Reflections on Domesticity

Last week I posted this video from EWTN of Fr. Robert Barron lamenting every aspect of modern church architecture. While the majority of what he says is of little value to a meaningful discussion, his insistence on the destructive presence of domesticity in church architecture is worth considering in some depth. The dreaded IKEA church?

Tautra Mariakloster in Norway, Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance !!Light by mortsan, on Flickr

Fr. Barron was unequivocal in his condemnation of any appearance of domesticity using the term "domestic" as a synonym for "evil" without any background. These sorts of talismans exist in the popular debates on church architecture, and we would do well to define them clearly. He was clearly responding to the interest of the 20th century liturgical movement in the domus ecclesia of the early church. It cannot be denied that many churches used this concept to justify excessively casual churches as part of the type of pastoral activism which confuses the relationship between the physical and spiritual aspects of liturgical participation. But to deny the entire concept of domesticity is to throw the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

The baby in this case is the complementary concept of the domus Dei. The difficulty is that while domus Dei and domus ecclesia are not conceptually mutually exclusive, the formal languages we have at our disposal to physically express them are. This is nearly coincident with the paradox presented to us in the phrase "noble simplicity." But every church building must try to embody both and strike a balance between them.

Churches are human habitations, which are not used to live in, however, but to express dwelling with God. But in order to better fulfil their liturgical function, which consists only in their being a sign, they must be exemplary types of the human dwelling. (Dom Hans van der Laan, The Play of Forms IV.9.)

Another balance necessary in the church is that between the need for familiarity and the need for the transcendent. Common usage now assigns the former as a "pastoral" concern, but it is more appropriate to consider both together, and their co-existence, as the pastoral concern of church design. This balance too can be seen in the domus ecclesia and domus Dei synthesis, but it has the particular significance of pertaining to the psychological experience of an edifice as well as raising the architectural problem of typologies. The concept of churches as pure and "exemplary types of the human dwelling" satisfies the need for this balance, but it can be overridden by a misapplication of related typologies.

The domus is simply the embodiment of human existence or dwelling. The problem to which Fr. Barron reacted was not the expression of the domus, but the application of specific related typologies which have cultural significance outside the liturgy. It is not a church looking like a "house" that is the problem, but a church looking and feeling like a "mansion" or "loft." The same error occurs when a church looks or feels too much like a "theater" or "courthouse." And we can see the objection to béton brut churches not as a stylistic objection to brutalism or a material objection to concrete but rather a typological or associative objection to "bunkers" and other engineering works. People tend to map their typological or ontological objections onto the most immediate experiential surface of the building, whether that is the material, as in this case, or the ornamentation.

For the sake of clarity, it should be mentioned that domus can also denote the typology of the Roman house organized around a central peristyle atrium which formed the basis for the early Christian churches. Archeological and anthropological research into the early church brought this form back into use during the 20th century and it was seen as a direct sign of the communal domus ecclesia nature of the church. However, the form itself does not preclude the domus Dei; in fact, the central atrium space is itself an exception from the type of domestic church objected to by Fr. Barron and allows for further development of the light conditions typically associated with the more transcendent domus Dei.

Now, if only the church had someone who understood the proper relation between the physical and spiritual in the realms of cultural liturgical forms as they apply to architecture. As it happens, we are blessed to have Dom Hans van der Laan, a 20th century Benedictine monk and architect who also happened to create what is probably the most complete individual theory of architecture and based it on his understanding of the liturgy.

That van der Laan was a monk adds another aspect to the discussion of domesticity in church architecture. The "return to the good work" of his ordinary life, and therefore his domestic experience, was still integrated into the liturgy.

The following comes from the chapter on "Liturgical Forms" from van der Laan's The Play of Forms: Nature, Culture & Liturgy, a must-have for anyone interested in the topics of these pages. The cohesiveness of van der Laan's writing and his particular vocabulary make it difficult to excerpt, so please excuse the length of this quote.

As long as we turn to God only as individuals, our experience of things around us, the products of nature as well as of culture, provide us with an adequate image of our relation to God. ... It is as it were the archetypal form of liturgy: through our interaction with things, we learn to communicate with God. (IV.3) But as soon as human beings turn collectively to God specific external forms become necessary, just as when people exchange ideas among themselves. ... We derive from our interaction with things the signs or monumental forms we need in order to communicate with each other. We must derive the signs we need for communication with God--liturgical signs--from our interaction both with things and with our fellow humans. (IV.5)

In the limited cycle of human culture, forms or signs are based on the expressive forms of the things we need to sustain our body, such as houses, clothes and utensils for our food. These signs are reduced to distillations of the expressive forms because, as signs, the function of these forms is purely fictitious. ... The abbreviation is no longer applied to each form in itself, as with the signs used by human culture, but to the liturgical forms in their entirety. The liturgy as a whole is a sign. That is why Dom Guéranger speaks of the *entirety* of external forms needed to give expression to the worship of God. (IV.7)

We discover in liturgy the entirety of words, gestures and objects that govern our daily life, but reduced to a few typical words, typical actions and typical objects. Houses, clothing and utensils, the paintings and books of ordinary life are represented by a single *aula*, a great hall that manifests the basic form of the human dwelling in its purity; by a few vestments, but such as bring light to the archetypal form of human clothing; by the basic types of utensils used at an ordinary meal, a dish for food and a cup for drink; by a few effigies of Christ and Mary; and by the book of all books, the Holy Scripture. (IV.8)

So ordinary things become signs, but they retain their normal appearance. They are still real houses, real garments and real utensils. The actions and movements employed in liturgy are normal ones, and the ordinary monumental forms of communication are used: language, gesture and symbol. But all of these take on a wholly new significance, because they now serve for communication with God. (IV.8)

Thus liturgical forms are essentially no different from cultural forms. Churches are human habitations, which are not used to live in, however, but to express dwelling with God. But in order to better fulfil their liturgical function, which consists only in their being a sign, they must be exemplary types of the human dwelling. ... The external forms of liturgy have thus a quite different value from that which the same things have in culture. Even the signs, which serve in culture for mutual communication between individuals, now serve purely for a shared communication with God. They thus take on an entirely new significance. (IV.9)

The way to guarantee this new liturgical value of both ordinary things and signs is to create a hiatus, as it were, in the two fundamental conditions for our material existence: space and time. Within this interval things have their liturgical significance. By appointment and institution, pieces of space and time are set apart, within which things and signs hold their liturgical value. ... All peoples have always had, therefore, their holy places and festivals, for without sacred places and times communal worship is impossible. It is the only way to distinguish the forms of the things, actions and words of the liturgy from those of normal culture, and to ensure their liturgical significance. (IV.10)

The requirement for, and historical fact of, this hiatus is what demands that the church cannot be a mere house in the way we understand ordinary houses to be houses. And the traditional formal language of the domus Dei is one of the most profound means we have at our disposal to establish a spatial hiatus. By connecting the present to a historical continuity, traditional forms simultaneously sustain a temporal hiatus. But traditional formal language in a cultural monument does not suffice to make a church; it must also be an "exemplary type of human dwelling" and "express dwelling with God."