The Soul of a Church


The Basilica of Saint Benedict in Norcia, Italy, before the earthquake of October 2016. Photo: flickr.com/Iggi Falcon

Dom Benedict Nivakoff, prior of the Benedictine abbey in Norcia where Saint Benedict himself was born, gave this address to Taoists, who hosted a conference in Taiwan on “The Preservation and Maintenance of Religious Architecture.” The Taoist temple of Baoan had given the monastery a major gift to help them build their first monastic wing after the earthquakes in 2016 had destroyed many of the older buildings.

In 2016, three earthquakes scattered over three months shattered the town of Amatrice in central Italy, killing 300 people, and continued its devastation through the towns of Umbria, bringing down houses, schools, shops, and churches. At present count, it damaged or destroyed 3,000 churches. This large number poses very significant questions for the future of a culture so linked to its past.

Consider how churches throughout the Western world have acted as the centerpiece of faith in a town or city. Even those who are not Christians know that the church was built there in that very place to remind those nearby of what is most important, the timeless and transcendent penetrating our lives and calling us to the highest ideals. A building that had been built and renovated over many centuries served as a visible and tangible link to the past. It helped man know that he was not as big or important as he thinks. It brought him humility.

This connection is most concrete and visible in Italian villages, where the town hall is often located right next to the main church, as if to say that the temporal order and the spiritual order must stand in harmony and cooperate if man is to pass through this world peacefully within himself, with his fellow men, and before God.

These buildings also influenced the culture around them. The nobility, symmetry, grandeur, ornament, and religious narratives had an elevating effect on the surrounding architecture. Civil buildings, parliaments, courthouses, and town halls took on design elements of ecclesiastical buildings to partake of their sense of order and the humility of the eternal.

The very fact that so much artistic excellence and beauty was concentrated in this central building, and that nearly everyone had contributed to it financially according to their means, made the church a ready symbol for the entire city, a natural gathering place, a memorial of the dead, a source of civic pride for the living, and a promise of future continuity and stability.

The Basilica Fell

When the Basilica in Norcia fell on October 30, 2016, a basilica built upon the excavated Roman site of the birth of Saint Benedict and his twin sister Saint Scholastica, the questions were many. Should we rebuild at all? How should it be rebuilt? For whom should it be rebuilt? Most importantly, how do we restore a church without losing its soul?

Some proposed it should be rebuilt exactly as it was, in deference to its centuries-old history, its cherished identity as the “face” of Norcia, and its appeal to visitors impressed with the monumental style of the past. Some proposed a modern design, on the premise that each generation must work within its own style and cannot authentically build in any other period’s style. In this way, the building would be “ours,” a fresh statement of our humanistic beliefs. Some proposed it should be turned into a museum, like the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Destruction of a great building and the hoped-for rebuilding offer an opportunity to express a philosophy, a belief, a truth, that a fresh construction does not present. There are two theories about the way this should be done.

The modern theory holds that we must build buildings that speak more of ourselves and our own time. In today’s humanism—which, as John Paul II noted, is a practical (if not theoretical) atheism—there is no need for the soul of the divine in a church, because that is already in each one of us, or rather, humanity is the highest reality. Thus the true purpose of a restoration in this perspective seems not to celebrate God, but ourselves.

The older understanding believed the church celebrates God, offers a place for worship which points man to him. This is the difference between so many of the old buildings and modern architecture in general: the old buildings place values other than strength, utility, efficiency, and comfort in the first place: they strive above all for beauty, wonder, reverence, a sense of the deepest mystery of things.

If the basilica is to be rebuilt with a nod to its recently built surroundings, we can expect it to be highly functional, perhaps even earthquake resistant. San Paolo Apostolo in Foligno, completed in the early 2000s could be a model. There one neither understands nor knows how to exit. One is trapped. Italian Government officials often oppose such approaches for restoration, but when, as with the basilica, so much is gone, on what grounds can they resist that trend?

Interior of the Basilica of Saint Benedict in Norcia. Photo: wikimedia.org/ivioandronico2013

Interior of San Paolo Apostolo in Foligno. Photo: wikimedia.org/livioandronico2013

The Temple of God

If the church building has a soul (a metaphorical soul), what gives a church its soul? How did the soul get there in the first place? What happened in its construction that must be carried into a reconstruction in order that the building will maintain its soul?

From the very beginnings of Jewish worship, which serves as the anticipation and the template of Christian worship, man built temples, or “palaces” for God, so that he could dwell there as a King in his court. If God is God, one might reasonably object, he does not need an earthly house. He has the whole universe at his disposal, and dwells everywhere in spirit.

The God of Jews and Christians, however, is a God who chose to reveal himself, to make his mind and will known through concrete, earthly, material things. Although men build temples, God deigns to dwell in them in order to be present to us in a way that we, as finite sensible creatures, can relate to, and to teach us something about how he intends to dwell in our souls as in a temple, a building that he constructs out of men as living stones. Man’s encounter with God is never about what God needs, but about who God is—and who man is in relation to him.

