Veiling the Mysteries

by Michael R. Carey, appearing in Volume 3

As a moral theologian, I am sometimes asked: what does morality have to do with church architecture? One way to approach this question is to think about how the human person is engaged in the liturgy. If we take moral theology in its classic sense, then it embraces the entire spectrum of human activity, from the most primal inclinations to the most exalted movements of God’s grace within us. It involves not just the human conscience, but also the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those gifts are usually enumerated as wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord. From that list, I believe that the gift of fear—the fear of the Lord—has a special role to play in relation to liturgy, and specifically to liturgical architecture.

Given our modern sensibilities, we might wonder if fear of the Lord is an appropriate liturgical attitude. In one of his sermons John Henry Cardinal Newman posed the same question. He asked:

Are these feelings of fear and awe Christian feelings or not? . . . I say this, then, which I think no one can reasonably dispute. They are the class of feelings we should have—yes, have to an intense degree—if we literally had the sight of Almighty God; therefore they are the class of feelings which we shall have, if we realize His presence. In proportion as we believe that He is present, we shall have them; and not to have them, is not to realize, not to believe that He is present.

For this gift of fear to work in us, then, we need a sense of being in God’s presence, a sense of the sacred. It is the proper work of liturgical architecture to help provide us with that sense. One time-honored way to indicate the presence of the sacred is what I would call “veiling the mysteries.” In the Jewish tradition, both the Tabernacle of the Desert and the Temple of Jerusalem employed veils. In the Christian dispensation, veiling has been manifested in various ways. It has taken the form of material veils surrounding the altar and tabernacle, but at other times in the history of architecture, veiling has been accomplished through the use of an iconostasis, a rood screen, or another chancel barrier, such as a communion rail.

Angelic Veils

The instinct to veil the sacred or to be veiled from it has roots planted deeply in Sacred Scripture. The Prophet Isaiah, for instance, wrote about a vision that was granted to him while he was in the Temple. There he saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.” Isaiah then said, “Woe is me! . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” The prophet, however, also noticed the deportment of the attendant angels, the Seraphim. These heavenly beings are a choir of fiery angels who live constantly in the presence of God and his glory, acclaiming his holiness. It is they who say “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Sabaoth, the whole earth is full of his glory,” which are the words we adapt and use as the Sanctus in Mass.

When Isaiah saw the Seraphim, he noticed that they were veiled. They had six wings, and “with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft.” Since Isaiah’s vision is of the Seraphim attending the throne of the Almighty, we can infer that they were not veiled solely for Isaiah’s sake, but precisely because they were in the presence of God. The veiled Seraphim teach Isaiah that he was right to fear seeing God without a protecting veil. God’s glory is so powerful that it is only from behind a veil that creatures can behold His presence at all.

The Veil of Moses
If the Seraphim have the privilege to be in God’s presence habitually, this is not so with men. When God manifests his Presence on earth, it is recorded as a special event that should be remembered. God once manifested his Presence to Moses in the form of “a flame of fire, coming from the middle of a bush.” Moses was intrigued by this, and approached the burning bush. But then God said, “Come no nearer, . . . for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” We notice immediately that God’s Presence makes a place especially holy, and that this place is distinguished from what is less holy by a certain distance.

In addition we are told that “Moses covered his face, afraid to look at God.” We do not know whether Moses did this with his hands or with his cloak or in some other manner. In some way, however, Moses created a veil which shielded him from the Divine Presence.

Moses, however, was apparently not satisfied with this veiled encounter with God and so he asked to see the Lord’s face. God responded: “You cannot see my face, for man cannot see me and live.”

As a concession to Moses’ request, the Lord said:
Here is a place beside me. You must stand on the rock, and when my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand while I pass by. Then I will take my hand away and you shall see the back of me; but my face is not to be seen.
Here the Lord used his own hand as the veil which shielded Moses from seeing his glorious face.

The repeated requests of Moses to see God’s face explain very well the discipline of veiling. Moses shows us that human beings have an innate desire not only to be in God’s Presence, but also to see God’s face, that is, his very Being. The direct sight of God’s face is what we call the Beatific Vision. This is a desire which cannot ordinarily be completely fulfilled in this life. Veiling is the mechanism which allows that desire of ours to be at least partially fulfilled.

