The Spirituality of Architecture: a Study of St. Patrick Parish

MA Theology

Author’s note: all pages referenced below refer to the Kindle pagination of Richard Kieckhefer’s book, “Theology in Stone: Church Architecture From Byzantium to Berkeley.”

The theology of St. Patrick’s Parish in Anchorage, Alaska begins in the parking lot. As is true for many Alaskan churches, the view of the mountains (or at least the evergreen foliage) is incorporated into the architecture. From the parking lot, visitors experience a sweeping, unobstructed 180-degree view of the Chugach State Park mountains: blanketed in blinding snow each winter, vibrant greens in the summer, and a deep orange-red in the fall as the native fireweed plants on the mountains turn. Just as the Israelites encountered God’s presence through mountains, so too today do we encounter his grandeur, majesty, presence, and steadfastness. “A church is a work of art meant not only for the benefit of those who worship in it but for the sake of the environment in which it is planted” (1555). In St. Patrick’s case, the inverse is also true: the beauty of the mountains has a great impact on the church’s aesthetic beauty, and this service-oriented community has an equally strong impact on the poor and vulnerable in the 99504 zip code and Anchorage as a whole.

The Cloister at St. Patrick Parish

The parish is home to a beautiful prayer garden and columbarium space, affectionately known as “The Cloister,” complete with an outdoor Marian chapel, a life-sized Pieta statue, and a statue of David. “The presence of the dead may be more keenly felt in churches with columbaria for the ashes of those cremated” (2352), and that is certainly true for St. Patrick’s. Those who reside in the columbaria, along with those whose names are inscribed on the translucent glass memorial walls, are remembered daily in prayer, and visited often, even in the winter months. The art of St. Patrick’s Parish embraces the communion of saints and reflects the reality of suffering in human life, leading always to sacrifice of the Mass and the glory of the resurrection.

The main aisle through the Cloister leads directly into the main entrance of the church, facilitating a continued procession from everyday life into worship. The overarching style of the church itself, by Kieckhefer’s standards, is a communal church. Through a large foyer gathering space, one passes by the baptismal font and into the nave. The pews are arranged in the round, to facilitate a sense of intimacy and participation. There is no separation between the altar and the community, and you are never more than 10-12 rows away from the altar and the center of the worship space. “The space is meant to encourage full participation by the entire assembly: not only is the entire space conceived as an integral whole but visual subdivision of the space is reduced to a minimum” (828). Above the altar is a large crucifix, and behind it, a stained glass mosaic of the Holy Spirit that can be seen from the main road, and glows especially bright during worship throughout the long Alaskan winters.

St. Patrick’s main worship space. Additional seating for servers, a creation-themed stained glass window, and Stations of the Cross were added in later renovations (see below).

The church also include a side chapel with abstract sacrament-themed stained glass, two additional stained glass pieces (one of St. Patrick and another of the creation narrative), and two chapel spaces within the nave: a tabernacle-chapel and a Holy Family chapel with St. Joseph embracing the child Jesus. Both offer spaces for private prayer while still within the main worship space of the church.

Holy Family chapel within the main worship space, to the right of the main altar.

If I were to renovate the space, I would make three changes. First, I would include more warm-toned wood furnishings and trim, to the inclusion of the church’s exterior. The current space, though beautiful in its grayscale and beige coloring, leans toward a cold and sterile space. I would use warmer wood tones and deep greens and blues and reds, to continue the experience of bringing created beauty inside the worship space.

Second, I would also advocate for much more prominent Stations of the Cross (the current ones seem to be a tiny decorative afterthought, instead of part of the worship space) and I would expand the aisle between the last pew and the pillars. The Stations are currently “within” the pews, and if you were to walk along the existing processional aisle, you would be underneath the awning and behind the pillars, and wouldn’t be able to actually see the Stations.

Third, I would expand the worship space to include a dedicated “wing” for musicians, so that the Holy Family space and devotional candles are not constantly impeded by the presence of a drum set. I would parallel the expansion to include a larger tabernacle chapel, with additional kneelers and seating space, for more than one person to pray before the tabernacle, while still maintaining the intimacy of the area.

Stations of the Cross and the creation stained glass window are both present in this picture.

St. Patrick Parish, through its art and architecture, leads us from the created beauty of the Last Frontier, through death and into life in Christ, as experienced in community and worship, and, upon receiving Christ in the sacraments, sends us forth to make disciples of all nations.

