In his 2008 book Ritualizing Nature, H. Paul Santmire makes a remark about churches and windows. He writes:
Many American church buildings, surely those designed in a neogothic style but others as well, have self-consciously or unconsciously been constructed to block out the world around them, much as the historic cathedrals’ towering walls and elegant stained-glass windows had been designed, in part, to create a world apart. In American settings, however, the wonderful imagery of the created world that so enhanced the interiors of many medieval cathedrals is mostly missing. Hence, the architectural break between the created world and the realm of the church’s worship is all the more pronounced.*
I came across this passage while doing research on a project investigating liturgy and the eco-spirituality of children. The next time I went to Mass at my local parish, I paid closer attention to the church building. Indeed, there is no view at all of the world outside. There are a number of stained glass windows featuring saints, but by their very nature these windows prevent those gathered for worship from seeing their surroundings. The same applies to Corr Chapel and the St. Thomas of Villanova Church on the campus of Villanova University, where I teach. (A chapel in the Augustinian Friary on campus, however, has two walls of floor to ceiling clear windows.) The archdiocesan cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul has no ground floor windows; the reason, rumor has it, was to protect the building (completed in 1864) from future rioters given the anti-Catholic violence in Philadelphia in the 1840s.
With many scholars, I recognize that there is an important sense in which worship requires a time and space set apart. Yet Louis-Marie Chauvet also points out that such “set apartness” can cross a limit of what he calls “maximal heterotopy.”
There is a threshold of maximal hetero-topy beyond which rite cannot function. In insufficient contact with the expressed or latent cultural values of the group, desymbolized, rite tends to regress to the point where all it can do is appeal to each person’s imagination.**
Chauvet is writing in particular on the question of liturgical inculturation but I think that his point applies to the concern raised by Santmire: How often is Christian worship celebrated and experience as apart from instead of a part of creation? How does this experience shape worshipers’ understanding of the relationship between liturgical practice and care for the Earth or even the understanding of God as Creator and Redeemer?
No doubt parish leaders have many financial questions to address. I do not want to come across as suggesting that churches across the land must engage in a wide ranging replacement of some / all stained-glass windows. I want only to raise the question of how our worship spaces inform our sense of creation.
[The picture accompanying this reflection on the Pray Tell home page is an image of St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in North York, Ontario, Canada. When the church building was renovated, parish leaders sought to make the world visible during worship. More pictures of St. Gabriel are available at the architect’s website and at the parish site.]
*H. Paul Santmire, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress,. 2008), 100.
** Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Patrick Madigan and Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 332.