Forming the Imagination: Architectural Heritage and Church Downsizing in Chicago

by Peter Funk, O.S.B., appearing in Volume 30

Holy Cross Monastery Church, Chicago. Photo:

Detail of the façade, Holy Cross Monastery Church. Photo:

In a 2010 TED lecture, musician David Byrne made the interesting and counterintuitive observation that musicians create music for particular spaces. Using examples of outdoor West African drum circles, New York clubs, and Gothic cathedrals, he noted that the types of music typically performed in these spaces happens to sound good in just those spaces. We might rephrase this and say that spaces come first, and musicians create music with these spaces in mind. Therefore architecture (or lack thereof) determines and sets boundaries to the creativity of artists. At the very least, we can say that the creative imagination of the musician and that of the architect (whether it be the Divine Architect of the West African savannah or that of homo faber) influence each other.

I would go further and venture a tentative thesis for this article. Architecture forms the imagination of those who inhabit the buildings produced. This being the case, architects have a serious responsibility. “What kind of persons do I hope to form?” must be answered whenever the shaper of space launches out on a new project. Since buildings are among the most public and enduring of art forms, this is a serious question indeed, for the architect may well be contributing to the aspirations and imaginations of many generations. It follows that sacred architecture would make the most important demands on the architect, since he will be forming the minds of worshippers with an eye toward revealed Truth. He or she must therefore be knowledgeable not only about acoustics and the load-bearing capacities of various materials. The architect must know something of human psychology and the ways in which buildings shape our understanding and imagination.

There is a gap between my opening example and my thesis, and at first consideration this gap might appear formidable. Music, after all, is very much a physical production, involving sound waves produced by human voices, plucked and bowed strings, vibrating brass and reed. By contrast, our modern understanding of “religion” usually relegates it to the realm of the nonmaterial or spiritual. It is one thing for stone and plaster to affect practical considerations regarding sound, and something else for it to effect an entire worldview. In the best of situations, of course, there is overlap between the arts and life. Few of us can think of music that does not have a kind of spirit to it, and the worship of God in the Catholic liturgy really does require us to have at hand the material elements of water, bread, and wine. Nevertheless, many assume that the liturgy is in essence separable from buildings, and perhaps even from vestments, thuribles, and veils.

An example: I recently attended a meeting of religious formators and superiors in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Like many American dioceses, we are facing shortfalls of personnel and of funds. Buildings are expensive to maintain. So they are typically among the first objects at risk when budget considerations arise. When parishioners resist the shuttering of their churches, it eases our consciences somewhat to attribute their attachment to a laudable but misplaced nostalgia. One participant illustrated this by asking if any of us religious priests and sisters had joined our communities because of a building. The nods and chuckles of most of those attending suggested that this comment found a receptive audience. The message? People and charism ought to come first. These will outlive the buildings that they happen to inhabit. So we have to be ready to abandon our buildings if need be.

In fact, of course, communities and buildings often enough seem to succeed or fail together. Many of the church renovations that followed the Second Vatican Council blurred the original imaginative visions of our buildings. Might not those whose aspirations and imaginations had been formed by the intelligible order of traditional churches have experienced those renovations as alienating and confusing? And might this confusion have contributed to the disaffection of many churchgoers? Confusion might be a necessary stage on the way to clarity, but if it becomes a permanent state, it no longer leads to truth. Sacred architecture’s role in guiding us into the truth is thwarted. The waning intelligibility of the building contributes to the malaise of a community at risk. Perhaps the changes came about because a community’s aspirations, altered by alien influences, were found to be at odds with the church’s architecture, which thus required alteration. In such a case, a failure would be systemic.

Let me offer a counterexample from personal experience. Cardinal Bernadin invited our Benedictine monastic community to Chicago in 1990, the last time the archdiocese closed a large numbers of churches. When our founders discovered the former Immaculate Conception parish church, they sensed immediately that this would be their home. How did they know this? Precisely because the building conformed most closely to their understanding of the community they hoped to become. They were looking for a church that could support the monastic liturgy, a church with a beautiful acoustic, with light, soaring height, and joyous color. The building itself stands as a shorthand statement about the community’s common aspirations.

By choosing this building, the monks were making a statement precisely about the charism and the people involved. Thus the charism and people did come first, in a sense, but the choice of a building was crucial in stabilizing the community. When I entered, was it because of the building? In some ways, the building said more about the community than did the words of individual brothers, and did so more convincingly.

