Friday, September 20, 2013


One of the great joys I have in teaching is learning from my students.  In our course on The Catholic Imagination, at University of Mary (Tempe Campus), I gave an assignment to the students for a synthesis project to analyze a church building or a specific text in respect to the course goals.

The main thesis we are exploring in this class is the way that the believer perceives God and lives the Catholic faith in the fullness of our humanity and in the fullness of the created order. It is about the way God created us to know him: body and soul, intellect and senses, memory and imagination; it is about the symbolic meaning of the natural order by which God speaks to us; and it is about the way Christ and the Church use these symbols and sacraments to lead us to the Kingdom of God.  Sweeping themes, but in so many ways central to the very core of Christianity because it comes down to one main notion that pervades all of Catholic theology: relationship.

In the first presentation of the class, on the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum of Durandus of Mende, a late medieval text on the symbols that inform the Catholic sacraments, liturgy, architecture, and art,  the student gave us a beautiful gloss on Durandus' treatment of stained glass. She suggested that from outside the church stained glass appears dull and indistinct, but when we are inside the church, the stained glass comes to life in the radiance of the sun's light. And in that illumination we find joy and meaning.

The theological implications are clear, and central to the core theme of the course: that outside the Church much of the world seems dull and grey, indistinct and only dimly intelligible. Yet from within the Church, illuminated by the light of Christ and by grace, all things take on beauty and meaning, and move our hearts and minds. 

As Abbot Suger of St-Denis wrote in the century before Durandus, "The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion." In Christ and in his Church we suddenly perceive the relationship between beauty and order through form. The whole world is illuminated for us to see ever more clearly, beginning the process of which St Paul speaks, "We see things now in a confused way, as if through a darkened mirror, but then we shall see face to face" (1 Cor 12:13).

This insight is at the heart of the Catholic sacraments: that through the material order, and only through the material, do we connect to the spiritual realm. We come to God not as mere "mind" in some rationalist fashion, nor as only "spirit" apart from the body and the material order as would the Gnostics both ancient and modern have it. Rather, it is in the fullness of our humanity, both body and soul, that we come to God. This is the way we were made, and this is the way God ordered creation: to speak of relationship. This is the incarnational principle of the Catholic faith: it answers the question of St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, why God became man.

In fact, we cannot get to God any other way but through our bodies and our senses fully cooperating with our hearts and minds and working in union with the grace of God. Only in Christ can we look upon what seems to be bread and wine and understand that it is now the Body and Blood of Christ-- simply because Our Lord declares it to be so. Only in Christ can we look upon the corpse of our beloved and have hope that he or she now lives in Christ, because of Christ's promise to bring us to eternal life. Only in Christ can we understand that to feed the poor, and to clothe the naked, and to visit the imprisoned is to do so for Christ, since in the words of Blessed John Paul II, "Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery" with every person. To do a work of mercy, to love on another, is to love Christ. We can do it no other way, and if we don't do it through love we simply do not do it.

This splendid insight about the power of light through stained glass, and how grace illumines our hearts and minds to see more clearly, was followed up in the next presentation by a student presenting the Sainte-Chapelle, the magnificent reliquary chapel built in Paris by St Louis the King to house, among other items of devotion, the Crown of Thorns.  Louis IX was an exact contemporary of Durandus, about 15 years his elder, and we ought to assume was completely informed architecturally and theologically by the same sacramental and architectural understandings that Durandus worked so diligently to catalog in his magisterial Rationale

Sainte-Chapelle is uncontested as the epitome of the Gothic rayonnant style -- where all the technology of the age:  the pointed arch, flying buttresses, the ribbed vault, and exacting mathematical proportions: allowed for massive expanses of stained glass windows. This was not a mere stylistic exercise, but rather the application of architectural skill to dematerialize the stone building, to create the effect of being in a soaring building of glass. But even more than that: the theological vision of the Gothic builders was not to create a mere building of glass, but more "the city of pure gold, that seemed like transparent glass" (Rev 21:21). It is the Heavenly Jerusalem that has, "no need for sun or moon, since the Lamb gives it light."

This heavenly Jerusalem is perhaps the more important inspiration for architects, at least from the fourth century when Eusebius commented on the new Cathedral at Tyre,
But the region above the heavens, with the models of earthly things which are there, and the so-called Jerusalem above, and the heavenly Mount of Zion, and the celestial city of the living God, in which innumerable choirs of angels and the Church of the first born, whose names are written in heaven, praise their Maker...
The celestial city is the architectural setting for the heavenly liturgy, where the angels and saints eternally worship the Trinity, "day and night they cried unceasingly, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who ever was, and is, and is still to come" (Rev 4:8).

How appropriate it was that in this presentation that the student brought to my attention a beautiful piece of contemporary sacred music, a hymn by Eric Whitacre based on a poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri, commissioned in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Tallis Scholars. The hymn interlaces a simple story of a young girl who is lifted up mystically into the heavenly liturgy with the words of the Mass as the angels sing through the radiant stained glass at Sainte Chapelle.


© 2013 Charles Anthony Silvestri

Castissima virgo                              An innocent girl
Advenit in capellam;                       Entered the chapel
Et angeli in vitro                        And the angels in the glass
Molliter cantaverunt,                      Softly sang,

"Hosanna in excelsis!"                    “Hosanna in the highest!”

Illa castissima                                  The innocent girl
Susurravit,                                        Whispered,

"Sanctus! Sanctus! Sanctus!"          “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

Lux implevit spatium,                     Light filled the chamber,
Multiformis colore;                         Many-colored light;
Et audivit vocem suam                   She heard her voice
Resonare,                                         Echo,

"Sanctus! Sanctus! Sanctus!"         “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

Molliter angeli cantaverunt,          Softly the angels sang

"Dominus Deus sabaoth,              “Lord God of Hosts,
Pleni sunt coeli et terra                  Heaven and earth are full
Gloria tua!"                                      Of your glory!”

"Hosanna in excelsis!                      “Hosannah in the highest!
Hosanna in excelsis!"                      Hosannah in the highest!”
Vox in lumine transformat,            Her voice became light,
Et lumen canit,                                 And the light sang,

"Sanctus! Sanctus! Sanctus!"          “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

Lumen canit molliter,                      The light sang softly,

"Dominus Deus sabaoth,               “Lord God of Hosts,
Pleni sunt coeli et terra                   Heaven and earth are full
Gloria tua!"                                       Of your glory!”

Castissima virgo                              An innocent girl
Advenit in capellam;                       Entered the chapel
Et angeli in vitro                              And the angels in the glass
Molliter cantaverunt.                      Softly sang.

Almost 800 years after King Louis IX, the message of the chapel still speaks to us. The building is indeed sacramental, and still has the power to move us to have some glimpse of the relationship between heaven and earth, between the order of music and poetry and architecture, between the body and the soul, between God and his creation.

The notion of relationship appears to be developing as the main theme of Pope Francis' pontificacy. I am becoming more and more convinced that within this understanding all the strange and quirky, and even troubling and bothersome, things he says, suddenly make perfect sense. For this is what the Gospel is about: Emmanuel, God with Us, sharing in our humanity that we might share in Christ's divinity.  This is what it is all about: the Incarnation, the Church, the Sacraments, the call to evangelize, the meaning of human relationships, our final destination in the Heavenly City, even the architecture of a tiny chapel in the middle of Paris where the angels eternally sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. Well put. Astute. Down to your observations of Pope Francis' pronouncements (and perhaps the unsaid "jumping-the-gun" of the secular press when they fail to read an interview through Catholic eyes ...let alone read it completely).