What would a chapel on the moon look like? Catholics in the ’60s had some ideas.
[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s space issue, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Click here to find our other stories that are out of this world.]
An odd feature of growing up in Southern California in the 1980s was a consequence of the presence of Edwards Air Force Base in the nearby Mojave Desert. Every few months, one of the NASA space shuttles would re-enter the atmosphere to land at Edwards, and the double sonic boom it caused would rattle windows for hundreds of miles around. It was a regular (and startling) reminder that the United States was still regularly sending men and women into outer space.
When the space shuttle Columbia made its maiden launch on April 12, 1981, newscasters remarked on a number of interesting side stories. One, the voyage occurred on the 20th anniversary of the first manned space flight. Two, it marked the first time the United States had put an astronaut into space in six years. Three—the most fascinating to 6-year-old me—the mission commander, John Young, had walked on the moon.
The frantic Cold War quest in the West to outpace the Soviet Union in scientific endeavor resulted in a proliferation of technological breakthroughs from the first manned flight (by the Soviets!) in 1961 to the moment Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon in 1969. During almost the exact same time span, the world of Catholic theology enjoyed tremendous intellectual ferment in numerous areas of study and expression, with some of the most dramatic and visible transformations occurring in the area of liturgy and architecture.
When it became likely in the second half of that decade that humankind would actually succeed in landing a person on the moon within a few years, the prospect also opened up whole new worlds of possibility for theologians. Juvenal’s phrase, which had been adopted by Jesuit missionaries centuries later, “Unus non sufficit orbis” (“One world is not enough”), suddenly became a real option. Questions were asked that we would never ask today, including one that sounds almost like a joke: What would a church on the moon look like?
Questions were asked that we would never ask today, including one that sounds almost like a joke: What would a church on the moon look like?
It was no joke to the editors of the November 1967 issue of Liturgical Arts. The quarterly journal brought those two revolutions together in an unexpected way, presenting architectural drawings, conceptual essays and theological reflections in a special issue on the topic “A Chapel on the Moon: 2000 A.D.” Looking back today, more than five decades after its publication (and almost two decades after the putative date for the never-realized chapel’s dedication), it can be tempting to imagine the authors and architect engaging in a campy, sci-fi fantasy vision of a surreal and far-off future. On the contrary, the subject of moon colonization and the liturgical needs of its colonists was quite a serious topic for the authors (and presumably their readers). It is also a reminder that it never happened.
Whose Idea Was This?
The idea for the chapel came from a New York Times Magazine article published on May 28, 1967, “Moon Colony 2000 A.D.,” in which the famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov expounded on what a lunar colony at the dawn of the 21st century might look like. His largely underground colony included space for a chapel. Terence J. Mangan, then an Oratorian priest, took that fanciful blueprint and envisioned a church that would help a lunar colonist “to integrate his belief and his science, to synthesize his view of the universe with his view of God and himself. To accomplish this all of the insights of the personality sciences as well as those of the physical sciences must be brought into play.”
The structure was imagined as a “film sheathed tent defining space and providing visual privacy,” with reinforced concrete behind the film-covered walls. Light cables covered with opaque plastic would descend from the roof of the “tent,” with a small oculus at the top providing natural light and permitting “observation of celestial bodies.” The oculus would be the only point of the chapel touching the surface of the moon, with the entire structure embedded underground in what the authors curiously called “the moon ghetto.”
Terence J. Mangan envisioned a church that would help a lunar colonist “to integrate his belief and his science, to synthesize his view of the universe with his view of God and himself.”
The architect who sketched the design was Mark Mills, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Mills was making his reputation at the time in the use of innovative materials, and he took advantage of the fact that the environment would not require attention to pressure, temperature and protection from the elements, since those issues would presumably have been addressed by the larger colony itself.
In a nod to Mr. Mangan’s notion that the “personality sciences” would play a role in the life of the moon parish, the design included circular nodes arranged on the periphery of the church for living quarters for six Oratorian priests; these areas would also double as meeting areas for “counseling and clinical help to individuals under stress. It is probable that such counseling, and the link with tradition that it provides, would prove most useful to men learning to adapt to such a totally different environment.”
Surprisingly, despite the presumed opportunities a low-gravity environment might provide for more innovative liturgical arrangements, Mr. Mills structured the liturgical elements almost entirely horizontally, with the altar, ambo, presider’s chair and congregational seating all on roughly the same plane. Starting below the nave but rising slightly above it on all sides would be a terraced garden, providing a pleasing visual element as well as a sound-muting function if the rest of the colony’s machinery disturbed the liturgical ambiance within. The living quarters would be suspended above the floor of the nave but slightly outside the unified body of the church, and privacy would be achieved through the use of discreet grillwork that would prevent worshipers from seeing in but would allow the priests in residence to view the liturgy from their rooms.
In an essay in Liturgical Arts accompanying Mr. Mangan’s proposal and Mr. Mills’s drawings, an imagined parishioner from the future described some of the activities possible in the nave. They might, however, strike a modern-day reader as rather typical of the post-Vatican II era in which they were written: “We of course sing and dance, perhaps someone does a drama drawn from the experience of the past week that is somehow related to how we try to live in the way—though not in the letter—of the scriptures. We also spend a lot of time telling stories and sharing our inner-most thoughts through creative writing, poetry, forms of visual expression and music.”