The church does not give a homeless God a place to eat or sleep. It gives the creature, hungry and thirsty for ultimate meaning and eternal life, a place to be spiritually nourished, warmed, and rested by and in his presence.

The Incarnation of God is the fulfillment of the Jewish Temple. Fully God and fully man, Jesus Christ is both the place and the person to worship, bridging in himself the frailty of man and the omnipotence of God. Before Christ, God was preparing man to see that he could manifest himself in the material world. With Christ’s coming, those with faith in him believe that his very humanity is the total manifestation of the glory and love of God—the temple in which Christians worship.

This is why our churches are always strongly symbolic of the very body of Christ. In the West, for example, the most common architectural design is cruciform, in imitation of the outstretched hands and feet of Christ nailed to the cross. The sanctuary, where the divine mystery is reenacted, corresponds to Christ’s head, reminding us that he is the head of the Church and we are the members of his mystical body.

Christ is the true temple of which the church building is the material image or echo. Because he is our true temple, the true place of worship, we are able to have physical places of worship everywhere. No single famous building counts as the “primary” sacred place, as the Temple in Jerusalem is for Jews or the Kaaba in the Great Mosque of Mecca is for Moslems.

The Basilica of Saint Benedict in July 2019. Photo: flickr.com/Antonello Serino

Restoring the Soul

Through our disordered love of self, we have strayed from him. Only through him can all be saved, can all be restored to him. That last word is critical.

Construction of a church is always about a restoration. There, in that space, man can experience the mystery of God becoming man. In Christ, humanity is already healed, but this healing must then be shared, in history, with individual men so that it may become their healing. Christian worship re-orders man’s desires so that he can be restored.

The church building, like the sacraments, is an outward expression of an inward reality. There in that sacred space, communing with the divine, man could come to know the God who loves him, offer him the homage of the being and life that are God’s gifts, and receive the healing of his nature.

This is essentially the history of the Roman Missal, an organic development of the “instructions” that give us the authoritative guide to the worship of Christ, to help reach the destination: him. A church built to restore man to what he was meant to be is guided by a book connected to the history of who God was and is and will always be.

The building reflects the belief in a God who became man. Such a church has its soul infused, as it were, at its consecration and Mass of Dedication, when those beautiful walls, ceilings, floors, and furnishings are blessed, anointed and directed towards the God for whom they were made. It becomes a place where man can forget himself, and remember God.

Restoration and Return

At this point, I would like to move to reconstruction, beginning with a parable, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, drawing on Martin Mosebach’s insights. The son is restored to the good favor of his father only after he repents and returns. It isn’t ever clear how sorry he is for what he did, but it is clear that he is hungry, and that hunger drives him to return.

It is that hunger, that sense of having lost a patrimony, an inheritance, which is critical not only to the restoration of old churches but to the construction of new ones as well. Just as a new church not built with a view to restoring man through Christ cannot have a soul, so an old building cannot be restored successfully without an explicit attempt to reconnect with the past, thus ensuring the vitality of its ongoing presence. The soul must not be driven away.

This proposal runs contrary to much of modern secular architectural theory, as well as ecclesiastical design theory. Among the various clubs used to fight historical precedent are sayings like “you can’t turn back the clock” and “you want to live in the past.” There is something true in this argument, if the point is to warn against a vain and sentimental nostalgia. Something created in the past cannot be literally reproduced in the present moment.

On the other hand, great reform movements in history have often taken the form of harking back to an earlier and better model of life or laws or arts. That is not turning back the clock, or nostalgia, but retracing one’s steps to the point where a deviation or corruption occurred, so as to pick up the right trail again. In this way, to keep the soul in the restoration of a church demands of us that we respect the conditions under which the soul and the body together form a single life.

Perhaps this is where enthusiasts have erred in explaining the importance of traditional church restoration. They sense that those spaces have a soul, and therefore they think a new or restored church must look exactly like those places. That is also a mistake, the opposite one: You must turn back the clock, you must try to live in the past.

As a result, often people are given two alternatives: a glass-metal structure which has nothing in common with places where they have discovered God, or an exact replica or close copy of a building where they have found God, or which at least reminds them of him for cultural reasons. Given those choices, wouldn’t we all choose the replica? Even if that means “turning back the clock”?

The Basilica in Norcia has, up until now, always been restored in continuity with the past. How will we approach its rebuilding in our time? Photo: wikimedia.org/Silvio Sorcini

Receiving the Tradition

What gets forgotten in choosing the replica is that the churches known for their soul, as places where God is found, are that way not because they sought to replicate anything. A building which has a soul has one because of what is done there. It looks like it does because of what is done there.

