Saturday, June 2, 2012

I Love Modern Churches

I do! Despite being in general more reactionary than a game of Buckaroo and more backwards-looking than Lot's wife, I tend to much prefer churches that were built in the twentieth century, and preferably in the later decades of that century.

Today, feeling like getting out and about on a sunny Saturday, I hopped on a 16 bus and disembarked at Ballinteer. After wandering around a little, I came upon the Church of St. John the Evangelist, a rather squat structure, and was delighted to find that it was open.

(A big difference between the South side of Dublin and the North side, this. Most of the churches in working classes areas are unfortunately closed outside Mass times. I think this says something pretty damning about our society and our loss of any sense of the sacred.)

I was even more delighted when I made my way inside. St. John the Evangelist is exactly my idea of a church. First of all, it has a low, broad, gently-sloping roof. I've never really understood why a spire is taken to be the ideal shape for a church roof. A spire gets narrower as it ascends. Is this a fitting image of Heaven? Is the abode of the angels a pin-point? Sure, a spire looks very evocative when seen a long way off, especially through mist. But standing beneath it and looking up is a different story. Then a spire seems to me to be giving, not only the wrong message, but the opposite message to that which a church's structure should convey.

I loved the airiness, spaciousness, and-- most of all-- the bright colours of this church. I don't see why the overwhelming impression of a church should be greyness. The Bible is a text rich with sensuous imagery such as wine, green pastures, wedding feasts, rivers of crystal, golden bowls, and so on. It seems to me that a church should be a blaze of strong colour, stopping short just of gaudiness.

And I even liked the modernist art. The image of the crucified Christ behind the altar is a stylized sculpture of what a hostile critic might term a matchstick man, almost a skeletal figure, with a circle of rather cartoonish stained glass around him. Is this disrespectful of such a sacred subject? Perhaps a church should be no place for artistic experimentation?

I can understand those objections. But really, when I look at modernist church art, I feel more of a sense of solemnity and mystery than I do when I look at more traditional church art. The stylized figure on the cross, in this instance, suggests the phrase Ecce homo to me. Behold the man! This is the mystery of anthropos in its purest, starkest form. Its very crudity makes it more raw, more striking than the bland, plaster Jesus that hangs above so many altars.

Before postmodern art descended into the banality of Andy Warhol and his successors, much twentieth century visual art had attained a plateau of genuine mysticism. It does not seem ridiculous to me that Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall ascribed religious significance to their bold, apocalyptic, transcendental canvases. Of course, there is such a thing as going too far-- dipping into ugliness and incongruity and grotesquerie. But, as long as that is avoided, I think the sense of displacement and even the sense of awe that modern sacred art conveys can truly be an aid to prayer and devotion.

Funnily enough, the sculptures in this church-- and the new Calvary scene just outside-- are almost Soviet in their naturalism and directness. This, too, I found very bold, and fruitfully unsettling.

All in all, in my short visit to the St. John the Evangelist Church of Balinteer, I truly felt touched by a sense of the sacred. I look forward to visiting it again, and perhaps attending Mass there some time.

If nothing else, modern churches decorated in a contemporary aesthetic proclaim that our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. And, for all my fogeyish love of tradition and heritage and continuity, that is a message that I believe it is essential to convey.

I would be grateful to any of my readers who could point me to other modern churches in Dublin, which are open outside Mass times.

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