Our Italian sojourn was filled with visits to churches, famous and otherwise. I was struck by the ornate beauty of the great cathedrals and basilicas, but as we visited one after another it became clear that few of them were built to the glory of God. They were, like Herod’s temple, built to the glory of wealthy patrons and powerful Church bureaucrats. That’s clear from the family crests, statues, architectural adornments, and commemorative chapels that dominate the buildings and give them their place in history as objects of great art. Yet, they endure to the glory of God. How can that be?
What consecrates a space to the glory of God is not a bishop’s blessing amidst clouds of incense, but the intentionality of those who gather to worship and offer prayer. The ritual of consecration does not make a place holy, but it is a powerful symbol of the holy. It does set aside a space as sacred space, a fundamentally different kind of space from the spaces that surround it. In my imagination I could see the pomp of medieval ritual in the company of patrons and princes. It must have been a magnificent show of self importance, with God’s name thrown in now and then to lend the appearance of legitimacy.
Having said that, it did what it was supposed to do. It set aside space that would be filled with God’s presence through the intentional prayers of the people through centuries of time. It was, and is, these hundreds of years of the faithful offering their prayers of supplication and thanksgiving that have imbued these buildings with a holiness that can be palpable if you let it, and which exists in, but entirely separate from, the buildings themselves.
As for me, my favorite church, one that spoke deeply to my soul, was S. Stefano in Assisi. It’s a crude stone church tucked into a piazza no larger than a patio and well off the tourist track. No architect designed it, no engineer built it. Centuries ago the local workers cobbled it together by themselves as a place for them to worship. No wealthy patron endowed it, no famous artist decorated it. Fifty or sixty would fill it to capacity. It reeked of all that is sacred.