Priests in Space
The obvious effort to make the priests’ quarters central to the church is only one indication of the close attention paid to the role of the ordained minister in the proposed chapel. In another essay in the same issue of Liturgical Arts, the Rev. Clifford Stevens, a U.S. Air Force chaplain, made the case that priests would be central to any colonization effort on the moon.
“Priests stood with Columbus and Magellan on the journeys into the unknown, and with the Vikings, too, when they explored the unknown western ocean,” Father Stevens wrote. “Man stands now on the threshold of a far more breathtaking discovery, and so it is not unfitting for the theologian, symbolically or otherwise, to put on a space suit.”
The priest “will inhabit his chapel on the edge of space and help to open the doors to a whole new dimension of human existence.”
Furthermore, Father Stevens claimed, priests would play a crucial role in ensuring that the exploration of space was not simply a matter of material conquest but of spiritual growth for all of humanity. “But whatever may be the achievement,” he continued, “the priest will be a part of it. He will inhabit his chapel on the edge of space and help to open the doors to a whole new dimension of human existence.”
This elevated role of the priest was reinforced in Mr. Mills’s design by the prominence of the presider’s chair (in its traditional judge’s position in the space, according to ancient Roman schematics) and the existence of a clearly marked sanctuary, despite the fact that the nave would be structured “in the round” around the centrally placed altar.
A Place of Passage
Ironically, the Moon Chapel shared a number of important characteristics with post-Vatican II Catholic churches in the United States that would place it squarely in the mainstream of Catholic liturgical thought today about church architecture. An important point of comparison can be found in the work of the Rev. Richard S. Vosko, a liturgical design consultant, who identified a plethora of telling characteristics of those churches that serve as “places of imagination” in his book Designing Future Worship Spaces published in 1996. Such churches, he wrote, serve as a place of passage, welcome, opportunity, hospitality, transformation, healing and forgiveness, unity, light and sound and memory.
It is striking how well the Moon Chapel (proposed three decades before Father Vosko’s text) shows a number of the characteristics he expects for a liturgical place of imagination, particularly in three important ways: as a place of passage, a place of light and sound and a place of memory. When viewed as a liturgical space incorporating these three characteristics, the proposed chapel becomes even less of a science fiction fantasy and more of a worship environment simpatico with contemporary liturgical architecture down here on boring old Earth.
As a kind of oasis in a moon colony that the authors imagined would be a noisy, industrialized city filled with factories and the means for the mining of raw materials, the Moon Chapel was explicitly designed as a place set apart from the everyday life of the city. But its design (particularly the oculus looking out into deep space) would remind worshipers that they were still part of the shared “spaceship” dream that has gripped the American imagination since the first astronaut went into orbit. Gathered together in the nave of the church for worship, they would be reminded by the view from above that they were fellow travelers in a new time and space. Like many a space traveler (and generations of sailors) before them, they would peer out onto the external world through a single portal.
The very notion of a nave (Latin navis,“ship”), Richard Taylor reminds us in his book How to Read a Church, is tied up linguistically with nautical images: “The association of the church with a ship, and the congregation as passengers in the ship, indicates the priests and people travelling together towards God.” The stars and planets visible through this portal (not to mention Earth itself), unobscured by an atmosphere, would provide an immediate visual symbol of that journey toward the transcendent.
The stars and planets visible through this portal, unobscured by an atmosphere, would provide an immediate visual symbol of that journey toward the transcendent.
In another Liturgical Arts essay on what liturgy in the Moon Chapel would look like, Constance Parvey stressed the importance of transcendence in the liturgy, in part because the moon colony would have eliminated material poverty from the lives of its residents: “Mainly our basic needs are psychological rather than economic. They have more to do with honesty and integrity and compassion than with the problems of being poor.” Even in a world separated from the Christian motif of a struggle for social justice, the people would still be fed liturgically by the presence of the transcendent in the Moon Chapel.
A Place of Light and Sound
One look at Mark Mills’s sketches makes it clear that light was a central element in his design. First, natural light would be brought in through the oculus fitted into the cervical collar at the “roof” of the church; when I saw his schematics, I thought immediately of the Pantheon in Rome, where a similar collar serves the primary purpose of supporting the weight of the dome but is largely appreciated by visitors as a source of brilliant light on sunny days. It would also serve symbolically as an oculus Dei, an “eye of God” that offers the image of the divine overlooking the congregation during the liturgy.
Second, the long, film-covered cables that descend from the ceiling were to be designed as “light cables,” capable of in some way bringing artificial light into a subterranean (sublunary?) space. Finally, the complete absence of internal support columns or of a baldacchino over the altar would mean that once light entered the interior, there would be nothing to obstruct it from reaching any space in the church.
It is worth considering what it might mean liturgically to recite the words of the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass itself in an environment away from Earth.