On Cake, Consumption, and Transformation

MA Theology

When I was little, I remember learning the phrase “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I always imagined a huge, Beauty-and-the-Beast style cake, complete with multiple tiers, fondue flowers, and, of course, candles. I theorized that, in light of the sadness of an empty plate, I was a have-your-cake kind of person: I would be content with enjoying the cake’s artistic beauty, as I couldn’t possibly consume an entire four-tier cake by myself. When encountering actual cake, however, the whole discussion was a nonissue: I always ate it.

(Lumiere presents the dessert course in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Image source)

Now that I’m older, I realize that my assumptions were wrong on three accounts: I believed that consumption always meant destruction, that I had to do it all on my own, and (as many children might argue), that what I ate didn’t really matter either way. Sr. Ann Astell’s book Eating Beauty explores these three questions of consumption, communion, and transformation in a uniquely theological and eucharistic light: “Beauty may and must be eaten in the Eucharist” (173).

Art, certainly, is made to be viewed and not eaten. Simone Weil, as quoted by Astell, points out that “vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at” (232). But in a theological context, when we consume the Eucharist, we are meant to receive Christ. We surrender our lives to God, to use as he will. “God’s eating of us and our eating of Him in the Eucharist are not destructive of beauty, [Weil] insists, but rather a way to participate in Beauty itself” (225). 

This does not negate the value of “visual consumption.” On the contrary, Astell explains that that practice of spiritual communion was especially popular in medieval ages. “A devout, intent gazing upon the consecrated Host at its elevation during Mass was often regarded as a substitute for the sacramental consumption of the Eucharist.” (182) Our celebration of spiritual communion and Eucharistic adoration shows the depth of our faith, and our reliance on encounter: “to see the consecrated Host for what it was – Christ – was to see it with the eyes of faith; to hear, to smell, to taste, and ultimately to touch Christ and to be touched by Him.” (195).

(Pope Francis during Eucharistic Adoration for the Urbi et Orbi blessing during COVID-19. Image source)

Our participation in the Eucharist is a renewal of membership in the Body of Christ, the Church. Bread itself is a complex human food, made from human labor and human cooperation. “The same community that works together to produce bread is strengthened, in turn, through meal-sharing and companionship on life’s journey.” (363). Adam and Eve’s first sin of pride fed us with the fruit of death, but when we consume the bread of life, we become more human, more authentically ourselves as we were created to be, and ever more a part of the worshipping body of the Church.

As we learn to love one another, we also become who we receive. “unlike other kinds of food, which are incorporated into the body of the one who eats, the Body of Christ is eaten in the sacrament in order that we might be incorporated into Him” (998). This mystery is exemplified well in the life of St. Francis, who received the stigmata, as painted by Domenico Veneziano below. “the logical outcome of his eucharistic way of life is that Francis is literally transformed, body and soul, into the Christ he loves.” (3700). 

(St. Francis receives the stigmata. Image source)

These latter two ideas, community and transformation, are intricately intertwined, as St. Bernard explains in De diligendo Deo. As summarized by Astell, “In the first degree of love, man loves himself for his own sake. In the second, man loves God for man’s own sake. In the third, man loves God for God’s own sake. In the fourth, man loves himself for the sake of God” (2113). While in the first two degrees, we practice charity toward ourselves (and those around us) for the sake of survival and vulnerability, and in the third, we come to love God for who he himself is. Finally, in the fourth degree, we learn to see and love ourselves in a way completely inseparable from the love of God: “The human lover gazes into God and sees himself, as it were, in God’s own eye, as God sees him” (2128). As God’s love is made manifest in a Triune relationship, so too are we called to love all who make up the Body of Christ.

The adage “have your cake and eat it too” is entirely reversed when read in a theological light. In consuming the Eucharist, we receive eternal life, we enter into the fullness of community, and we become who we receive. We, with all the saints, imitate Christ in our own times and circumstances. The saints “make Him vitally present in the world. Because they have been “eaten” by Christ, consumed by the God they receive in communion, and virtuously changed by Him, they glorify Him. They bear his mark in the conversion, the transformation, of their lives.” (7355). So, too, must we.

(Author’s note: all page references below refer to the Kindle pagination of Eating Beauty by Sr. Ann Astell.)

