that this was the Archangel Michael, whose name means “Who Is Like God?” In Revelation, Michael defeats the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:7-9).
The angels of Scripture are as varied as those in my mother’s curio cabinet. Angels bear all sorts of different vocations. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”) is a messenger: he visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after, an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus. The sky fills with angels praising and worshipping God, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 1:26-38; 2:8-14). There are also angels who minister: after Jesus is tempted in the desert, the devil leaves him and angels come to serve him (Matthew 4:1-11). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays in anguish about what is about to happen to him, and an angel of the Lord appears to him and gives him strength (Luke 22:39-43). In the book of Tobit, it is the Archangel Raphael (whose name means “The Healing of God”) who restores Tobit’s sight (Tobit 11:7-9). All angels have a specific vocation and belong to one of the nine orders of angels that we hear mentioned throughout the pages of scripture: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian angels.
With such diversity in the angel ranks, I wondered anew about the angels lining the walls of the churches we visited on our pilgrimage. Who were these angels in the architecture, and what was their mission? Every part of these churches seemed to point deeper into the mystery of God, with the angels beckoning me to follow.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit our monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you will notice many angels straight away. Angels throng the great Rose window at the back of the church in a vibrant vision of Heaven. Below the Rose window, where the Nativity is portrayed, angels gaze adoringly at the holy child. In the Lady Chapel, the lancet windows portray the mysteries of the Rosary, beginning with the depiction of the Annunciation and the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. When the light streams through these windows, all these angels shine forth in brilliant array, witnessing to the glory of God.
What about the angels we cannot see? One of my favorite scriptural encounters with an angel features Jacob. He contends all night with a mysterious figure whom some traditions have called an angel. In the morning, Jacob realizes that he has struggled with God. Jacob names the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God”: “For I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30). Our monastery church, like Peniel, is a holy place because it is a place of encounter. The angel who wrestled Jacob greets us every time we enter the worship space, every time we prepare to encounter God.
In a subtle yet very real way, every church has angels beyond those carved in wood or illuminated in stained glass. The architecture itself acts as angels do: sharing messages which enlighten our prayer and worship of God.
Take what happens as soon as you enter the monastery church. To enter it you must ascend a small staircase and go through a door into the narthex. However, that is not where your journey ends. Once there, you must turn ninety degrees to your left and go through a second doorway in order to enter the church. This detail might be lost on us initially, but it actually is intentional: all those who enter the monastery church must undergo a “conversion” experience. The word “conversion” comes from the Latin convertere, which literally means to turn around. To enter the church you must physically turn, in order to cross a threshold, into holy space.
A passerby on Memorial Drive might venture in, curiosity piqued as to what is inside this gothic-style building. Others experience a conscious yearning to know God. These seekers or pilgrims are not wandering randomly, but rather are following the desire of their hearts, which is mysteriously moving towards the source of all holy desire: into the heart of God. The building itself thus hints at the conversion God invites, as we give up any semblance of control and are turned – sometimes even pushed – in a direction that we would not normally go in order to enter. Simply to enter the sanctuary, we have already turned and converted – perhaps unaware that we have just encountered an angel in the architecture.
A few years ago, a small group of school children, led by their teachers, made their way into the church. One of the children asked a Brother in quiet amazement, “How do you do that!?” He replied, “What do you mean?” She whispered, “How do you make it so quiet?!”
In the profound silence of the church, our eyes are drawn upward toward the light, as we follow the shape of the arches pointing to the saints depicted in the clerestory windows. The silence invites us to listen intently. In our Rule of Life, we say that in silence, “we pass through the bounds of language to lose ourselves in wonder. In this silence we learn to revere ourselves also; since Christ dwells in us we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed, before which we must be silent until the day we come to know as we are known.” In the silence of this sanctuary, we join the angelic hosts in the ennobling act of prayer, as we seek to deepen our relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. In silence, we, finite creatures, seek the infinite.