The experience of repairing the damage the church suffered during the year it was closed has been something of an archaeological excavation. The deeper the strata, the profounder has been our experience of the architecture and of the liturgy that it supports and guides. As the liturgy was shaped by our restoration of the church, this in turn has shaped the way in which we relate to each other. This is so because we relate to one other, not only as brothers, but as sons of one Father and disciples of one Lord, Whose real presence is communicated sacramentally (and therefore in common) in the liturgy.


There is some plausibility in placing a primacy on persons rather than on objects. In fact, this is an oversimplification. “True friends,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “don’t spend time gazing into each other’s eyes . . . They face in the same direction—toward common projects, goals—above all, towards a common Lord.” In a slightly different vein, but to the same effect, are observations by the sociologist Mary Douglas. In her book Natural Symbols, she demonstrates that relaxed intimacy in community is often a product of shared, dense symbols rather than direct communication. Shared symbols allow the imagination to be at ease in the universe and with others. A universe of shared, dense symbols is a majestic universe that ennobles its inhabitants and has a place for everyone.

The breakdown of shared symbols brings certain opportunities, of course. For the talented (and for the ruthless), breaking free of the constraints of shared meaning offers the possibility for realizing personal goals. But the universe has, in this case, become at best a neutral, meaningless place. In a nonsymbolic universe, meaning tends to be supplied by adroit rhetoricians and clever maneuverers. What happens when a church building is denuded of its dense, symbolic language and reduced to a neutral “worship site?”

I suggested early on that genuine sacred architecture orients us toward Truth. Buildings operate as a shorthand statement about a community’s goals for itself and thus its self-understanding. They do so by pointing away from the community, by suggesting something “greater than” the community itself (what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the “surplus of meaning”), and by guiding the aspirations of the community toward that something else. This “turning toward” a common Lord suggests one of the major areas of alienation between traditional architecture and the liturgical changes that followed the Council.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, liturgical orientation was toward the east. In fact, the very word “orientation” simply means “east-ing,” from the Latin oriens or “rising” of the sun. As the Son of Man was expected to return in the east, this common orientation, priest and congregation, made of the sun and the compass point a sign. In this and other ways, the whole cosmos became a dense network of references to God and His work of salvation. This orientation decided the direction the church faced, as well as the placement of many of its important furnishings.

Mass is celebrated ad orientem at the high altar with an icon of Christ the King above. Photo:

When altars were rotated to allow priests to celebrate “facing the people,” the architecture of many churches was profoundly “dis-oriented.” Symbolic furnishings like the tabernacle and pulpit that had referred to each other and to the overall orientation became displaced and their meaningful connections obscured. In Mary Douglas’s dense symbolic universe, you can touch the web of symbols anywhere and set the whole vibrating. When these connections are cut, meaning is impoverished and the full impact of symbols in reference to the majestic whole is missing.

It is noteworthy that the new stance, that of the priest and community facing each other, is analogous to the primacy of community over building. How?

The Utile and the Gratuitous

Few would maintain that the Church can and should do without buildings entirely. But the idea that religious aspirants do not join communities because of their buildings reduces architecture to a decidedly secondary status within our understanding of the Church. When architects themselves are formed by this notion, architecture appears to be in competition with the community. Buildings must decrease that the congregation can increase. Churches are reduced to the functional and cease to be intentionally formative signs.

When I suggested above that a church could be a shorthand manner of representing a community, I placed the building in the realm of signs. By contrast, the functional church aims to mute any suggestion of signification. It provides the backdrop for the community rather than serving as a signifier of the community’s common striving. Is this desirable? Is it even possible?

The great twentieth-century Catholic poet David Jones grappled with this question. Of particular interest is his 1955 essay Art and Sacrament.1 In it, he introduces a distinction between the “utile” and the “gratuitous.” His claim is that humankind is, by nature, a sign-making species. But to make something into a sign is to make it say more, to give it surplus meaning. When I bake a birthday cake, I employ a certain knowledge of chemistry, to be sure. But I do so not as an exercise in chemistry. Nor am I aiming to meet the nutritional needs of those who will consume it. Rather, the cake signifies and, with gratitude, recalls someone’s birth. By extension it signifies the very person whom we are celebrating. That “something more” in a birthday cake, the additional element that makes it a sign, is “gratuitous.” It is not primarily “utile,” as a stolen cake might be of utility to a starving person. The cake is a dense (if humble) and common symbol of the gift of a unique person.

