Every awe-inspiring element of Hagia Sophia is a testament to our Christian faith that should make us feel proud of our cultural heritage, even in today’s society where our churches are defaced and adapted for secular use. The church is undeniably Christian in spirit and character, no matter how many times its use is altered.

As 2020 draws to a close, The Imaginative Conservative looks back at some of its finest essays of the year. —Editors

One of the unique experiences while living in the U.K., namely in the quaint, medieval town of St. Andrews, Scotland, was the unusual experience with churches. Once a beautiful, monastic town that was the destination of many pilgrimages, St. Andrews became a vital place for the Protestant Reformation and is now one of the many secularized towns of the Scepter’d Isle where the contemporary reality is disparate from the physical—by which I mean aesthetic—appearance. To be sure, it is still beautiful. These little towns retain their charm, and, more importantly, their sanctity, for those who will embrace it. It is a coastal town with an ancient air that no amount of rowdy college students can quite conceal, but only if you wake up early enough to catch the town in solitude. Ruins surround the campus, sometimes literal ruins such as the St. Andrews Cathedral, but also renovated, functionalized ruins, such as my research library.

My preferred study space was nothing less than a place named Martyrs Kirk (the name still strikes me as ironic, for it would seem that a place that was once meant to commemorate martyrs became a martyr itself for an old way of life). Once a church that belonged to the Church of Scotland, it was adapted as a library for graduate study. When it opened, the designers expressed their desire for the library to convey the sense of it being a—wait for it—“sanctuary” to its visitors. And perhaps it is, for Martyrs Kirk is visibly (and psychologically) preferable as a study space to the brutalist-designed main library that resembled a concrete shoe box. The thing that strikes me as silly is the claim that one can manipulate an already sacred space to retain those peaceful elements all while dismantling all of its religious—more specifically, Christian—connotation. The elements that make Martyr’s Kirk a “sanctuary,” such as its grey stones, large and colorful windows, tall ceilings, accumulated history, and air of peace, are not the accidental product of just any building: They are the inherent elements of our churches.

All this reminiscing has a point beyond personal reflection, which is to say that even when we try to ignore or reject the beautiful, historical, and, yes, even holy elements of our churches, we still cannot bury them. We can change the use of a sacred space, such as turning a church into a library or into a rock-climbing gym in Scotland (such as what I experienced) or converting a church into a mosque in Turkey, but what that church was from the start cannot be erased due one simple fact about our ancient churches: The buildings that we erect, our architecture, is an aesthetic and philosophical extension of our faith; the sanctity, beauty, and duration of our art is the product of our Christian religion—it is our tradition.

Which brings us to Hagia Sophia. Erdogan might have repurposed the church as a mosque, but we must be careful when we read allegedly-reputable sources that use the word “restore” to explain the Turkish president’s actions.[1] Hagia Sophia is a cathedral, even if it has been desacralized over the years and used as a museum or mosque. Whatever the building may mean to its Muslim worshippers, who consider it important ever since Mehmed the Conqueror turned it into a mosque in 1453, Hagia Sophia’s significance to the Christian faith is what physically and palpably remains for the visitor to witness: Its Byzantine design is intentionally ecclesiastical, its floor plan modelled after the Greek cross, and its internal mosaics feature images of the Virgin Mary, Christ, Leo VI worshipping Christ, the Archangel Michael, and Constantine IX, to name a few. Consider the following excerpt from an ekphrasis by Paul the Silentiary, written in 563, that describes Hagia Sophia. Paul the Silentiary’s description of the church is superb, and his poem was recited soon after the church’s consecration in 562:

For as much of the great church by the eastern arch as was set apart for the bloodless sacrifice is bounded not with ivory or cut stone or bronze, but it is all fenced under a cover of silver. Not only upon the walls which separate the priest from the choir of singers has he set plates of naked silver, but the columns, too, six sets of twain in number, he has completely covered with the silver metal, and they send forth their rays far and wide. Upon them the tool wielded by a skilled hand has artfully hollowed out discs more pointed than a circle, within which it has engraved the figure of the immaculate God who, without seed, clothed himself in human form. Elsewhere it has carved the host of winged angels bowing down their necks, for they are unable to gaze upon the glory of God, though hidden under a veil of human form—He is still God, even if He has put on the flesh that removes sin. Elsewhere the sharp steel has fashioned those former heralds of God by whose words, before God had taken on flesh, the divine tidings of Christ’s coming spread abroad. Nor has the artist forgotten the images of those who abandoned the mean labors of their life—the fishing basket and the net and those evil cares in order to follow the command of the heavenly King, fishing even for men and, instead of casting for fish, spread out the nets of eternal life. And elsewhere art has depicted the Mother of Christ, the vessel of eternal life, whose holy womb did nourish its own Maker. And on the middle panels of the sacred screen which form a barrier round the sanctified priests, the carver’s tool has incised one symbol that means many words, for it combines the names of the Empress and Emperor: It is like a shield with a boss in whose middle part has been carved the sign of the cross. And the screen gives access to the priests through three doors. For on each side the workman’s hand has made a small door.[2]

The church’s Christian mosaics may soon be covered (a loss for anyone who values the life of a nation and a religion’s cultural patrimony), and its new religious use may be considered a triumph over the Christian tradition to many individuals, but the silver lining comes from knowing that people are choosing to worship in a house that was erected by Christians to glorify Jesus Christ. Every element of Hagia Sophia that leaves visitors (secular or religious) in awe is a testament to our faith that should make us feel proud of our cultural heritage, even in today’s society where our churches are increasingly defaced and adapted for secular use. The church is undeniably Christian in spirit and character, no matter how many times its use is altered. Unlike contemporary art and architecture, ancient churches are not solely defined by their function. Although, surely, they serve a purpose that ought to be the place where Christians celebrate mass, a church remains a church for the believer because it has been sanctified by the collective prayer of generations.

Hagia Sophia has inspired many pilgrims, including the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote a famous poem after the church. His poem, even though inspired by the physical beauty of this building, becomes a discussion on faith and God. The way in which his poem weaves physical elements of the church and its place in time with the more important spiritual contemplation that this historic place represents is Hagia Sophia’s—and every ancient church’s—badge of honor: Our architectural heritage and places of worship, even if serving a different function today, help us and inspire us to contemplate God. So long as the building stands, she will continue to do this. It may be an abstract concept to consider: How can a desacralized place be sacred, much less convey sacredness? Merton responds in the very first stanza of his beautiful poem, “I. Dawn: The Hour of Lauds”:

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden whole-ness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in word-less gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.[3]

Merton’s poem, although he never intended it so, strikes me as a eulogy for the “visible things” that remain of our Christian cultural heritage (namely our churches) that are increasingly desacralized, sometimes even by our own doing, but that retain their sacredness. And yet, while Merton’s verses demonstrate the integrity of our buildings by exalting their conveyance of faith over their material existence, his poem touches on an important point on the topic of Holy Wisdom, “Hagia Sophia.” What is “holy” wisdom? The full poem engages in this conversation, but there is a passage worth pointing out: Merton personifies wisdom, Sophia, as a child who is “playing in the world.” While playing, however, she is a paradox, for she is “obvious and unseen.” I will digress from Merton’s intention for his poem to make a point regarding the connection between this wisdom and our faith, for his description applies equally to our churches: They are obvious (beautiful, historical, well-known, repeatedly visited), but they are unseen.

We allow our churches, in Europe (St. Peter’s being no exception) and many other parts of the world, to be treated as museums for tourists to meander into, to take pictures, and to disregard as a sacred space. For our earthly and childly wisdom to embrace Holy Wisdom, the Divine Logos who was incarnate as Jesus Christ, this child needs to grow; she needs a home. Many of our ancient churches are hardly seen for what they are anymore, as homes of worship. Erdogan’s recent act should not frustrate us nearly as much as our own permissiveness. After all, if we cannot demand respect for our churches, even when they are active houses of worship, then how can we possibly defend the turning of ancient churches into museums, and perhaps later into mosques? Of course, it remains true that a church remains a church long after her function is shifted, but only so long as her children continue to see her, and treat her, as such.

This essay first appeared here in August 2020.

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[1] See Carlotta Gall, “Erdogan Fulfills Cherished Goal, Opening Hagia Sophia to Prayers,” The New York Times (July 2020).

[2] The full text may be found here.

[3] The full poem, Hagia Sophia, by Thomas Merton may be found here.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.

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