On extremely rare occasions, and by the influence of an exceptional grace, God has permitted human beings the sight of his Glory. Peter, James, and John were given this privilege at the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor, and in the Old Testament period, that same grace was given to Elijah, and most notably to Moses.

God granted Moses the extraordinary favor of seeing His face in this life when he went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. So powerful was the Glory of the Lord, that it imprinted itself on Moses’ face. Coming down from the holy mountain, Moses did not veil his face, but it so reflected the Lord’s Glory that the people were afraid to approach him. In spite of their fear, Moses told them to come closer, so that they could hear what he had to tell them. It seems that he deliberately remained unveiled as he delivered the Ten Commandments so that the people could see God’s glory reflected in his face and know that he was speaking with the very authority of God. But as soon as Moses finished speaking, “he put a veil over his face.” At this point, the veiling was not to protect Moses, but rather to protect the people from the fiery glow of God’s glory. Moses knew that even when only reflected in the face of a creature, the Glory of the Lord was so holy and so powerful that it had to be veiled.

The Veil of the Tabernacle

After Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years. During that time, they built a portable Tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant, which served as God’s Dwelling place with his chosen people. This Tabernacle was built to the specifications given by God Himself, and it included several kinds of veils to shield the people from his Almighty Presence. Most importantly, there was a veil which screened the Ark of the Covenant from the rest of the Tabernacle. It was made of “blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen” and was designed with figures of Cherubim, the angels who are the guardians of God’s Presence.

Restrictions about passing beyond the veil into the Holy of Holies were set out for the Jews when Aaron’s two sons died after entering that sanctuary unlawfully. Of this strange incident we are told only that Aaron’s sons “offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as He had not commanded.” In immediate consequence, “fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” In explanation, the Lord told Aaron, “I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” After these deaths, the Lord instructed Moses to tell Aaron “that he must not enter the sanctuary beyond the veil . . . whenever he chooses. He may die. . . .” No one, then, could pass beyond this veil, not even the Jewish priests. Only the high priest, once a year, and after a special rite of purification, could go past it for the atonement ceremonies of Yom Kippur. The holiness of the sanctuary was almost completely impenetrable. Only God could dwell there.

The Temple of Jerusalem

In time the Jews gave up their portable Tabernacle in favor of a more permanent Temple in Jerusalem. First planned by King David, and then built by his son King Solomon, the Temple plan was very similar to the Tabernacle. Begun about 957 B.C., the Temple’s plan, dimensions, and materials are listed in I Kings and II Chronicles. The first account records that the entrance to the Holy of Holies had “doors of olive wood,” indicating that it was demarcated by a wall. The second account, however, says that there was a “veil of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and worked cherubim on it.” Perhaps both of these were used, as is indicated in a fresco found in Dura Europos. In any case, either a fabric veil, or a more substantial veiling structure such as a wall, or both were used. The Temple was destroyed at the time of the Babylonian exile and was then rebuilt under the direction of Zerubbabel, being completed about the year 515 B.C. Much of the work was due to the efforts of Simon the high priest who is said to be “glorious . . . as he came out of the inner sanctuary”—literally, “the house of the veil.” Finally, a second, much grander temple was begun by King Herod in 20 B.C. Although the Ark of the Covenant had been lost by this time, this temple also used a veil to demarcate the Holy of Holies.

Veiling in the New Testament
The New Testament makes a direct reference to the Temple Veil in some important passages. In the Gospel, for example, we read that at the death of Christ “the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” How should we understand this passage? The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain [veil], that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart. . .

As this passage indicates, the New Testament sometimes uses the veil as a metaphor. Here it stands for “the blood of Jesus” and “his flesh”—that is, Christ’s humanity. Since Jesus is the “high priest” who freely enters the Sanctuary, we also enter “through Him, with Him, and in Him.” How appropriate then that Christian sanctuaries have often been demarcated by a barrier which also serves as the communion rail where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Church design which eliminates a veiling structure around the sanctuary, then, has very important theological ramifications. If the sanctuary is that sacred place which holds in a special way the Real Presence of the Lord on the altar and in the tabernacle; and if the veil or veiling structure around the sanctuary represents the humanity of Christ, as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches; and, further, if we can only enter into the God’s Presence through the humanity of Christ; then, that veiling structure is theologically necessary.

