Symbolic Dissonance

As I was planning my “Introduction to Liturgy and Sacraments” syllabus earlier this semester for my undergraduates, I was somehow deluded into thinking that it made sense to talk about “liturgical art and liturgical music” in the same class session.

What was I thinking?

In the grand scope of the course, in which we’re trying to cover the history of sacraments, liturgical theology, each sacramental rite, the liturgical year, daily prayer, and, oh, by the way, “spirituality,” lumping arts and music together seemed reasonable in the bright moments of pre-semester hope.

The day arrived for the discussion—we read parts of Built of Living Stones and Sing to the Lord—and then the questions came.  I had expected the energy to center on Catholic music (I’m a musician, so I’m a little self-interested).  But, the most compelling observations—and wonders—came with respect to architecture.  Why are churches built the way they are?  Why does my church look like this?  What does the way they are built mean (if anything)?

One student wanted to know why his church had eight sides.   Another student eagerly looked up—her church had eight sides, too.  I asked them, “Why do you think it has 8 sides?”  They had suggestions:  “So people can see each other.”  “So we get that sense of community because the congregation sees each other.”  “So people can see the altar better.”  I waited for more.  Another student helpfully offered, “How about, for sound?  Aren’t the acoustics better?”

All these things may be true—but there’s still something more.  I asked them: “We just talked about the theology of Sunday.  What day of the week is Sunday?”  Lightbulbs began to blink.  Sunday is the first day…and the eighth day.  That’s why a church might have eight sides.

I don’t begrudge my students not immediately seeing this connection—some of them are quite new to thinking about liturgical theology, let alone applying it to their concrete experiences of worship.  And yet, I do wonder how typical these young people’s practice in reading the symbolic structures around them is.

In my own experience, some of the more significant post-Conciliar symbolically-driven architectural initiatives are being remodeled, or absolutely deconstructed.  Blessed Sacrament chapels are being converted into spaces to house statues.  Baptistries are converted into…spaces to house plants.  Should we be surprised that a church built with a slippery eschatological motif driving its walls be left standing, silently, misunderstood and perhaps even maligned as not befitting the dignity of the celebration of the Mass?

We don’t know how to read symbols.  This is an old and yet markedly continual issue for the Roman Catholic faithful.  Yikes, even at the National Basilica of Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Washington, DC), people are throwing money into the baptismal font!!!!

Though Catholics may be bad, this isn’t a Roman Catholic lacuna alone.  I observed the paraments adorning the worship space of a neighborhood congregation, intended for the Lenten season.  The arts and environment committee (or another helping hand—bless his or her heart) had selected a purple cloth…adorned with four lighted candles.

I don’t think we’re even ready for a “blue-ish” purple vs. “red-ish” purple conversation here.

The lack of awareness regarding theological and liturgical symbols impoverishes our understanding of salvation history, our formation in the Christian life, and our awareness that creation might continually teach us about the living light of God—which we experience in our very bodies.

How can we start “practicing” reading symbols?  What ARE the symbols we experience in worship?  How do we invite people to consider them—and to care?  I don’t have solutions right now.  But this is a project we must address—when we imagine the liturgy—or liturgical catechesis—of the future.



11 responses to “Symbolic Dissonance”

  1. Diana Macalintal Avatar

    I love this, Katherine, and it gave me a great chuckle. In my constant advocacy for a more mystagogical approach to ongoing formation, especially with younger people, I’ve found it very effective to invite people to “read” their church spaces. I developed an exercise that leads participants through a guided “reading” of their church architecture and symbols, helping them connect what they see, touch, hear, and smell to our Catholic tradition and theology, as well as to their experience and meaning of those visceral things in their daily lives. I first did this in a secular space (a local museum) with graduate pastoral ministry students, which led to a marvelous discussion and appreciation for a mystagogical lens to life. I think when we simply ask the question, “what else do you see?”–good museum docents do this–and draw them deeper into that initial look, people of faith find a rich treasure already waiting for them.

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      Agree absolutely, Diana, though it does cause problems when confronted with badly-designed churches (which are undoubtedly in the majority over the past decades).

      Reading the space when the architect has been operating out of a preconciliar model means having to try to explain why the architect didn’t do what s/he ought to have done, and unfortunately the answer to that is often sheer ignorance of postconciliar liturgical principles, or sometimes that the pastor’s own ideas were imposed to the detriment of the architect’s conception.

