Archive for January 19th, 2010

The Shape of Heaven

January 19, 2010

This post from 2007 continues thoughts on Holy Space and its place in our lives.

I am feeling my way forward with this post – that is to say – I have some thoughts that are probably still in formation – so bear with me. That human beings have a particular relationship with icons is, to me, part of the dogma of the Church. It is not an expressed dogma – the Seventh Ecumenical Council made its defense of icons dependent on the right understanding of the Incarnation of Christ. But we can move forward from there and acknowledge that the Incarnation of Christ is itself, in part, a revelation of what it is to be truly human. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “God became man so that man could become god, but He also became man so that man could become Man. And icons, as we understand from the Seventh Council, are possible because God truly became a man.

To extend all of this a bit further – I would want to say that like the holy icons, space itself- the place we occupy at any given time – is deeply important to us as human beings. We are not disincarnate beings who have no relation to what is around us. We are quite the opposite – we are incarnate beings who are deeply defined and enmeshed in the space we inhabit.

This space can mean any of the tangible elements of our existence: light, heat, color, space itself – and so many such things – all deeply important to us. I hope that what I’ve been writing seems completely obvious.

Of course our environment and space are important. So what’s your point?

The point is that we frequently act as though these things do not matter to us. I can speak only of the places I have been – thus, mostly America – but here, we frequently treat space as though it were not important – or as though it was only important for someuse and not for its relation to us as human beings. Thus we build ugly cities or build mindlessly, with consideration only for profit or some other less human purpose.

To this day, it is relatively easy to spot a building built in the 1960’s or early 70’s. Go to anytown in your state and find the most silly looking building and you’ll probably be standing before some bright idea of those decades. It was a time where tradition played as little role as possible in the creation of space. I am not a student of architecture – but I know what makes me feel uncomfortable or out of place. Tradition has often created beautiful spaces for the simple reason that people prefer beauty to ugliness. Beauty is frequently destroyed either by ignorance, greed or just wrong ideology.

But I do not mean to rant here about American architecture. My point is to write about the importance of space. There are reasons that Tradition properly guides the construction of Orthodox Churches – the building itself is an icon. Done well, the space in which we worship is an aid to prayer. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying every Church building has to be in competition with Hagia Sophia. But serious thought and care for such spaces remains important.

You can pray anywhere. I have worshipped in a converted warehouse as an Orthodox Christian – and I would rather have been there than in a heterodox cathedral. Nevertheless, space remains important. The small spaces in our homes, the “icon corner,” (in Russian it is the “beautiful” corner), are critically important and thus worth paying attention to.

There is also the space we occupy in another sense – the place of our heart. It is deeply important for the heart to be “beautiful,” adorned with forgiveness and love. Without such beauty prayer becomes nearly impossible.

I was with a friend earlier today who has just moved into a new house (“new” in the sense that it is “new” to him). There were things to see and admire (hardwood floors, nice views out the windows, etc.). But what he commented on most, and thus what led to this posting, were some of the house’s unusual places: a space under a stair, an unexpected corner – things that gave the house character and somehow made it a space well-suited for a family and a delight to children.

At Theophany it is traditional for our homes to be blessed. But this same blessing continues as we pray and fill our spaces with the love of God. Perhaps in time our cities will become better spaces (some are already – I have my list – and, I suspect, you may have yours). With prayer, and attention to the fact that the spaces in which we dwell are places in which we incarnate the Christian faith, our spaces can be the garden of God, the space of Heaven. May God in His mercy grant us all such places to dwell.

The Heavenly Spaces

January 19, 2010

“The Church is the earthly heaven; in these heavenly spaces, God lives and walks about.” In these words of Patriarch Germanus, we get a glimpse of the dizzying heights of the church building’s significance. The Byzantines treated space as God’s dwelling place. Their architectural problem was to create harmony between the natural scale of the human and the transcendent scale of the infinite.

Recent attempts to find forms adapted to the modern mentality have often resulted in drowning architecture in the surrounding landscape and in local preoccupations. It has become an anthropocentric religious art. It expresses man and his emotions and the aesthetic search for expressions and forms. Such art has completely forgotten the initial plan of the great workers and builders, the very mystery of the church, and sacred art which is always theocentric in its attempts to express God’s descent into his creation. It is perfectly legitimate to search for new forms, but these forms must express a symbolic content that remains the same throughout the centuries because it has a heavenly origin. Modern builders must listen to and appreciate the suggestions of the chief architect, the Angel of the temple (Rev. 21:15).

Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon: a theology of beauty


In thinking about the “heavenly spaces,” I write about something in which I am a neophyte. I have no long-considered opinions or thoughts about architecture. I do, however, know that many of the spaces we are forced to endure in our modern age have something terribly wrong about them. It is also worth noting that I write as a modern American (whose architectural experience often differs from that of many others).

There are many things that drive the construction of space in the modern world. Utility (usefulness) is clearly an important question in a world predicated on productivity and similar concerns. The neighborhood in which I live is strung with wires, connecting homes with the cable grid and the rest of our electronic and electric world. For most days, the wires have a way of disappearing – a mind’s trick that wishes to ignore their intrusion into landscape.

Last summer I began to hunger for “beautiful space.” Living next door to the Great Smokey Mountains, nature’s beautiful space is never far away – though I was looking for somewhere closer. Actually, I was looking for a place to walk and a place to relax and eat. For the former, I wanted a space whose beauty would give my soul something of the same “peace” I was giving my body in exercise. For the latter, I wanted a simple place where I could eat a non-franchised meal and not be assaulted by various schemes of faux decor.

I am not an aesthete, nor am I particularly demanding about food. However, I was taken aback by how difficult my simple request was to fulfill. Our culture is driven by something other than beauty.

The same is often true of religious space. Churches today are more commonly constructed with an eye to seating capacity than with an eye to God. The noted exception in America are the number (though still relatively small) of new Orthodox Churches being built. Some of them are truly wonderful spaces.

But there is something about the soul of man in the modern world (in many places) that makes beauty difficult to find or construct. If beauty is lacking within the soul itself, it is likely to be unseen even when it is confronted. I am certain that my “hunger” last year was far more than the desire for pleasant leisure. It was my heart telling me to pay attention to the disorder and distortions within myself.

Orthodoxy, in its fullest expression, has always urged human beings towards the beautiful. It is a recognition that God Himself is beautiful and the source of every good (kalos) thing.

One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).