Friday, March 10, 2006

The Symbolism of Churches

In the 1839, the Ecclesiological Society started a successful reform of the Church of England, moving it back to its Catholic roots. From one of its publications, THE SYMBOLISM OF Churches and Church Ornaments, comes this description of the degraded form of their contemporary churches:
It is choked up and concealed by surrounding shops and houses, for religion, now-a-days, must give way to business and pleasure: it stands North and South, for all idea of fellow-feeling with the Church Catholick is looked on as mere trifling, or worse: the front which faces the High Street is of stone, because the uniformity of the street so required it: or, (which is more likely) of stucco, which answers as well, and is cheaper: the sides, however, are of brick, because no one can see them: there is at the entrance a large vestibule, to allow people to stand while their carriages are being called up, and to enter into conversation on the news of the day, or the merits of the preacher: it also serves the purpose of making the church warmer, and contains the doors and staircases to the galleries. On entering, the, pulpit occupies the central position, and towards it every seat is directed: for preaching is the great object of the Christian ministry: galleries run all round the building, because hearing is the great object of a Christian congregation: the Altar stands under the organ gallery, as being of no use, except once a month: there are a few free seats in out-of-the-way places, where no one could hear, and no pues would be hired, and therefore no money is lost by making the places free: and whether the few poor people who occupy them can hear or not, what matters it? The Font, a cast-iron vase on a marble pillar, stands within the Altar rails; because it there takes up no room: the reading pue is under the pulpit, and faces the congregation; because the prayers are to be read to them and not addressed to GOD. Look at this place on Sunday, or Thursday Evening. Carriages crash up through the cast-iron gates, and, amidst the wrangling and oaths of rival coachmen, deposit their loads at the portico: people come, dressed out in the full fashion of the day, to occupy their luxurious pue, to lay their smelling-bottles and prayer books on its desk, and reclining on its soft cushions, to confess themselves-if they are in time-miserable sinners: to see the poor and infirm standing in the narrow passages, and close their pue doors against them, lest themselves should be contaminated, or their cushions spoilt, at the same time beseeching GOD to give their fellow-creatures the comfort which they refuse to bestow: the Royal Arms occupy a conspicuous position; for it is a chapel of the ESTABLISHMENT: there are neat cast-iron pillars to hold up the galleries, and still neater pillars in the galleries to hold up the roof; thereby typifying that the whole existence of the building depends on the good-will of the congregation: the roof is flat, with an elegant cornice, and serves principally to support a gas-lighted chandelier: and the administration of this chapel is carried on by clerk, organist, beadle, and certain bonnetless pue-openers.
Too many of the features described here could be said of modern Catholic churches!

The authors continue with a description of ideal Catholic churches:
Far away, and long ere we catch our first view of the city itself, the three spires of its Cathedral, rising high above its din and turmoil, preach to us of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. As we approach, the Transepts, striking out cross-wise, tell of the Atonement: the Communion of Saints is set forth by the chapels clustering round Choir and Nave: the mystical weathercock bids us to watch and pray and endure hardness: the hideous forms that seem hurrying from the eaves speak the misery of those who are cast out of the church: spire, pinnacle, and finial, the upward curl of the sculptured foliage, the upward spring of the flying buttress, the sharp rise of the window arch, the high-thrown pitch of the roof, all these, overpowering the horizontal tendency of string course and parapet, teach us, that vanquishing earthly desires, we also should ascend in heart and mind. Lessons of holy wisdom are written in the delicate tracery of the windows: the unity of many members is shadowed forth by the multiplex arcade: the duty of letting our light shine before men, by the pierced and flowered parapet that crowns the whole.

We enter. The triple breadth of Nave and Aisles, the triple height of Pier arch, Triforium, and Clerestory, the triple length of Choir, Transepts, and Nave, again set forth the Holy TRINITY. And what besides is there that does not tell of our Blessed SAVIOUR? that does not point out "HIM First," in the two-fold Western door: "HIM Last," in the distant Altar: "HIM Midst," in the great Rood: "HIM Without End," in the monogram carved on boss and corbel, in the Holy Lamb, in the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, in the Mystick Fish? Close by us is the Font; for by Regeneration we enter the Church: it is deep and capacious; for we are buried in Baptism with CHRIST: it is of stone; for HE is the Rock: and its spiry cover teaches us, if we be indeed risen from its waters with HIM, to seek those things that are above. Before us, in long drawn vista are the massy Piers, which are the Apostles and Prophets: they are each of many members, for many are the graces in every Saint: there is delicate foliage round the head of all; for all were plentiful in good works. Beneath our feet are the badges of worldly pomp and glory, the charges of Kings and Nobles and Knights: all in the Presence of GOD as dross and worthlessness. Over us swells the vast 'valley' of the high pitched roof: from the crossing and interlacing of its curious rafters hang fadeless flowers and fruits which are not of earth: from its hammer-beams project wreaths and stars, such as adorn heavenly beings: in its centre stands the LAMB as It had been slain: from around HIM the celestial Host, Cherubim and Seraphim, Thrones, Principalities, and Powers, look down peacefully on the worshippers below. Harpers there are among them harping with their harps: for one is the song of the Church in earth and in Heaven. Through the walls wind the narrow cloister galleries: emblems of the path by which holy hermits and anchorets, whose conflicts were known only to their GOD, have reached their Home. And we are compassed about with a mighty cloud of witnesses: the rich deep glass of the windows teems with saintly forms, each in its own fair niche, all invested with the same holy repose: there is the glorious company of the Apostles: the goodly fellowship of the Prophets: the noble army of Martyrs: the shining band of the Confessors: the jubilant chorus of the Virgins: there are Kings, who have long since changed an earthly for an heavenly crown: and Bishops, who have given in a glad account to the Shepherd and Bishop of souls. But on none of these things do we rest; piers, arch behind arch, windows, light behind light, arcades, shaft behind shaft, the roof, bay behind bay, the Saints around us, the Heavenly Hierarchy above with dignity of pre-eminence still increasing Eastward, each and all, lead on eye and soul and thought to the Image of the Crucified Saviour as displayed in the great East window. Gazing steadfastly on that, we pass up the Nave, that is through the Church Militant, till we reach the Rood Screen, the barrier between it and the Church Triumphant, and therein shadowing forth the death of the Faithful. High above it hangs, on His Triumphal Cross, the image of HIM Who by His Death hath overcome death; on it are pourtrayed Saints and Martyrs, His warriors, who fighting under their LORD have entered into rest and inherit a tearless eternity. They are to be our examples, and the seven lamps above them typify those graces of the SPIRIT, by Whom alone we can tread in their steps. The screen itself glows with gold and crimson: with gold, for they have on their heads golden crowns; with crimson, for they passed the Red Sea of Martyrdom to obtain them. And through the delicate net work, and the unfolding Holy Doors, we catch faint glimpses of the Chancel beyond. There are the massy stalls; for in Heaven is everlasting rest: there are the sedilia, emblems of the seats of the Elders round the Throne: there is the Piscina; for they have washed their robes and made them white: and there, heart and soul and life of all, the Altar with its unquenched lights, and golden carvings, and mystick steps, and sparkling jewels: even CHRIST Himself, by Whose only Merits we find admission to our Heavenly Inheritance. Verily, as we think on the oneness of its design, we may say: Jerusalem edificatur ut civitas cujus participatio ejus in idipsum.
This comparison, written in 1843, has a strong parallel with the comparason between our contemporary vs. traditional Catholic churches described in Michael Rose's book Ugly as Sin, published 163 years later.

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