Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Defence of Modern Churches by Thomas Merton

I can't claim to be a fan of Thomas Merton. I started reading The Seven Storey Mountain once, but found it boring and put it down (admittedly after only a few pages).

But I did like this quotation that I came across today, in The Hodder Book of Christian Quotations:

One of the big problems for an architect in our time is that for a hundred and fifty years men have been building churches as if a church could not belong to our time. A church has to look as if it were left over from some other time. I think that such an assumption is based on an implicit confession of atheism-- as if God did not belong to all ages and as if religion were really only a pleasant, necessary social formality, preserved from past time in order to give our society an air of respectability. [Italics mine.]

I can't help inclining towards, if not perhaps entirely agreeing with, this viewpoint.

I anticipate the reply of those who hold anti-modernist tastes in church architecture; that great architecture is timeless and that, when we step into a church, we should find ourselves confronted with the abiding and the permanent, as a kind of foreshadowing of the eternal.

As somebody who is very much a literary and artistic anti-modernist, I would have great sympathy with this response. I don't think there's anything antiquated about (for instance) iambic pentameter, the sonnet, or classical narrative. I don't think we need a radically new idiom in painting, writing and sculpture to express the times we live in. My favoured Bible translation is the Douai-Rheims, the Catholic equivalent of the King James.

And yet, I do personally find that modern church architecture seems more alive to me than more traditional church architecture. I certainly would not like to see old churches bulldozed, or neglected, or paid anything less than the honour they deserve. But give me a humble, even ugly church that was built in the last forty or thirty or ten years. That seems to me more of an expression of a living faith than a great cathedral.

I took the above picture the last time I was in Dublin Airport; it shows Our Lady of Heaven church, of which I am especially fond.


  1. Er hello?? you need your head examining.
    Most of the churches constructed of concrete in the 70s and 80s are falling down and shabby.
    The appalling lack of reverence and respect for the Blessed Sacrament in most modern churches is a sinful reflection of cheap and shoddy workmanship employed and approved by modern Irish Bishops and their "Liturgical advisors"!!
    Churches should be BEAUTIFUL and ORNATE to reflect the beauty of God and popular devotion.
    Gothic please anyday than BARNS. You need to visit Germany and Austria etc to see how what a church should look like. GOTHIC anyday than concrete slab.

  2. I probably do need my head examined.

    I was in an Austrian church just last month. I thought it was very beautiful....all the same I feel closer to God in a humble and plain church. Sometimes I think the beauty can actually get in the way of the devotion because it becomes the focus, rather than the vehicle.

    All the same you are probably right.

  3. I'm with you, Maolseachlainn. i draw inspiration from churches old and new. I have a leaning towards the old, maybe because they are our valiant attempts to reproduce or imitate the celestial glories. Petrified cosmology, as CSL put it. They fall short of course but there is so much to be said for the effort. And I like the fact that the beauty and sumptuousness is at the disposal of one and all (and not the private preserve of the very rich, as these things otherwise would be).

    But I like plain modern churches, partly I think because they might be closer to what the places of worship of the church in earliest times would have been like. I find that salutary.

  4. "And I like the fact that the beauty and sumptuousness is at the disposal of one and all (and not the private preserve of the very rich, as these things otherwise would be)."

    Amen! Why don't people see that?

    I'm not really knocking old churches, ecclesial beauty, or even claiming that modern churches are better. I'm really just defending the existence and validity of more modernistic churches. It's an irksome feeling to know that, in a very beautiful old church, a good proportion of the people who enter it just want to look at the altarpieces. I like churches that nobody would enter except to worship God.

  5. Good point. Converse might that be that people who wander into older, more ornate, more distinctively ecclesiastical church buildings just to look might look, be taken aback and begin wondering...

  6. In the end, it's a dichotomy we should embrace, not unpick so that we can choose the better side.

    As Chesterton wrote of the ordinary man and mystic, if he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.

  7. Your posts on church architecture have made me think a good deal. On the one hand, I've never liked modern buildings of any kind. I have a knee-jerk reaction to sigh and to whine to anyone within hearing distance that we live in an age that is capable of accomplishing the sumptuous and beautiful with great ease, compared to the resources of our ancestors, and yet we rarely rise to such heights. But ever since you put up that bit a year ago June (I looked it up, I didn't actually remember when it was, or exactly what you said, though the flavour of it has been knocking about my memory for a year) about how "the sense of displacement and even the sense of awe that modern sacred art conveys can truly be an aid to prayer and devotion," I've been careful to think twice about condemning the design of a church simply because it didn't please me at a glance. At the very least, the idea gives the like of me, who, contrary to the fallen nature of the world, want a glimpse of (my unique notion of) blatant beauty in all things, a reminder that the center of the church is not me or my aesthetic preferences at all, but the King, there on the altar. As you said above, the beauty can become the focus; if it does, that is much to the detriment of the beholder. (But I am, further, delighted by your claim that there *is* beauty in the simplicity of the last few decades; I am, as a result, trying to be a good deal more appreciative of and less critical of modern churches. Thanks.) -Molly

  8. I can accept the argument that there is a virtue in simplicity and even that beauty may sometimes distract from the worship proper to God but equally I feel that the brute ugliness of much modern church architecture can be equally unhelpful and distracting from worship. I hold with the tradition of including beauty as one of the transcendental qualities of being. A wall constructed of stone is both simple and beautiful - a concrete slab is certainly the former but fails on the latter account.

    The other aspect to consider is that decoration can serve as material to aid meditation. While in Maynooth as a seminarian I was, naturally, accustomed to one of the most ornate churches in Ireland - the College Chapel. I used to find some of the panels in the room to be an excellent source of material to aid contemplation.

  9. Thank you, Molly. I actually agree with you about modern architecture. I don't like modern architecture at all. With the exception of some modern church architecture. The concrete bunkers and "glass cages" that have become so ubiquitous seem very different to me to the kind of churches that have been built in the last fifty years (or whatever).

    Alan, I think there is a difference between simplicity and monotony. I don't think I've been in any modern church that is Bauhaus or brutalist in its bareness. There may be some but I am sure they are the exception. And surely many more traditional churches fail in the other direction and are too cluttered and fussy. I have to say I find the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin to be hideous, as I find the Carmelite church in Clarendon Street, Dublin. Statues in these churches tend to be very representational and (would-be) realistic and I always find a sense of bathos in this-- it would have to be done really, really well not to give the sense of being an oversize action figure and losing any sense of the sacred and transcendental. I think the non-realistic figures in Eastern Orthodox iconography, Byzantine art etc. are much more evocative than the attempts at photographic realism in Renaissance art.

    Which is straying from the point somewhat. I hate to say, "It's all a matter of taste", which always seems to me the death-knell of all discussion and the slogan of spoil-sports. So I would only say that I do accept ornate, traditional churches can be an aid to meditation and devotion but I do wish people would be slower to assume more modern churches can't be.

  10. Well, Maolsheachlann, it's probably less a matter of taste and more a matter of balance and moderation (one might even add diversity). For brutal bareness see the church in Athenry. I'm not a fan of the Pro-Cathedral but I do like the Carmelite Church you mention, although more for the sense of space then the decoration (the alter piece is a touch overdone). One of the faults that I'd have with some modern churches is that they don't have a sense of space. I am a huge fan of Eastern Orthodox iconography and in agreement with you on that score.