The rending of the Temple Veil at the time of Christ’s death, then, certainly does not indicate that Christianity has eliminated the need for veiling. It means, rather, that the Temple Veil, which was the symbol of our alienation from God, has been replaced by the veil of Christ’s humanity, which is the means of our reconciliation with Him. Some veiling structure, then, continues to be of utmost importance for a proper liturgical spirituality. Its removal would symbolically eliminate the necessity of Christ’s Humanity, as if we could enter into the presence of the Divinity without it.

Altar Veils and Chancel Veils
In the first centuries after the death of Christ, Christians were not allowed to worship publicly. Instead, they gathered together in their houses, and used some of them for liturgical purposes. These simple house-churches still manifested some elements of sacred architecture. For example, there is a Roman church dedicated to Saint John and Saint Paul, the two early martyrs who are mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass. Beneath this church there are the remains of an ancient Christian church which was originally a Roman villa. It consisted of two stories and was highly decorated with frescoes. Archeologists have found that

at a higher level than the frescoes is a small chamber which displays, within panels enclosed by red lines, a series of paintings which seem to be of Christian inspiration. Among the images is a man, with hands extended in prayer, who stands in front of curtains drawn back to indicate the souls’ entry into Paradise.

Even during the years when Christians were bitterly persecuted, and when their places of worship were rough adaptations of other sorts of buildings, they were attentive to the use of veiling to demarcate sacred space. Entering into such a sacred sanctuary was symbolic of entering into Paradise itself.

When Christians were finally able to build public churches, they continued to use veiling to separate the more holy places from the less so. Significantly, as Christian liturgical spirituality and architecture developed, the Christian altar was placed behind a veil or veiling structure. That is, in contrast to the Jewish Temple, the altar was located within a defined and closed sanctuary. Christians believed, from the beginning it seems, that there was the Real Presence of God on the altar, and that this should be veiled.

In the earliest basilican churches, the altar was built under a ciborium, a structure consisting of four pillars supporting a roof. An example of such an altar is the one given by the Emperor Constantine to the Lateran Basilica sometime before A.D. 337. The columns of these altars held curtains so that the altar could be completely veiled. Old liturgical texts explain that such altar veils were closed just before the Preface of the Mass and remained closed until after the priest received Holy Communion. The Preface Dialogue, therefore, would have been spoken through the altar veil. The text of the Eucharistic Prayer would of course have been spoken silently, as it was right up to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In the Roman liturgy, the practice of closing a veil around the altar was still observed in the sixteenth century, references being found in missals of 1532 and 1544. When the altar has not been built in the ciborium style, it has traditionally been located within the apse of the church. The veiling structure is then placed at the entrance to the chancel or sanctuary. These chancel screens, or cancelli, which are found in Christian churches as early as the beginning of the fourth century, could be made of fabric, wood, or other material.

In the Eastern rites the cancellus took the form of an iconostasis, a wall of icons which separates the sanctuary from the nave. In the earliest Greek churches the iconostasis was just a simple barrier, about waist high, or even lower, dividing the altar from the people. Sometimes it was affixed with columns from which pictures of the saints were hung. Eventually these structures became more ornately hung with icons, and they developed into the solid partition that we know today as an iconostasis. Always, the Sacred Mysteries are celebrated behind the iconostasis, in the sacred space that it creates. Pavel Florensky writes:

In actuality, the iconostasis is a boundary between the visible and invisible worlds, and it functions as a boundary by being an obstacle to our seeing the altar, thereby making it accessible to our consciousness by means of its unified row of saints (i.e., by its cloud of wit- nesses) that surround the altar where God is, the sphere where heavenly glory dwells, thus proclaiming the Mystery. Iconostasis is vision.

In the Western rites, the parallel structure to the iconostasis is the rood screen. The rood screen is a free standing wall constructed out of wood or metal demarcating the nave and sanctuary, which can have carvings of saints and symbols and often was surmounted by a rood or cross. This element of sacred architecture is particularly helpful in understanding the interplay between the discipline of veiling and the people’s deep desire to see God’s Presence in the sacred elements at Mass. As Eamon Duffy tells us in The Stripping of the Altars, rood screens were punctured with small “peep holes.” Someone kneeling in front of the screen could just barely see through these holes to catch a quick glimpse of the elevated Host and chalice at Mass. The religious instinct at play here seems to be exactly the same as that found in the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. No one could gaze directly on the Divine Presence and live. In the Mass this Divine Presence was veiled under the appearance of bread and wine, and further veiled behind the protecting rood screen. With these sacramental and liturgical shields, the faithful could then dare to look on the elevated host and chalice and adore the Sacred Presence hidden there.