Baptism: Renewal, Unity, and Salvation

MA Theology

In a society that prioritizes personal satisfaction, many of us find a deeper, more significant fulfillment when we give our lives to a worthy cause, something greater than ourselves: faith. We all have a personal and communal part to play in salvation history, even today. By Christ’s saving work, our reception of baptism restores our broken relationship with God, unites us to one another, and grants salvation for us and the whole world.

Adam and Christ – The Parallels | G. Shane Morris
Icon of Christ descending into hell to break Adam and Eve free from their graves (image source)

We are all created in God’s image, brought to life by God’s own breath. As part of the greater human family, we also experience the effects of sin because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden. Our common roots of sin should not be a cause for despair, but for hope: as part of the common human race, we too can take part in its redemption through the waters of baptism. In her book, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity, Robin M. Jensen explains that “the candidate, dipped in the font and sealed with the Holy Spirit, is a re-creation of the first human being, once again a recipient of the divine breathing (spirate deo)” (Jensen 179). 

Early Christians connected Adam and Eve to the Gospel narrative of the Good Shepherd at the baptistery at Dura Europos, one of the earliest surviving Christian churches. The newly baptized Christian journeys from death to life, from separation to reunion: “from a shared state with those first humans after their expulsion from paradise to their safe return into the flock of the divine Shepherd” (Jensen, 183). 

Adam and Eve, bottom left; the Good Shepherd, upper left, and the flock, right, at the baptistery at Dura Europos. (image source)

Our participation in baptism acts as a gateway to new life. We enter a new Eden, at once present in this world, and living beyond it: “those who enter the water cross a time-space threshold into a new world. […] Even though they continue to live in the fallen world, they are spiritual residents of the future, restored creation” (Jensen, 179). Early Christian writers knew that baptism “was not merely a washing away of inherited or personal sin; it also brought healing, both to individuals and to humanity as a whole” (Jensen, 13). When we receive the sacrament of baptism, the newly baptized Christians “are given a glimpse of their personal future and the restoration of creation itself” (Jensen, 177). 

In the early Christian church, reception of baptism led immediately into the new member’s first Eucharistic celebration. Through the cross of Christ, our salvation is won, and our thirst is quenched during the re-presentation of Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass: “when Christ’s side was pierced, the water that sprang forth imitated the water of baptism, while the blood was the cup shared in the eucharistic meal, thus uniting in one sign the mysteries of both regeneration and redemption” (Jensen, 192). Thus in our baptism and in receiving the Eucharist, we are united as one body of Christ at the foot of the cross.

The second greatest story ever told
Christ’s side is pierced by a lance, and blood and water flowed forth. This image parallels Divine Mercy imagery as given to St. Faustina (image source)

Despite inheriting human brokenness and a fallen nature from Adam and Eve, Christ renews us in his paschal mystery and invites us to sacramental union with him, through concrete signs that make present an invisible reality. The waters of baptism and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist restore us to communion with God and neighbor, and together, we renew the face of the earth.

Author’s Note: pages referenced above refer to the Amazon Kindle pagination of the book and may vary slightly from the printed version. 

We make the liturgy beautiful

MA Theology
Keep holy the Lord's day - Today's Catholic
Our role in worship fulfills the beauty of the liturgy (photo source)

What makes liturgy beautiful? When we claim that the liturgy is “aesthetic,” it’s helpful to explore the idea from two angles. First, liturgy is aesthetic because it is perceived as beautiful in its own right, objectively speaking. Second, liturgy is aesthetic by the subjective experience of its participants. This is not to say that every liturgy is objectively beautiful in an error-free, flawless sense, or that every participant is overwhelmed by beauty simply by existing in a space where liturgy is taking place. Still, our subjective role within liturgy brings the overarching objective beauty of the liturgy to fulfillment.

In his book “Spirit of the Liturgy,” Guardini something with style “has, by virtue of its existence and activity, expressed in a convincing manner that which it really is, and if at the same time by its quality of specialness it does not merely represent an arbitrary mood, but its relation to a corporate life, then and to that extent it may be said to have style.” The liturgy is both expressing itself and going beyond itself to reflect the reality of communal worship: beyond individual families and communities, to the voice of the universal Church at prayer.