      We have a long way to go.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Then there are considerable number of Catholic churches built in recent decades the design of which is neither drawn from a preconciliar nor a postconciliar Catholic model, but from more generic functional worship-space models perhaps modified with some Catholic drag, as it were, and without treating the natural (unamplified) aural/acoustical dimension as an important part of the design as the visual dimension.

  2. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    I found this article intriguing since it runs counter to the impression I have always had of post conciliar thinking about art and symbols – that symbols in art and music basically hinder participation and get in the way of community, and therefore should be minimized as much as possible. I was under the impression this is why post conciliar architecture tends to be much plainer and why so many older churches were *drastically* simplified. I grew up attending round 1970s style churches (perhaps they were eight sided, but that was never pointed out), and the art was very literal – only grapes and wheat, for instance, or things like abstracted water waves for baptism. Less expressive (even completely faceless) figural art too.

    1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      The impression I’ve had is that catechists and teachers guided post-conciliar thinking about liturgy on the parish level. Not artists, architects, or musicians, except as a distinct and often sidelined minority. New churches tended to be more plain because the budget priority was building the school.

      I think Americans don’t think about art as much. I attempted to incorporate icons and other visuals in Bible Studies I’ve conducted over the years. The good news is that people are delighted and surprised to find out the meanings behind the obvious. And they get the difference between art and decoration.

      Per Jack’s example, a picture of grapes and wheat is decoration. Likewise wavy lines. As would be a reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper. Taken in isolation, decorations are okay. But they do not elevate the heart and mind like art elevates and inspires. Most Americans do not understand this. Sadly, the ones who may have some awareness think the only place to find it is in museums.

      1. Katharine E. Harmon Avatar
        Katharine E. Harmon

        Thanks for your comment–I really like this point about “most Americans” not recognizing this difference between “art” and “decoration.” I wonder if this is the result of technology–mass-producing copies of art, or manufacturing “things” to put on our shelves (emulating our favorite home and garden magazines). “Art” is expensive–but we want “deals” when we appoint our homes…or perhaps our worship spaces.

    2. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      There is art.
      And then there is the sort of garish plaster tat that many of us grew up with in Victorian churches. The distinction needs to be made. Or am I just being snobbish?

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Might not be. Might be. Depends. I’ve seen artful 19th century plaster and decorative work.

        The flip side of garish plaster is the use of materials with a resolute allergy to artful style and proportion*. There are centuries of examples of glorious brickwork churches to inspire modern design, yet the brick in churches of more recent generations often (but not always) would manifest no artfulness greater than that of a primary school, small functional office building or store front. Even Gropius at his most latter-day Spartan at least used brick of high quality, dimensions, finish and joining that one will rarely find in such situations.

        * Proportion can likewise be a problem for a number of current practitioners of historicist design. Across design camps, there appears a preferential option for materials and forms conducive to HVAC and other conduits in ways that render the results less than what they otherwise could be. As a recent contrary case in point: from what I can surmise, the handsome and multiple award-winning renovation of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross was mercifully spared an initial design concept that would have enlarged its lovely, slender, modern (for mid-19th century) cast iron piers in casings that could have served for such conduits.

      2. David Wesson Avatar
        David Wesson


  3. Timothy Brunk Avatar
    Timothy Brunk

    I cannot remember the source — perhaps an essay in Orate Fratres? — but I remember reading a critique of mass-produced chalices as exactly cheapening an “art.” Or maybe there were ads for such chalices in Orate Fratres that my elusive source was referring to. When I read too much, I forget too much.

  4. Thomas J. Hallsten Avatar

    Thank you for the article. The mention of a purple cloth bearing the so-called Advent candles reminded me of my experience in a poor mission parish in northern Arizona. Believe me, this mission had no extra money for liturgical accoutrements let alone catechesis through symbols. We lived by what other parishes no longer wanted. One the first Sunday of Lent, I was surprised to find that the purple chasuble was decorated with Advent candles, one of which was rose! It was a truly a moment of reckoning for me that color trumps symbols. Maybe candles, as a symbol, belong in an Advent wreath and they become a decoration when put anywhere else? Along with the black and white of Cain and Abel and continuing through the ‘bow in the clouds,’ color has been for me the most dramatic of all symbolic displays for people of all nations. I learned this lesson again when serving a Vietnamese community in which stood for joy and happiness and white spoke for pain and sorrowful loss.

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