There are dark corners to be explored in a great church. Instead of vast seating space, bright with electric light, huge speakers hanging from the beams, and padded pews, give me the darkened chapel where ancient monks recited their daily prayers. Give me the dark corner of a crumbling cloister, the dark corner of a library of leather bound books.
When you get the chance to wander through some vast ecclesiastical space—a Gothic cathedral, an Abbey church or even an old-fashioned parish church—slow down and take time to explore the dark corners.
The old cathedrals and churches have all those little side chapels where dozens of priests would mutter their daily masses. The priests said multiple Masses not only because they had to celebrate Mass everyday, but also because there were long lists of souls to be prayed for.
Benefactors left money for priests to offer Mass for the repose of their souls and the souls of their loved ones. They believed in purgatory, and they believed that a Mass said for them on earth gave them an extra boost toward heaven in the hereafter.
Those cathedral corners now are mostly dusty and dark—converted to little display units for some Catholic charity, or perhaps to showcase a local saint or some worthy diocesan enterprise. The side chapels are still worth visiting however. Often they are simply empty with just an unused altar, an obscure fresco, some plaques with memorial inscriptions and the image of a saint. You can stop and sit and think and pray and visualize what it was like when there were umpteen priests and no Mass schedule was necessary because Mass was being celebrated in the temple constantly.
There are other dark corners to be explored in a great church. Venture down to the crypt where you may find the relics of some unknown saint, memorials to the monks long gone, and candles flickering before an ancient shrine. Find your way into a side transept, a hidden chapel, a corridor that leads to an ancient library, a cloister, a chapter house, or a garden growing in the ruins of monastery buildings—half a rose window in skeletal walls where the birds roost, wheel, and call.
Then compare this melancholy adventure to your experience of a modern church building. The vast seating space is bright with electric light. Huge speakers hang from the beams so everyone can hear. The pews are padded. There is carpet on the floor. The toilets work. There is a “cry room” and a “bride’s room.” Up front you see the microphones and chairs for the choir along with the electronic keyboard and a lonely-looking drum set. This is not a temple. It is an auditorium with some religious decorations.
It was designed by an architect who, if he knew anything about the history of church architecture, decided such styles were the archaic leftovers from a dark age. Adept with the design of public buildings for a bland age, he produced a utilitarian structure. Instead of a dwelling place for the divine—he built a preaching hall with a table up front because these folks were Catholic. If the next cookie-cutter auditorium church were to be Presbyterian, there would be a pulpit there instead.
The motto of the modern architect is “Form follows function,” but the Catholic Churches they designed do not function as Catholic churches. Did they do any research on the function of a Catholic liturgy? There are times when a procession is called for, but there are never suitable aisles through which to process. Catholic theology and liturgy is, by nature, hierarchical. Why then does the modern, fan-shaped church strive for a false egalitarianism—everyone seated on the same level in a big circle?
Most of all is the absence of beauty. Beauty is the language of worship, but although some of them may have a few beautiful things in them, they are not beautiful buildings. If beauty is the language of worship, then perhaps the most crucial function of a Catholic Church is not whether the toilets and air conditioning work, but whether it is beautiful.
How does one determine whether a church is beautiful? Simply ask the ordinary person who enters the church. Do they stop and gaze upward in silence? Are they hushed in the presence of some beauty they have never encountered before? Do they whisper, “It’s beautiful!” If so, the church is beautiful. If not, it is a damnably dull auditorium.
Worst of all, there are no dark corners. In fact, in a round church there are no corners at all. Everything is flat and bright and cheerful and equal and light, but how can the worshipper approach the Almighty without dark corners? Dark corners? There be dragons . . . It is in the dark corners that the sin that needs to be rooted out is huddled in hiding. It is in the dark corners where we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It is in the dark corners that we enter the stillness and the darkness of God—where the divine light still glimmers like a lone votive candle guttering before a towering image of sanctity.
So you may keep your big, concrete pancake churches illuminated with artificial light. You may also keep your big flat theology illuminated with artificial optimism. You may keep your bland homilies composed of politically correct slogans and your banal music inspired by Broadway.
Give me instead the dark corners where I may sit in silence. Give me the darkened crypt where I may contemplate the skull of a saint. Give me the darkened chapel where ancient monks recited their daily prayers. Give me the dark corner of a crumbling cloister, the dark corner of a library of leather bound books. Give me the dark corner shrine of a forgotten saint or the quiet corner of a Lady Chapel where the Blessed Mother cradles her child.
Give me those dark corners so that I may find the light.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, Letters on Liturgy, is published by Angelico Press.
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The featured image is a photograph of the inside of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, Spain and is courtesy of Unsplash user Derek Story (who does not necessarily agree with the views of this essay, nor those of The Imaginative Conservative). The photo has been slightly modified for color.