Sunday, March 25, 2012


A “sun pillar” is a celestial effect in which a glittering column of light extends from earth to sky. Actually, it’s sunlight coming through a hole in the clouds, made visible by the presence of many fine iceflakes, not quite snow, that are common in spring and light enough to suspend in air the way dust motes float in front of a sunny window. Not long ago I watched the movie of “The Pillars of the Earth,” which was originally a novel based on the construction of a Gothic cathedral. The whole Gothic aesthetic was focused on the vertical, reaching up to heaven, so it is one of those hubristic swaps to imply that they are holding up the sky as pillars would. In fact, the story line was more about flying buttresses, which are the external arches that keep the walls from wobbling until the ceiling collapses, which is especially important when the ceiling is stone. Stone, of course, is pierre/peter/pillar -- the cornerstone, the keystone, the stability you want in a church, even though it’s a human construct.

Shelter can be built or found, like a cave. Can be simple (a buffalo robe drawn up around you high enough to cover your head, creating a small one-person lodge) or as complex as a cathedral. The aesthetic for a worship shelter can be plain (white walls, clear glass) or elegant (murals, stained glass, and carved ornamentation). Can be dark and hidden, a cave again, or exposed to the sky like the locations of cairn-altars for Sun on mountain ridges. My seminary has just left a built-to-purpose dignified old building of wood paneling and marble stairs for rental space in a Chicago loop glass skyscraper where the ceilings are high, carpet stretches for miles, access is by elevator, and Wolfgang Puck rents a restaurant space at the bottom. They think this will not affect their theology. But their theology has governed their choice of space.

When I was small and first reading novels, much was informed by the romantic notion of natural worship spaces. Long allées under the arches of ancient hardwood trees still existed and planners of small towns made sure to plant elms along the main street. In time, age and Dutch elm disease has changed that. But there are still contingents who seek out natural amphitheatres where they can play amplified Paul Winter Consort music to as much effect as when Paul Winter plays live for the Solstices in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. I’m a great one for “worship picnics” at riverside or in a park, especially for Easter sunrise services. They’re a little bit climate specific. Once I was preaching in Oregon City but got there too early, so I joined the nearby Methodists for their early service. Their preacher, an older fellow, talked about growing up in Texas, going out to feed the cows before dawn and seeing that the stars stretched down to the horizon where they were met by the lights of wakening households on the prairie.

All this is about the material culture of religion, the sense memories that can move people into a consciousness open to reflection and possibly even intense experiences of various kinds, not necessarily positive or pleasant. Reconciliation, despair, rage against God, dedication. If one is to be shaken with feeling, then protection is necessary, both a place to be “held” by a community that is in sympathy and a place to be protected from outside attacks. The Unitarian churches built during the period of English intolerance for dissension are entered at the front through a labyrinth narrow enough for a man with a sword to block them and the buildings have a secret escape hole at the back. The great welcoming cathedrals have broad steps and porches -- which make an excellent stage for dissenters, to say nothing of providing doors on which to nail one’s proclamations.

Today’s churches are not welcomed in neighborhoods. They bring traffic, loss of property taxes, maybe people knocking on doors, and noise -- not just the sound of congregation and preacher, but also bells and the loudspeaker imitations. (I like my next door church’s time-keeping bells but they haven’t been accurate since daylight savings.)

Some people will say that the body is a temple and that’s a nice metaphor. But in terms of sensing the holy, it’s mostly a matter of the head, a bony chamber of meditation. Where is the threshold? The senses. What is “over the threshold” -- as “in” as you can get? The mind.

I don’t worship in the local churches anymore. I did for a while, but their sanctuaries are not safe for me. Not that they would do me any harm, but they make me feel trapped. (Probably just afraid I’ll be put on a committee.) They’re very Christian and I’m not. Today the news reported that the crew currently in the space station was briefly endangered by space debris and had to climb into the two escape capsules that can drop them back to earth. Where was the threshold in that space station? Is it the airlock that transfers them from the main place into the capsule? Or is it where the last actual door seals? There needs to be both entrance and exit thresholds.

I always described my little traveling F150 van that I used when circuit-riding through Montana as my “space capsule,” and since I often parked for the night on a bit of prairie under a starry dome, it did feel that way. The threshold was the big sliding side door, I guess. I think that I never quite revealed to the small fellowships just how wild and vast my affinity for the sidereal night was, for fear of scaring them. I shouldn’t have been.

Sometimes even now I think of Phyllis Willis in Bozeman, slipping into dementia before we knew what Alzheimer’s was, and how her friends gathered around her to read to her and show her the paintings she had made earlier or just to chat while Phyllis looked at their faces with wonder. They were brave and steadfast in the face of the unknown, hoping to be escape capsules that could return her gently. They created a worship shelter around her bed. In that movie called “The Pillars of Heaven” there is a witch (very feminist!) who lived in a cave, but instead of paintings of animals on the walls, there were sculptured faces. Human faces. To step away from institutions is not to step away from people.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

Resonances all through here for me. Sleeping under the stars for the first time in the Rocky Mountains when I was 18 was a life-changing experience for me. I've written a couple of long poems about it, and so on.

This is key to something:

"They think this will not affect their theology. But their theology has governed their choice of space"

Geography affects faith, and vice versa. It can become a closed feedback loop. I'm always more inclined when praying to look at the sky than to bow my head. But even though I grew up Lutheran I'm not very Christian at all by their standards. Mystics don't fit into boxes very well.

Theology does govern architecture. But geography affects theology too.