The National Catholic Review

The problematic issues regarding art and architecture vis-à-vis worship and current liturgical practice have seldom been thornier. The saying that real art won’t match the sofa seems to sum up the status of art today. At least in the areas of painting and sculpture, what is considered “real” contemporary art tends to be in conversation with itself, often within the confines of the museum or gallery. A viewer must be privy to the conversation in order to understand, let alone enjoy such art. Hence the chasm between modern art and the general public.

The Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (1963) initiated a liturgical renewal that is still in process. As a result, the liturgy continues to be explored and shaped, even as Rome and bishops’ conferences issue regulative directives, often with contested theological bases.

So at a time when the liturgy is still in a state of flux and the art world indulges in esoteric dialogue with itself, it is a formidable undertaking to address the problem of art and architecture for worship. Kevin Seasoltz’s book, Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and Art, demonstrates how eminently capable the author is in this multidisciplinary venture. A Benedictine monk, a theologian, a liturgical scholar, current editor of the periodical Worship and most recent recipient of the prestigious Berakah Award of the North American Academy of Liturgy, Seasoltz deftly retells the story of the ever-evolving liturgy in the West. He also chronicles the architectural and artistic developments that parallel the liturgical. This latter history is not only comprehensive but manifests Seasoltz’s interest and deep love for his subject matter.

The book’s synthesis of history, art, architecture and liturgy is comprehensive and readable, but it is a story that has been written before, generally with accompanying photos and diagrams. Sense of the Sacred, unfortunately, lacks sufficient visual illustration. If one is familiar with the building or work Seasoltz discusses, one can feel involved. If not, while the author’s descriptions are accurate, they are not highly engaging.

This shortcoming does not diminish the importance and the insight of the first two chapters however, which serve as an extended introduction. Particularly in the first chapter, Seasoltz offers a synthesis of culture that is a useful scheme for understanding the current situation. He considers culture under four categories: primal, classical, modern and postmodern. While these categories tend to progress from pre-history to the present, we live today in a cultural blend of all four.

At the risk of oversimplifying the author’s insight, one could say that the primal culture finds its meaning in the immanent, the earth, the organic. Its method is intuitive, even instinctual. In the classical, meaning is established in an abstract world, requiring precise language and the discipline of intellectual discourse. The mundane must conform to it or be overcome. The modern glorifies the scientific method and seeks meaning only where that method can be employed. All else is illusory or suspect. The postmodern, finally, rejects the limitations and consequences of the modern even while it inherits its achievements. The postmodern welcomes all methods for meaning, but runs the risk of drowning in plurality, bereft of apparent unity.

One wishes Seasoltz had used this scheme more explicitly as the overarching scheme for his synthesis, because his categories give insight into the contemporary problem. The church lives in the realm of the classical, which is ordered, hierarchical, intellectual and abstract. Art and architecture live in the primal, the material, archetypal, visceral, emotional. Likewise, the elements of liturgy are primal: water, fire, bread, wine, oil. Reconciling the two, primal and classical, is a perennial project, made all the more difficult, if not impossible, in a postmodern culture that tries to rescue both church and art from the crucible of modern scrutiny and skepticism. Can lost innocence really be regained?

Now we try to invent the organic, create symbols, design rituals, review art, explain liturgy. Too often we merely resort to nostalgia. We have parishes with multiple Madonnas, as members of the faithful cling to a traditional ethnic mother-image or their personal favorites. We now renovate churches or build new ones but try to make them look old, as if the veneer of antiquity gives authenticity. And today, perhaps more than ever, mass-produced statues inspire devotion, while art proposed by artists is rejected by parish committees as ugly, self-indulgent or quirky. Real art seems not to match our liturgical sofas.

Toward the end of his book, Seasoltz describes a number of abbey churches constructed in the 20th century. Here again, one regrets the lack of adequate accompanying photographs as well as the brevity of the author’s exposition. An in-depth study of these buildings would be useful at this point in liturgical renewal. At the forefront of the renewal, even before the Second Vatican Council, the Benedictines had the courage to build new forms, born of the conviction that it is the assembled community, the body of Christ, that is the essential celebrant of the sacred liturgy. This is a “primal” element of our tradition currently in danger of being lost amid our church’s present clerical preoccupation with “the classical.”

More work of this book’s caliber could help bring both primal and classical into proper perspective.

Thomas R. Slon, S.J., is an architect with A.J.S.A. Architects in New York City.