Practicing a ‘Sacred Art’

Volume 52, Issue 3, Michael J. Crosbie

While many in architecture have embraced sustainability, their efforts are reactionary. All are attempts to mend the mess we’ve made of the planet. However, the impetus for sustainability in faith communities is not reactionary. For many people of faith, the green impulse is a direct expression of their embrace of God’s creation. The decision to be green is simply not a matter of choice, but rather an integral part of their religious beliefs. Pope John Paul II posited that our environmental crisis is also a spiritual crisis: two sides of the same coin, recognition that we are stewards of this creation, that sustainability is a form of praise.

Architecture that is spiritual does not necessarily need to be devoted to religious purposes. In fact, many of our contemporary religious buildings lack spirituality. They do not invite us to a higher plane. Evidence of architectural spirituality can be found in a museum, a retreat in the woods, or in the depths of a library. A spiritual dimension is often found in architecture that has a sense of timelessness—natural materials and natural light: these are just two of the most important tools used by architects to create buildings that invite us to leave our daily lives behind and to reside (if only for a short time) in the realm of the ethereal. Spiritual architecture is the architecture of the sublime.

Spirituality and sustainability appear to be mutually supportive elements in architecture today. In fact, sustainability is nurtured by spiritual architecture’s very fabric. Natural materials promote sustainability by reducing the energy expended to produce and finish them. In the grain of wood, in the swirling patterns of stone heaved up from the earth, in these and other products of God’s own creation, we see evidence of the maker. Natural light saves energy—which makes it a sustainable choice. But it also gives architecture something else. The sun’s changing pattern on walls and floors, the evidence of the passage of the day that plays upon architecture’s surface, or a room bathed in the light of the moon, all locate us on the face of the earth, imparting a cosmology in which architecture plays a part. Most importantly, spirituality in architecture conveys a sense of “place” that is more than just “space.” Space is location. Place is location with meaning.

There are scriptural precedents as well for communities of faith choosing to practice a green theology. Biblical scholar Ellen Davis has written for this journal about the connection between the sacred places we build within the larger context of God’s creation. Davis notes that the bible offers detailed descriptions of only two construction projects, both of which are for worship: the portable tabernacle erected during the years of wandering in the wilderness and Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Davis observes that if these Old Testament writers were interested in the creation of sacred space, “beyond all other forms of material or cultural production,” it is because “they understood that a place for worship is not like other things that people design and create.” Davis notes that a sanctuary has a kind of creative capacity to shape the people who spend time there, to form us as believers.

Davis believes that, when religious architecture is actually practiced as a sacred art, “…it elevates our hearts and minds toward God and at the same time roots us in the created order. Through stone, brick, wood, glass, and space, religious architecture articulates a holy knowledge of the world that is, properly speaking, ecological.”

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at mcrosbie@faithandform.com Back to editorials