The architecture of the monastery church depicts this intersection of finitude and infinite, chronos and kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time: the way that we, as finite beings, delineate time in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries. Chonos greets us in how the rounded arches at the back of the church – in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries) – give way to pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries), in the Quire on the other side of the gate. This journey through chronos points and leads to the altar, which is a place of kairos: God’s time, the critical moment that holds all of eternity. Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
The altar is the focus of our sanctuary, as it is of all sanctuaries. In our church, the high altar is adorned with an unusual architectural feature: a baldacchino, a canopy arching high above. Here, another angel in the architecture points us to the deeper mystery of God taking place before our eyes.
The baldacchino forms a cube through four pillars, representing the earth with its four directions. These pillars support the canopy, which is topped with a dome representing heaven. Connecting heaven and earth – and protecting a stone altar beneath – the baldacchino recalls another story earlier in Genesis where Jacob falls asleep, using a stone as a pillow. While asleep he dreams of a ladder stretched to heaven, with angels ascending and descending back and forth between earth and heaven. We read: “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” If we continue a little further, we read that Jacob poured oil on the stone which he had used as a pillow and built an altar there, consecrating that place and giving it a new name: Bethel (Genesis 28:10-19). In John’s gospel, Jesus recalls this story from Genesis, identifying himself as the stone altar, the place where heaven and earth meet: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:47-51).
Upon the altar, heaven and earth are joined, and we get a glimpse of God. Upon this altar we offer up praise, thanksgiving, and all that we are to God. In return Jesus becomes truly present to us in the sacramental signs of bread and wine (which become to us flesh and blood), descending with the angels and bringing us with him up to heaven. Each time we consume this bread and wine, we ascend one more rung on the ladder with the angels, moving toward the holiness to which we have been called, becoming one with our Father in heaven. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson once wrote: “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.”
In a sermon delivered at the University Church in Oxford around 1826, John Henry Newman describes heaven as an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit. He takes as his reference point numerous passages in the Revelation to John: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped” (Revelation 5:11-14).
This passage from Revelation gives me chills, because this is what we do here in this monastery church every day: worship God, bestowing on Him blessing and honor and glory and might with the very best of our abilities. Perhaps our numbers are few and the quality of our voices is sometimes nowhere near angelic; but we, like the angels, were created for the love and pleasure of God and He delights in our love just as much as we delight in His. We have an inherent instinct to adore our creator. In this, we mirror God, who gazes in reverence on the Creation and yearns for us to know God as God knows us. Our love and praise are mutual. We offer them in tandem with the worship of the heavenly hosts. In his book The Angels and the Liturgy, Eric Peterson writes “When the church gathers in worship on earth, it is conjoined to the worship which is offered in the heavenly city by the angels. Through all the pain of this world there remains, eternal and unmoved, that worship which the angels offer to the Eternal, and in which the Church on earth takes part.” With the angels we sing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people of earth,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!”
Worship is a sanctifying act. The word “sanctify” has the same root as the Latin word sanctus, which means holy. These roots imbue the word “sanctuary.” In this sanctuary, in the shared experience of worship, we offer all we are, all we have, all of our blessings, and all of our sufferings, and we give it to God in sacrifice, asking nothing but to be sanctified and become more like God, that is: holy and fully God’s. In the same sermon, Newman goes on to say: “To be holy is … to live habitually in sight of the world to come as if we were already dead to this life.” In other words, now is our time to prepare and practice, joining the angels in the eternal praise of God, here on earth as it is in heaven.
A pew card at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley near Oxford, describes the meaning and purpose of its church building: “With the passing of the centuries there have been inevitable changes, but there have been no drastic alterations to the basic plan of the building, nor to its function. It exists to praise God. And for worship, sacred ritual and teaching. It is a sacramental reminder to the identity of those who gather inside it each day.”
Our churches are angels – angels, made of architecture – which exist to praise God as they help to deliver God’s messages. Even when we sleep, the angels keep at this holy task. And when we gather as a community in our own churches, chapels, and sanctuaries, with our hearts and minds turned toward God, we ourselves become channels of grace, temporal containers of eternal love. We become one with all the angels – both the angels in the architecture and the eternal company of heaven – as we too become bearers of good news, teaching, guidance, protection, and sanctuary to others. We lift up our voices with them, crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”
About Br. Jim Woodrum
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community as the Director of Vocations. When he is away from his desk (and that “Office” in the Chapel), he enjoys cooking southern cuisine, exploring different neighborhoods in Boston, and has a keen interest in craft beer.