The more particular the focus, goes one literary axiom, the more universal its resonance. Robert Frost’s New England or William Faulkner’s “little postage stamp of Mississippi” evoke worldwide response and admiration because the very palpability of their specific worlds will always trump the airy assumptions of theory, the booming generalizations of propaganda.
Margaret Visser, a popular Canadian author and media personality, has brought this principle to bear in her thorough and intensive study of a single Roman church, Sant’ Agnese Fuore le Mure (St. Agnes Outside the Walls). Noting in her “Preamble” that she has previously written of “the meanings, the culture, and the history embodied in a single meal” (Much Depends Upon Dinner, 1987; The Rituals of Dinner, 1991), Visser says that in this book, she plans “to do the same thing with a church.”
She approaches her subject—ancient and rich in history, but “a small and simple building and its environment”—as one might approach a text to be read: “Sant’Agnese is a building that is intentionally meaningful; it reveals itself most fully to people prepared to respond to its ‘language.’” Visser, a professor of classics, brings an enormous breadth—literary, archeological, anthropological, theological—to her study. She says, “I will consider the thought-processes that gave birth [to Sant’Agnese, that] positioned it, or made it look the way it does. And I shall occasionally try to express what effects some of the objects in this church have (are intended to have) on a person like me, an ordinary worshipper.”
Although she ranges historically from the present day to the church’s origins over the grave of 12-year-old Agnes, murdered in A.D. 305, Visser’s “plot” is basically architectural, her 10 chapters running from “Threshold” through “Tomb.” What keeps this account from becoming a conventional rehashing of tourist-pamphlet highlights is precisely Visser’s interest in particulars—drawings, statues, arches, columns, pews, bells, candlesticks, marble slabs; related legends and historical events—and, most important, her reflections and speculations as these rise out of the commanding theological vision at the heart of this church’s dazzling multiplicity.
At “The Threshold,” Visser, echoing St. Augustine’s reflections upon the limitations of human cogitation, affirms “that neither our senses nor our thinking faculties have access to, or are capable of encompassing, everything.” And so we move through her church, and any kindred church, step by step, moment by moment, coming gradually to realize that “a church is a recognition, in stone and wood and brick, of spiritual awakenings.” Among these awakenings is the awareness that we are on pilgrimage, in motion within the fixed reality of God, living within time and for eternity; and that this paradox of movement and stillness is embodied in the very solidity and intentionality of a church: “Churches remain—but they remain in order to keep alive a message that is all about movement, about hope and change. In short, a Christian church seems to be—and quite consciously is—a contradiction in terms.”
Visser’s personal convictions inform her method and interpretations. She moves, for example, from an architectural detail evoking a historical correspondence (the floor level of Sant’ Agnese is the same as that of the catacomb in which Agnes was buried) to the larger insight that, “like any church, it recalls a great deal more. One of a church’s purposes is to call to mind, to make people remember.” Then demonstrating that what we are to remember is what the entire Christian economy continues to make present for us in sacrament and ritual, artifice and tradition, story and stone, she contrasts a church with any other building: “a church can go on ‘working’ even when there is no performance and no crowd.... It can produce an experience as profoundly moving as that of attending a performance. The same thing cannot be said of visiting an empty theatre.” And, typically, this distinction moves her to reflection upon modern secular culture: “A church stands in total opposition to the narrowing and flattening of human experience, the deviation into the trivial, that follows from antipathy towards meaning [italics mine], and especially meaning held in common. Meaning is intentional: this building has been made in order to communicate with the people in it." And then, in a passage that should enable us to transcend any lapses in ecclesiastical taste, she says: “A church is no place to practice aesthetic distance, to erase content and simply appreciate form. The building is trying to speak; not listening to what it has to say is a form of barbarous inattention, like admiring a musical instrument while caring nothing for music.”
Readers who enjoy those cultural tidbits which Chesterton once called “tremendous trivia” will find in The Geometry of Love numerous pleasant surprises. Beneath Sant’ Agnese, we are told, lies the tomb of Abbatessa Serena, whose burial date (May 8, 514) makes “hers the earliest known convent in Rome, and the tombstone the earliest known reference to an abbess.” Etymology lovers will likewise find an abundance of delights. For instance, “canopy” comes from the Greek kanopos meaning “mosquito” and, by extension, the covering protecting us from this little villain. And “profane” derives from “fanus”—a word designating the space before the temple where sacrifice was offered; hence, a space less sacred, and, by a quirky reversal, even secular.
For some 260 pages we are regaled with such lore and such reflection. Another 30 pages of “Notes”—many of them as interesting as the text—indicate the scholarship and research that went into this book. Visser writes for a general audience, an approach that allows her to catechize without seeming to. And so we find passages distinguishing Christian from pagan thought (as in her discussion of fate); passages on Judaism and Christianity as religions of the word; passages on the divine and human nature of Christ, on the communion of saints, on mysticism and mystics, on martyrdom and on relics (as extensions of Rome to the known world); on virgins in pre-Christian and Christian tradition (and, thence, on women in the church generally); on devotion versus superstition, on varieties of worship and much, much more.
It is not difficult to imagine this professor and popular lecturer fighting the impulse to include every allusion, correspondence, historical curiosity, word root or theological controversy that comes to mind as she moves through her text. Such inclusiveness is a kind of instruction in itself, a modeling of that liberal learning which delights in what Coleridge called unity in multeity—in the one spiritual reality underlying the enormous variety of creation. Fifteen pages of bibliography tell us where this scholar has been intellectually: from classical myth and the topic of the hero (which, in the Christian heroine, gets turned on its head) to the history of bells (which lend a building a “voice”); from biblical exegesis to the significance of martyrdom; from archaeological breakthroughs like the “giant cemetery basilica” to the etymology of almost everything from epiphany to porphyry. How resonant the sounding of this single, ordinary church!
This sampling hardly does justice to The Geography of Love (a title which, at first, seemed to me facile and catchy, but in the end, fitting). I was surprised to find no drawings, no maps, no photos. Readers who, like me, need visual aids to stay located, may find themselves in catacombs Visser has not intended. Some may find her compulsive divagations distracting; others, inclined as I am, may welcome them. What one can say with certainty is that there is something here for everyone. You can open to any page, locate yourself against a pillar, probably transported from some other edifice (did you know there are pillarists?); before a burial niche or a damaged mosaic; upon an overturned slab once part of a secular building; beneath a dome, in a shaft of light—and find yourself transported from data to provocation, from artifact to insight, from myth to wisdom. Or you can enjoy Visser’s frequent and provocative citations, my favorite being one from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, strangely apt for any who find themselves wandering about a church in search of meaning beyond what the guided tour might offer: “It is God alone that can never be sought in vain, not even when he cannot be found.”