To offer signs is to make a bid to our fellow human beings, to point something out to them and help them to see something about the world. We offer others the opportunity to behold and contemplate something outside of us, and to behold this alongside us. If C.S. Lewis is right, this is a bid for friendship. It is only through signs that we truly can build up community.

Interior of the Holy Cross Monastery Church. Photo:

This signifying (signum-faciens or “sign-making”) partakes of an order of freedom or “gratuitousness.” (We should note that “gratuitous” is etymologically related to “grace.”) The making of signs requires a gift of self, a tendering of meaning through the exercise of the various arts. In turn, the various arts will be most excellently exercised when artisans understand the sign-value of their work. The problem with the contemporary technocratic mindset and its obsession with efficiency is the reduction of our work to the merely “utile” or functional.

In this milieu, Catholic sacraments and sacramentals begin to appear as eccentric add-ons to an otherwise “secular” and materialistic world. If instead we human beings are sign-makers by nature, then all human artifacts, be they wood carvings, birthday cakes, or clarinets, point to a sacramental order of reality. It is the peculiar illness of our age to deny this and to reduce things to bare functionality. By doing so, the Catholic sacramental system seems suddenly out-of-step with purported “realism.”2

Whereas traditional church architecture extended the sacramental worldview outward, into the very cosmos, more recent trends have aimed at emphasizing the functional in order to focus attention on the community. Yet by turning the focus back on ourselves, we widen the rift between the material world and the spiritual world, between heaven and earth. In our persons, this rift unmoors our spirituality, which becomes personalized and isolating. This in turn allows the secular to seep its way into every unguarded nook of our consciousness. The former sentinels, our once common symbols, have abandoned their posts.

The good news is that Christ, who reconciles heaven and earth, points the way out of this alienation through the gratuitousness of the Incarnation. In Jones’s words, “He placed Himself in the order of signs.” He did this to become the Way to the Father: “He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:10).”3

Defeatism? Or Revivification?

An apparently clear-eyed (efficient) view of the expense of keeping up church buildings tends to see them as liabilities. It may well be the case that we cannot save all of our churches. But before drastic decisions are made, might it be possible to see in many of these beautiful buildings not a liability, but a vital partner in re-evangelization?

If our architecture has ceased to represent for us our common aspirations and hope, might it be possible to relearn the symbolic language that architecture used for so many centuries to shape the Church into a unity of mind, heart, and hope? The language is already inscribed in the buildings, though some of it may be obscured. Such a project would require more than the reading of textbooks on architectural symbols. Two related changes of heart seem to be required.

The first is a willingness to let previous generations point to our common goal, and to respond to their tender of friendship by turning, alongside them, in the same direction. This is most easily seen in a return to ad orientem celebrations (the rubrics of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite actually presuppose that the priest and congregation face the same direction). We must be willing to be taught, to be shown by our forebears what it was that they saw. We must therefore be willing to imagine that what they saw was real and not a mere historical accident that has vanished in our postmodern world.

But working with real persons as genuine members of community is often a messy, inefficient thing. This is all the more so when working with impoverished persons, whose lives often are caught in a complex web of constraining circumstances. But the burden is light when common symbols, taught to us by the divine Logos (John 1:1–4), invite us to be at ease with one another.

From the vantage point of a utile, functional universe, the poor are a kind of problem. It is tempting to divert resources from church buildings to programs intended to alleviate or even eliminate the problem that the poor embody (and prudence may require such a diversion of resources at times). But if this leaves us with an impoverished sense of our common goal—a goal shared with the poor, and not one that “they” are preventing us from achieving—then we have little that is truly humanizing and ennobling to offer. In a gratuitous, grace-filled universe, each person is a gift rather than a problem. In a church building that points us toward our common destiny, the Kingdom of God, we all stand side-by-side—rich and poor, male and female, lay and cleric—and turn together to Him Who is our Head and Way. No longer regarding one another according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16), but in the dense, shared symbols of our Church, we behold Him, Who was not ashamed to call us all brethren, and Who presents us to the Father. “Here am I, and the children God has given me (Heb 2: 13)!”

Apse of the Holy Cross Monastery Church. Photo: Spring