Making Space for Sacred Space

Recoving the Sense of the Sacred

by Jaap Dawson, appearing in Volume 13

The altar of San Paolo Maggiore in Bologna. Photo: Alessandro Bucci

“The play’s the thing.” Shakespeare was dead right. And he was right not only with regard to the theater; the same applies to church too. When we worship, we play. And when we play right, we worship. The truth is so obvious that we might lose sight of it. But if we bring it back into view, the truth may indeed set us free.

The Sandbox and the Church
“The child is father of the man.” And a wise father he is, Wordsworth might well have added. The child we were is the child we are: the child who knows how to dream, the child who knows how to build a real world in a sandbox, the child who knows how to share this real world with other children. The other children need no complex rules, no creeds, no rites of initiation to play along. They simply need to grasp the essence of the play—and its boundaries. And then, wondrously enough, all the children in the sandbox share the very real world they have allowed to come into being.

During the play, the sandbox is as sacred for the small child we were as the church is sacred for the large child we become. The sandbox has clear boundaries that separate it from the world outside it. It is set apart from that world, marked off from it. True, you can dream outside the sandbox; but inside the sandbox you make space for the dream, the play, that you share with all the other players. Inside the sandbox you lay the building blocks that allow a deeper world to come alive. And that deeper world is the real world—so real that you can carry it with you even when you leave the sandbox.

The church is sacred because we learned how to play well in our sandbox. We knew we needed to set the church apart from a world quite removed from real play and real worship. We knew we needed to establish boundaries between our church and the world that played to a different drum: without those boundaries we could not allow the deeper world to come into being. We knew too that we needed a place we could return to, at all times and in all places, in order to rekindle our awareness of the world that gives us life, and life in abundance.

The wisdom we acquired through our experience as children serves us well when we come to build a church. We know we need clear boundaries between hundreds of worlds that might vie for our attention and the world in which we can meet the living God. We know we need to move through our church as in a dance: if we only sit, and sit alone, we are not able to play actively with the other players to build a setting that allows the real world to be born. We know we need lots of sand—solid building materials—that we can feel and enjoy and form. We know we need enough space to play in. And we need to play together at the same game.

This we know. This any church architect must know. And this any parish council or bishop must surely know before chosing an architect worthy of the task of building a proper church. The play’s the thing. But play has serious rules, and the rules mock all ideology, all seriousness not in the service of the play. And the service of the play of worship is a dance of praise to the living God.

How, then, might the church architect best proceed?

By keeping his experience of the sandbox alive. By recognizing it in churches already built. By noticing it in the sketches that appear on his paper. By listening to fellow worshippers: Where do they feel most at home, most opened, most quickened? By focusing on the presence of the living God.

San Paolo Maggiore
San Paolo Maggiore in Bologna strikes me as a living example of a church that got it right. Though it has been around for quite some time, I only discovered it earlier this year. I had gone to Bologna and Ravenna to feast on the buildings and spaces and colors that, in a more loving world, we would build everywhere. And on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, it felt utterly right to join the celebration in Paul’s own church. And what a feast it was!

The tabernacle of San Paolo Maggiore, built in exaggerated perspective. Photo: Author

What, exactly, made the feast such a feast? Was it a surprisingly full church in the middle of the week? Yes, but not only that. Was it the concelebration, the strength of a group of priests gathered together in one accord around the altar? Yes, but there was more. Was it the sung celebration? Of course, but that still does not explain it fully. Was it the space, then, the building itself? The familiar baroque recipe fairly incarnates the Body of Christ in the fabric of the building: the ample nave as the trunk, the lateral walls of the side chapels as ribs, the apse as the head, the transepts as the arms, the crossing as the heart. Yes, the spaces and their boundaries set the stage for the feast, but alone they fail to account for the church’s power.

The Body of Christ, then? Now we’re getting closer. It was made present at the Consecration. It was present in the worshippers. It was present in the homily: Christ really can change your life! It was present in the spatial configuration of the building. It was even present in the saturated, luminous colors that made the building materials at once earthy and heavenly.

But the real, palpable, and enduring presence of the Body of Christ lies in the tabernacle. And the tabernacle forms the center, the heart, the focus of the church. The tabernacle in San Paolo Maggiore rises up in the literal center of the crossing. It is unlike any other tabernacle I have seen. It is a building in itself, built in exaggerated perspective. It focuses your attention. It draws your attention further to a space beyond its own boundaries, beyond the walls of the church, beyond the confines of the world. It is truly a window on the soul.

And behind the tabernacle looms—at a huge if not hugely inappropriate scale—Alessandro Algardi’s sculpture of St. Paul about to be beheaded. You have hardly recovered from the force of the Presence in the tabernacle before you are shaken out of your reverie. You are reminded that heeding God’s voice means sacrifice. You are reminded too that the sacrificed victim is innocent—and that he is God.

The Goal of Sacred Space
The architect, the artists, the people who made the choices: they clearly took their experiences of the sandbox with them. They established unmistakable boundaries. They created spaces that give worshippers space. They knew how to establish a focus, how to help us focus on what really matters, what really counts. They placed the tabernacle at the center of the church and therefore at the center of the church’s life. And they built a tabernacle that does more than focus and contain and preserve: it points beyond itself. Immanence is transcendence is immanence.

The play’s the thing. The church architect who is adequate to the task has an inkling, an experience of Whom the play serves. The church architect who is liberated from fleeting styles and apparent functional requirements lives with the memories of the just-right sandbox. The child is father of the man, who must become as a child—not only in order to enter the Kingdom, but in order to build an image of the Kingdom: a church alive and quickening.