World Youth Day kicks off with message: 'Have the courage ...
World Youth Day is a visible example of the universal Church gathered in prayer. (photo source)

Guardini takes this idea one step further. As a communal event, in the liturgy, “the individual yields place to the universal” (44). Guardini emphasizes that we must not approach the question of the liturgy’s purpose from a sense of utility, but look for ultimate meaning beyond our individual selves. “In the liturgy man is no longer concerned with himself; his gaze is directed towards God” (66). Individualism has a tertiary place within the liturgy. Its primary purpose is worship of God. Second, we surrender our own needs and wants to pray with others in the liturgical context of community. If we happen to “get something out of” the experience, personally, it is an added blessing, but not the core purpose of our worship.

At first, this thought is disconcerting; our human tendency is often to attempt to maximize the outcomes of our time, seeking- if not profit- at least personal fulfillment. But in our worship, we are called beyond this mentality. “The liturgy offers something higher. In it man, with the aid of grace, is given the opportunity of realizing his fundamental essence, of really becoming that which according to his divine destiny he should be and longs to be, a child of God.” (69). Although the purpose of liturgy is worship, our individual sanctification is not forgotten, and God uses our active participation in liturgy as the key to reunion with humanity as his adopted children. 

Finally, it’s worth noting again the beauty of the liturgy itself. “In the liturgy the faithful are confronted by a new world, rich in types and symbols […]. Out of this the question arises- what is the precise significance of all this as regards the soul’s intercourse with God? […] God is Simplicity; then how is He concerned with specific ritual, actions, and instruments?” (53). In short, it is because of our human nature-our physical bodies and spiritual souls- that our worship embraces the physical to heighten our awareness of the spiritual. Indeed, every symbol must contain both spiritual and physical components; not loosely related, but so intricately connected that the meaning is lost when one or the other is absent. “A symbol may be said to originate when that which is interior and spiritual finds expression in that which is exterior and material” (57). In this way, our materiality is a critical feature in concretizing our spiritual expression of worship. 

Why Catholics use incense at Mass? - Catholic Say
During the liturgy, we sanctify time, objects, and people. (photo source)

Surrounded by the physical elements of symbol that are in themselves beautiful, and raised up to a higher calling of worship beyond self-satisfaction, our subjective role as communal participants during the liturgy sanctifies the time, the space, the material elements, and even the people around us. As we bless our God during the liturgy, God blesses us and uses our material world and our efforts for our own salvation, and the sanctification of the whole world.

The Beauty of Love in Relationships

MA Theology

Relationships are complicated. We learn that early on in life. Some parents have varying degrees of success at loving one another, and others provide painful examples of what relationships should not look like, ultimately culminating in the fallout of broken relationships. Ultimately, when done well, the sacrament of marriage in particular is a glimpse into the love God has for us. It’s an embodiment of the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross. The Revelation of God’s love for us is indescribably beautiful because it is love made manifest through an encounter with a person. Our encounter with God’s love is modeled through the life of the Virgin Mary, it is experienced in authentic worship, and it is handed on through a lived example of self-sacrifice.

We take our first example of an encounter with divine love through the life of the Virgin Mary (she herself is no stranger to difficult circumstances in marriage). Like Mary, we are called to surrender to God’s will, no matter the cost. In his book “Love Alone is Credible,” Balthasar highlights how Mary’s receptivity to God-made-flesh in her womb shows how this love can bear fruit in both literal and figurative ways. In marriage, couples bear fruit through children and also through lives of radical hospitality, obedient to sharing God’s love with both the neighbor and the stranger. Our call to follow Mary’s example of surrender moves beyond poetic verse and is concretized through many forms of popular piety, especially in the rosary and many other Latino/a cultural traditions. Our Lady of Guadalupe in particular, present to St. Juan Diego in person and to us through his tilma, speaks to her people in intimate ways that cannot – and should not – be scripted as symbols, but loved and lived as an image of strength, solidarity, and communion.

How do we respond to this invitation to divine love? We follow Mary to the foot of the cross. The Eucharistic celebration is the pinnacle of Christian worship, and in our worship we remember and experience intimate communion with divine love. As Christians, we are formed by the bread that nourishes us, and we see deeper meaning in the sacrifice of the Mass. As we learn to become active participants in the liturgy, worship becomes more than rubrics and responses: it is encounter and communion with God and each other. We leave behind the comfort of suburbia and we face the bitterness of a broken society and stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us. As Roberto Goizueta emphasizes throughout his book “Christ our Companion,” our prayer must become action. Liturgy speaks to the deepest needs of our hearts for love, nourishment, and healing.   