Historians of church architecture tell us that until “the fifteenth or sixteenth century the cancelli were a mere barrier” and that only “after that they developed into the Communion rail.” As such, cancelli did not lose their former purpose; they simply gained a secondary one. Commun- ion rails, like other forms of cancelli; deliberately and effectively separated the nave of the church from the more sacred space of the sanctuary. They thus created a veil between the more sacred and the less so.

Veiling and Vatican II
All of these elements of the veiling of the mysteries, rooted in Jewish faith and cult, were observed in Catholic liturgy until the reforms of Vatican II. The reason for veiling is “the belief that the mystery occurring on the altar had to be shielded from the eyes of men.” Yet such veiling is rarely observed today. In contemporary church architecture, there is no protecting veil between the congregation and the Sacred Presence of God. The altar stands in their midst and the sacred mysteries are celebrated in plain view. Instead of veiling the mysteries, we now put them on display. How are we to understand this abandonment of such a long-standing tradition? It seems to be based on certain ambiguities in the Church’s liturgical directives. For example, the 1970 General Instruction of the Roman Missal directs that “the sanctuary should be marked off from the nave either by a higher floor level or by a distinctive structure and decor.” Even though the “distinctive structure” of communion rails would seem to fulfill this directive very nicely, they have been removed from older churches and uniformly omitted from new church design. While a “higher floor level” may be enough to meet the letter of the present law, it does not indicate any sort of veiling as has been understood throughout the whole Judeo-Christian liturgical tradition.

Again, the 1964 document Inter Oecumenici says that “the main altar should preferably be free-standing, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people.” Notice that this is merely a preference, and that even if it is chosen, it could easily be accomplished while maintaining a traditional sanctuary. Nevertheless, it has most often led to other arrangements in which the sense of a closed sanctuary is severely diminished.

We should not be surprised, therefore, to find that the importance of the sacred was reaffirmed in the “Third Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (1970) which states: “Liturgical reform is not synonymous with so-called desacralization and should not be the occasion for what is called the secularization of the world. Thus the liturgical rites must retain a dignified and sacred character.” The difficulty is that when the sacred mysteries are unveiled, they lose their sacred character. Tradition teaches us that “a mystery—the tremendum—in order to be a mystery, needs to be hidden, so that we may long for it to be revealed.”

Contemporary church architecture has often led to sanctuary design which gives it a visibility and accessibility completely contrary to liturgical tradition. This unveiling of the mysteries in post-conciliar liturgical architecture has largely been a misguided even if well-intentioned effort. In its wake we sense that something of great importance has been lost, something that must be recovered. In that mission we can look for guidance to the Vatican Council’s own liturgical document Sacrosanctum Concilium. There we read that “parts [of the liturgy] which suffered loss through the accidents of history are to be restored to the vigor they had in the days of the holy Fathers, as may seem useful or necessary.” This passage may have been used by some liturgical innovators as authorization to eliminate the time-honored structures of sanctuary and the sacred. Ironically, we might now use this very same passage to criticize their iconoclastic innovations as “accidents of history.” But however we characterize them, it is time to put them right.

Among those things which must be re- stored, then, are those architectural elements which reinforce the sacred nature of the liturgy. The Judeo-Christian tradition holds that God dwells on holy ground which we must not approach too closely or too boldly. It also teaches that the way to demarcate such sacred places is through some sort of veiling.

These matters are not of superficial importance. They are age-old traditions which manifest deep-seated religious instincts. Until we once again observe the veiling of the mysteries, our worship will not adequately express the mysteries. We will stand boldly, but ignorantly and dangerously, in the blinding Presence of God where there is “nothing concealed from its burning heat.” Due in part to architectural insensitivity to these matters, we must now wonder if we have be- come so blind that we no longer recognize God’s Sacred Presence, and so bold that we no longer fear it?