Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Our Town" as the Heavenly Jerusalem

Stage Manager: … We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars—everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always letting go of that fact.
(Our Town by Thorton Wilder)

The Heavenly Jerusalem, by Gustave Doré

 In the 1939 play "Our Town", Thorton Wilder makes the subtle point that our immanent, earthly and material existence is actually an adumbration or a participation in a transcendental and spiritual reality. In Act One George and his sister Rebecca have an exchange that foreshadows the direction of the story:
Rebecca: I never told you about the letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said. “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farms, Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.

George: What’s funny about that?

Rebecca: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God, —that’s what it said on the envelope.”
(Our Town by Thorton Wilder)

Notice these first three things: Jane CrofutThe Crofut FarmsGrover’s Corners: a person, a residence, and a town. These, and the rest of the hierarchy, are all part of the Mind of God. But these first three things --a person, a dwelling, a city --are also the three main Scriptural archetypes used to explain the nature of the Church, the Ecclesia, and the things of God. The Christian mental habit has always been to see things sacramentally, that it is through the material order that we understand and participate in the Mind of God, and to build systems of correspondences such as analogies, metaphors and anagogic presentations between the physical and spiritual realities :
He who has seen me has seen the Father!

I am the vine and you are the branches.

You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.

  Amen I say to you, whatsoever you did to the least of these, you did it to me.
As early as the second century, Melito of Sardis would draw the spiritual analogy between the earthly dwelling and the the heavenly dwelling, the city and the heavenly city:

the temple below was precious,
 but it is worthless now because of the Christ above.
The Jerusalem below was precious,
 but it is worthless now because of the Jerusalem above.
With this in mind we can understand the idea behind the Catholic Church's General Instruction which tell us that church buildings should aspire to be "truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities." What this means is that parish communities and church architects should always be seeking to some how express the reality of the Ecclesia in their projects, or that we are always striving to build "the heavenly Jerusalem" in our home town.   The parish, like the Church Universal, is a true society of persons ordered for the common purpose of human flourishing. The parallel to the 'city' is therefore a natural one, and in previous ages the church often took on a very civic and urban character.

The City of God in the Early Church

In the early age of Catholic architecture, the church has modeled on a sort of small city, as is seen in the reconstructed images of the original St. Peter basilica at the Vatican, taken down in the early 16th century due to its decrepit and unsafe state, and replace eventually with what we see now.
Old Saint Peter's at the Vatican
The church was approached through the city gates, and the citizens entered first into a city plaza, around which the other buildings are arrayed. In the center was a fountain, a place for refreshment, washing, and community life.  Around the town square were the various buildings for administration, ministry, residences for clergy and workers, and of course the basilica itself.  The basilica was a sort of town unto itself, with the large nave for the laity, the transepts for the clergy and minor orders, the apse for the sanctuary, and an assemblage of smaller structures for shrines, tombs, baptistery, side chapels, and the like. 

The City of God in the Middle Ages

This notion of the church building as an image of the "the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God"(Rev 21:10) was perhaps nowhere better expressed than in the Gothic age. The raison d'ĂȘtre of the Gothic church was that we were no to think of this as a building of stone --heavy, dense, solid, earthbound --but as a building of light --dematerialized, infused with radiance, transcending the material constraints to show us a foretaste of that celestial city that "gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal" (Rev 21:11). This was a building, indeed a city, that "had no need of sun or moon to shine on it for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb." (Rev 21:23).

The Royal Basilica of Saint-Denis, Paris, France.  Photo (c) Steven J Schloeder (all rights reserved)
And like a city, it was arranged about clear paths of circulation like roads -- the central aisle leading from the main doors through the vestibule and down the nave to the sanctuary; the side aisle leading past tombs and chantry chapels; the ambulatory (literally, "a place of walking") that carried the hordes of pilgrims past the shrines and places of devotion. 

Ambulatory, Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo (c) Steven J Schloeder (all rights reserved)
And like a city, the building is made up of smaller "houses" -- shrines, altars, chantry chapels, the baptistry, the choir screen,  even the buttresses take on the shape of little aedicules to house images of the saints and angels. The building could be likened to the city since it was built according to the same rationale, and more importantly sought to express the Heavenly Jerusalem as a sacred interruption in the medieval city. 
Exterior Buttresses, Reims Cathedral, France.  Photo (c) Steven J Schloeder (all rights reserved)
This is why it is appropriate to insist that whenever we build a church, a chapel, or a cathedral, we are always seeking to build "the heavenly Jerusalem" here in our home town.  The Church universal is always and everywhere expressed in the local Church, and the centering of our churches on the Eucharist is always participating in those three great notions that Thorton Wilder speaks of: a person (Christ), a residence (The Temple of the Holy Spirit), and a town (the Celestial City). 

The City of God in our age

In approaching a new church project we should be striving to manifest these ideas, and to somehow seek to express that the church is not merely a "skin’ for a liturgical action" (as Environment and Art in Catholic Worship once lumpenly and incorrectly informed a generation of architects), but that the church is indeed a sacred interruption in the urban fabric, a presentation of the whole Ecclesia in the local community. It was this vision that inspired the development and planning for the new Catholic parish of Our Lady of Grace in Maricopa, Arizona. The parish acquired about 35 acres (14 hectare), of which about 5 acres were needed for the new 500-seat church (with eventual expansion to 1500 seats), and another 5 acres for a future K-8 parish school. After taking out the necessary roads, drainage and retention areas, and open space requirements, this left about 16 acres for developable land. 

We worked closely with the City of Maricopa Planning and Zoning and the City Council to present and successfully implement a Planned Area Development zoning overlay for the entire parcel, which will allow for an intensive mixed use project incorporating both single-family and multi-family housing, elderly care facilities, civic oriented projects, and mid-rise commercial retail and office, along with opportunities for condo housing and hotels.  In short, the goal was to create a pedestrian friendly, sustainable, and walkable neighborhood on the scale of a village, where folks could live, work, go to school and church, shop, socialize, and play all within easy access.  

Aerial View of Our Lady of Grace PAD, (c) Liturgical Environs PC
We incorporated the best practices of New Urbanism, Form Based Codes, and Smart Growth (a tough problem since we were bound to work within the structure of the existing 1950s era planning and zoning codes) to create a place that is ordered to people living in social relationships with each other. Part of the strategy has been to dedicate significant and meaningful social places --the church plaza, a town square, a green belt for recreation, and smaller village greens --and thereby to socialize the land use for the greater community while providing individual homeowners smaller but adequate private outdoor spaces for each (backyards, roof decks, balconies, private gardens).

Our Lady of Grace - Phase One, (c) Liturgical Environs PC
The centerpiece of the project is the first phase 500 seat church, with an adjacent adminstration building and social hall.  Eventually the site is planned for an expansion of an additional 1000 seats, a larger social hall and educational center, rectory, and store front accommodations for parish oriented social services such as a pro-life center, Catholic bookshop, food bank, and thrift store.

The Church Plaza at Our Lady of Grace, (c) Liturgical Environs PC

Perspective view from South East. (c) Liturgical Environs PC
Interior Perspective, Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, (c) Liturgical Environs PC
The church and school will be the "anchors" for the development, and the land will be placed in a non-profit Community Land Trust, to work with development partners and private homeowners on a long-term land-lease basis for housing, apartment buildings, elderly care, offices, retail, hotel, restaurants, and other facilities.  Interested parties are encouraged to contact either the parish of Our Lady of Grace at 520.783.8787, or the architect, Liturgical Environs PC, at 480.783.8787.