We see the glory of God’s love shine most clearly in his self-emptying love, poured out over and over again in mercy throughout the ages, but most poignantly in Christ’s paschal mystery. The Mass is a place of encounter, but it is the beginning, not the end. At its conclusion, we are sent out to be transformed and transformative in the lives of those we meet. In light of our experience with God’s love, Balthasar explains, we begin to overcome the limitations of our human love and begin to love with the heart of God. This love cannot help but spill over into the deepest recesses of our souls, softening our hardened hearts until mercy waxes into forgiveness and we become the suffering Church who stands in solidarity with the victims of oppression, violence, and the sins of the past. Giozueta’s message be summarized this way: healing and restoration seeks not retribution, but reconciliation.

Although humans are imperfect in many ways, the sacrament of marriage strengthens its couples to understand, encounter, and share God’s love with those around us. As we overcome everyday trials and seek the good of the other, we begin in some very small way to imitate the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross. May our faith become action, and our encounter incite a transformation in our own lives that seeks to set the world ablaze.

Like A Cowboy

MA Theology, Uncategorized

A country girl at heart, I’m partial to one classic country music motif in particular: The Cowboy. Swashbuckling classics like Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “Beer for my Horses” run parallel to darker tones of Garth Brooks’s “Rodeo” and Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Like most good country songs, The Cowboy theme intertwines with The Girl, and all the complexities that relationships bring with them. Modern artist Jon Pardi proposes that it “Aint Always the Cowboy” who does the leaving, despite George Strait’s earlier assertation of the fact in “The Cowboy Rides Away.”

The relationship between cowboy and lover is seen in a unique light in Randy Houser and Brice Long’s 2014 song, “Like a Cowboy.” For me, this song is even more powerful and emotional in light of a modern context reimagining: cowboys as soldiers, and the struggle of long-distance relationships in military families.

It’s clear that Houser knows and relates deeply to the themes of reunion and longing, as he concretizes emotions of regret, courage, fidelity, transience, and wanderlust with the audience. “The work of art has been pondered before being made,” says Maritain (p. 8, Art & Scholasticism), “has been kneaded and prepared, formed, brooded over, and matured in a mind before emerging into matter.” This song is a beautiful coloring of a unique relational reality faced by many people across the expanse of time.

What makes this piece beautiful? It possesses “a vision, that is to say an intuitive knowledge, and a joy” (Maritain, 24). In the case of “Like a Cowboy,” we receive a front-row seat to the Cowboy who comes and goes, driven by duty and desire, and the woman who loves him. We see, we know, and we respond: we rise and fall with both the lyrics and the crescendos in the music itself. As a piece of art, the song has integrity, proportion, and a sharp clarity (Maritain, 25) into the joys and brokenness that comes from loving over long distances.

The beauty of this song is objective in itself, as a unified whole within the genre, but when understood through personal experience of a lived reality of long distance love, it becomes all the more beautiful. Maritain says it well: “It is beautiful only under certain aspects which some discover and others do not see” (Maritain, 31). Those of us who have endured the reality of months of separation know both the joy and the heartache more intimately than others who have not.

The quality of an artist’s work is in proportion to the amount of love it receives.”The artist must be in love, must be in love with what he is doing […] so that beauty becomes connatural to him, bedded in his being” (49). While it’s apparent that Randy Houser loves the music he makes, the same can be said for the Cowboy and his way of life. The lovers in the song are always chasing each other but are never free of the lingering transience that comes with working away from home. This sense of incompletion is also felt by the artist: “He is on the tracks of wisdom and running upon the scent of its perfumes, but never possesses it” (37).

There is an eternal tension between the Cowboy’s two loves: the road and his relationship. He desires both, but cannot have them together. As he chases them both, will he ever truly possess either?

One might initially think, in the case of military family life, that you cannot possess both. You can either be at home, or you can be out and serving your country. Even as your family lives in transience and moves from base to base, they are never truly entirely with you, physically or psychologically. This black-and-white mentality, along with the dangerous kinds of work and the high-stress of distance, is more than many families can withstand.

However, I do believe that it is possible to possess both: the love a soldier has for his or her family drives the individual to be a protector and provider, and the nobility of this call gives the family some small, partial satisfaction to help them endure the longest nights and hardest days. Both the family and the soldier need to be willing to make incredible sacrifices on behalf of the other, but it is possible to survive and even thrive in this world. Soak up the joy of presence while you have it, and keep fighting the good fight until you’re together again.