Buildings and Bodies

Since I don’t seem to have the time right now to sort through and edit, in order to share, my Detroit photos, I thought I’d at least stop in and post something. This is a bit of a flashback—I published it as a facebook note on May 24, 2011.

I’m not normally one to argue with a bishop (although a facebook note is hardly arguing), but the sermon we heard on Sunday for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’s building has gotten me thinking, and talking, quite a bit. That’s good—that’s what a sermon should do. And I don’t totally disagree with what the Bishop said, I just want to nuance it a bit, or maybe just deepen part of it with further reflections. At any rate, his sermon is the occasion for me writing some thoughts I’ve been having anyway here in this note.

Bishop Wendell Gibbs (Diocese of Michigan) remarked in his sermon that buildings are a curse: they require so much effort and so many resources for upkeep, and they can lock us into certain styles of worship (in the case of a church) rather than allowing flexibility and adaptation. Bishop Gibbs’ primary concern in this regard is mission, and he’s absolutely right that there is a danger both of becoming complacent inside a lovely building during worship hours rather than going out into the streets and into the world and being the Church there; and of draining our resources on the building’s upkeep so that not enough is left for growth and ministry. And that was his primary focus: the “living stones” that should not merely be contained inside stone buildings. It wasn’t a sermon about architecture.

However, when he said that “buildings are a curse,” after chuckling knowingly a bit, I instantly thought, “so are bodies!” I don’t know about you, but my body requires a lot of upkeep, especially the older I get. I have to devote a lot of time to sleeping, eating, grooming, working for a living, and so forth; I have to spend a lot of money on food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and health care—and despite all of this expenditure, my body still disappoints me constantly! It’s quite a bit bigger than I would like; it’s not terribly flexible; it burdens me with health issues from eczema to bipolar disorder. It limits me to whiteness, femaleness, a certain height, and having to be in only one place at a time. It is weighted down by gravity and worn out by use and by the elements.

And yet my body is precisely my means of being in the world. Without my body and all of its draining requirements, I can’t interact with others, enjoy tastes and smells and sights and sounds, or even know anything at all, since all of our knowledge is mediated by our senses.

Buildings, in fact, are very much like the human body. Buildings and bodies enjoy a certain connaturality. Buildings are built precisely to house human bodies and activities. Because of this, much of what we can say about buildings can also be said about our bodies, and vice-versa.

Our buildings are how we as communities exist in the world. We build grandiose civic buildings not (primarily) to display wealth and privilege but to use wealth in the service of facilitating and celebrating the civic project—our common life. We build homes as dwelling places and decorate them to celebrate family (however configured) and to situate us in a neighborhood, as well as to accommodate all the provisions we need. We build houses of worship to not only serve as a meeting place for like-minded people, but to celebrate and exemplify our common faith, our love of God, God’s love for us, and the community God has made of us.

Furthermore, houses of worship serve sacramentally as visible and tangible reminders of the “cloud of witnesses” St. Paul talks about—all the saints, known to us and unknown, who have gone before. In a church, for example, windows and fixtures have been given by members in the past (who have or had lots of money, and whose names are usually inscribed on the gifts), but these fixtures have been used and cared for by those who have gone before us as well as those currently in our midst, and we will pass them all on to others. You can touch the back or end of a pew and know that others have done the same over the years, and that many dedicated individuals—sextons, vergers, clerks of the works, Altar Guild volunteers, or whoever—have lovingly cleaned, polished, restored, and protected them. These objects witness to our bonds given in baptism, nourished in the Eucharist, and deepened by common worship and life.

They do drain our resources, but they can also serve as signs of the risen Christ in our midst, since without him, none of these things, these material objects, would have been put together and used as they have been. And his Incarnation, which comes with death attached (as our own incarnations do) and his Resurrection have hallowed all created matter so that materiality has been taken into the very Godhead. “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon with our hands concerns the Word of life,” writes St. John in his first epistle, “for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us… [NAB].” God who is beyond all space and time, who revealed Godself as the God of Israel, could not be contained in a physical dwelling; but in Jesus God ate and slept, suffered death, sloughed off dead skin and excreted waste, and was limited in every way all human beings are. This was his way of being in the world. It is the “scandal of particularity,” from which neither we nor our buildings are exempt.

Our buildings are our means of being in our communities, and they help to form us in the faith. Even—or perhaps especially—when we bruise ourselves against the walls trying to make the building fit whatever we want to do in it (as liturgies change, e.g.), our buildings also remind us of our own particularity, with all the limitations and mortality our creatureliness entails. Like us, buildings adapt to new situations with mixed success. Like us, our buildings show their years, and, if we have the spiritual senses to perceive it, they get better with age. Wear comes from use, and years of prayer deepen the sacredness the church building already had upon its dedication, just as the years that show in our bodies’ wrinkles and scars have deepened the christliness we received in our baptism.

Burden, yes. Curse, yes. Blessing—yes, yes, yes!

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