It is also worth considering what it might mean liturgically to recite the words of the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass itself in an environment away from Earth. What would it mean to pray “now that we have come to the setting of the sun and have seen the evening star, we sing in praise of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” when Earth actually rises and sets outside the window in the roof? Or to pray “from the rising of the sun to its setting?” To describe the Trinity as “sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall”?
A Place of Memory
On the other hand, most residents of the moon in the year 2000 (from the perspective of 1967) would obviously have still retained a close connection to their original home on Earth because there would only be a single generation separating them from a civilization that was entirely earthbound. For this reason, the Moon Chapel would sit at the intersection of the past (by virtue of its inhabitants and their shared memory) and the future (by virtue of its placement in the moon colony and on the temporal edge of a new human reality).
“A space-chapel...becomes, in space, the outpost of five thousand years of human thought. It is a synthesis and a signpost of the whole of man’s past and a torch to guide him into the future,” wrote Father Stevens in Liturgical Arts. “It keeps alive in the human mind a vision of man’s dignity and his destiny and wraps the whole aerospace effort in a rationale that is intellectually valid and humanly meaningful.”
For this reason, the visual elements of the Moon Chapel would need to provide important avenues for memory. The terraced gardens that would circle the nave were to be filled with vegetation brought from Earth, providing an important link not only to the planet left behind but also to the scriptural and historical memory of Christianity itself. Plants do not just remind worshipers of their past—they are also important elements in the teaching tradition of the church.
For a worshiper in the Moon Chapel, these terraced gardens would be a link to the Earth of their shared past but also a garden of living symbols of their faith.
“Just as artists used images of animals, birds and fish to illustrate Christian teaching, so too they used plants,” says Mr. Taylor in How to Read a Church. “Artists would portray plants in the way they are used in the Bible, or else would use characteristics of particular plants to make an analogy between them and parts of Christian teaching.”
In this sense, seeing familiar plants is not just a cure for homesickness or a way to acclimate oneself to a hostile environment. They can serve as a catechism of sorts, in much the way the great medieval cathedrals used stained glass to educate illiterate believers in the faith. When we look over in liturgy and see a bush, we think back to the burning bush in the desert. A tree can remind us of the Garden of Eden or of the cross; we might reflect upon the fig tree and the mustard seed and in a thousand other ways be brought back to the central motifs of the Christian faith through such a garden. For a worshiper in the Moon Chapel, these terraced gardens would be a link to the Earth of their shared past but also a garden of living symbols of their faith.
There is also a sense in which the structure of the Moon Chapel itself would hint at the church’s past. As an underground structure only peeking out onto the surface, it might bring to mind the catacombs that served as some of the first locales for communities of worship at the dawn of the Christian faith. And from the perspective of someone in the nave, it might also conjure up images of the soaring interiors of the great Gothic cathedrals of the 12th century and beyond. Finally, the similarity of the Moon Chapel’s interior to its modern counterparts on Earth would allow worshipers to connect to the broader tradition of the faith throughout history, reminding them of the continuity of Christian worship even in the discontinuity of a radically new time and place.
Imagination and Tradition
All that being said, it can be hard in 2019 to understand why the designers of the Moon Chapel did not show a bit more imagination. Presuming they had figured out how to filter out radiation, why wouldn’t they build a soaring glass roof where they could watch Earthrise every day? Why didn’t they make use of the lower levels of gravity to make the worship space operate both vertically and horizontally? Why is the entire structure underground instead of soaring above the landscape, an explicit neo-Gothic monument to God in a new world, rather than a catacomb reminiscent of a faith in hiding? Why is the liturgical space in 1967 imagined exclusively according to the cultic model of the priesthood, several years after Vatican II called every believer to share in Christ’s mission as “priest, prophet and king”?
The answer, I suspect, is that the Moon Chapel was not intended as a clear break from the past but rather as a moment in a historical continuum. I wanted the Moon Chapel to be something pioneering and fresh, to be a liturgical and theological statement of new beginnings and a provocative challenge to rethink the way liturgy can be done in new environments. In this sense, looking through Mr. Mills’s plans in the light of tradition and the church’s own liturgical norms was a moment of powerful insight: The innovator works in the tradition and perhaps moves the tradition no matter what the environment or mandate.
To the degree that innovation meets the needs and desires of the existing tradition, it can certainly work on the frontiers and promote new understandings, but it cannot do so on its own initiative or its own principles. A universal church operates as a universal community, whether in the suburban United States or in ancient European capitals or, for that matter, on other worlds. And to be perfectly honest, the Moon Chapel’s interior looks to me a lot like that of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, built two years after the Moon Chapel design was published in Liturgical Arts.
At first, that might strike one as an ironic commentary on what Mark Mills and the Liturgical Arts editors were attempting in their description of the Moon Chapel. But that otherworldly structure was intended to fit neatly into a larger and more universal church, one that allows for innovation but also hearkens back to a long tradition. Of course, the Moon Chapel would look like its historical peers: It was supposed to be a worship space that respected every time and place in the Christian tradition and invited its imaginary worshipers to do the same. Even on the moon.