Here we return to the Roman Missal. A Christian wandering through Europe could feel at home in churches of various epochs because each place used the materials and techniques of the time to build a home to worship God in the same way as previously.

The guarantor of the soul was precisely that activity and manner of worship, not the art or the style of the art as such. It was not Gothic that made a Gothic church alive. It was the sacred ceremonies and prayers performed with it, which drew forth from human creativity a “body” suitable for that soul.

Modern theorists on church restoration seem to react to these superficial attachments to form, correctly identifying them as not helpful. They see that a church needs a soul and believe that a copy, a clone, does not offer that. At best, it offers a Disney-like experience of getting to visit someplace without actually going there. We can’t “turn back the clock” and “live in the past.”

But unfortunately they respond with the ever-elusive and theologically dangerous categories of “originality” and “authenticity.” They must try to build something “new,” something never been done before, and it must be exclusively ours, not attributable to any other dominant preexisting influence. In Christian theology, however, we have a name for the one who sought to be the most original: Lucifer, or Satan, the Prince of Darkness. He competed with God for the title of creator and thus fell to hell. Christ, in fact, says that the devil “speaks from himself” and is therefore a liar.

Dated Originality

Absolute originality is a falsification of our status as creatures who are dependent on God, on our own family, our own history and culture. It also falsifies the essentially historical character of revelation as understood by Christians. We do not invent what a church is. We receive what a church is, in its fundamental symbolism and requirements. The only way for a Christian to be authentic is to be within a tradition: “I handed on to you what I also received,” as the Apostle Paul says (1 Cor 15:3). It is therefore not simply “conservatism” which calls for caution on originality, but humility.

What is striking about examples of modern “originality” is that they look as dated, or more so, than churches of the Gothic revival or Baroque revival periods. A very fine example of Gothic from the early twentieth century will be far more impressive and “timeless” than an example of a typical Catholic church from the past fifty or sixty years.

Not only are they “dated” in feel, but one can often even date them to a particular decade. Who cannot recognize that this church was built in the 1960s, and this one in the 1970s, and this other one in the 2000s?

That is partly because, in the ever faster technologically advanced world in which we live, new for the sake of new is old practically by the time it is constructed. It is also because, in spite of the lip service paid to originality, modern architects incessantly copy one another’s styles and works, only varying minor points, so that buildings from a certain decade like the 1970s are surprisingly monotonous and similar-looking. The use of computer-aided design (CAD) is also a major culprit responsible for homogenization.

The Underlying Problem

We seem very much in a bind at this point. Old for the sake of old does not work. New for the sake of new does not work.

How can we restore a church without losing its soul? If it will end up looking “dated” in one way by making it look old, and “dated” in quite a different way if we make it look new, is there then no solution?

There is unfortunately no way to escape the more profound underlying problem that afflicts church restoration and construction, namely, the lack of faith. Christian faith is by its essence an attempt to “turn back the clock” to restore man to his origin, before the Fall. We believe that we lost our special place with God when Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation, and that Christ’s coming not only ended our condition of exile from paradise, but brought us to an even better place in heaven.

If Christians no longer believe in this “good news,” they will not restore churches with a soul. If Christians believe we are better off without Christ, more intelligent, more enlightened, more sensitive, the prodigal son will not hunger to return to the Father’s house.

To have and to live such faith demands a living continuity with the past which cannot be achieved merely by a building, no matter what its style may be, or how impressive its appearance. Christian church architecture grew up around a particular form of worship, a particular book called the Roman Missal, which told how the Mass was to be said. This book put into words and instructions the deeply held belief that we needed to offer sacrifice to God, because we needed to be saved. A great saint of the Catholic Church, Saint Theresa of Avila, said “I would die a thousand deaths to protect just one rubric of the Holy Mass.”

The Soul Restored

A church restoration offers a unique opportunity to restore its soul, an opportunity previous centuries did not fear but embraced. The Basilica in Norcia has been restored many times. But the monks always restored in continuity with the past, without any conscious decision to do so; no other way of doing it would have made any sense, since the religion was the same, and above all, the same Roman Missal stood upon the altar.

Such rebuilt churches were truly new, beautiful, and expressive, without being unoriginal. In Rome, churches were built on previous pagan temples, and new churches on old churches, and newer churches on top of those. All of this was possible and somewhat seamless because the underlying faith had not changed.

The only way to restore a church without losing its soul, if we truly want the presence of God in a church, is to start with our own faith, attending Mass and praying in those places which truly seek to restore man to Christ. There our souls will find life, there other lives will be touched by the soul of the church. And there, finally, will be born the vision and the ability to construct and restore churches that transmit this living faith in a way that is both “ever ancient and ever new.”

Dom Benedict Nivakoff, O.S.B., has been prior of the Benedictine Abbey in Norcia since 2016.