Few things rouse the passion of man more than his buildings. Indeed, the seven wonders of the world are all buildings or monuments. The proudest part of a civilization is the buildings it has constructed: the pyramids, the Acropolis, the Coliseum, the DC Capitol, and Versailles. Such accomplishment is not accidental to man, it is essential. For buildings define man, they place on display what a man knows about himself. Buildings are truth in stone. Even when man lies to himself about himself, buildings catch the lie.
Once there, a building does more than delight. It teaches. Indeed, it forms. Winston Churchill sagely observed that we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us. When a people make their lives around the architecture of an Athens, Paris, or Rome, they tend to see themselves in terms of dignity of those majestic structures. Deep metaphysical truths resound there. Just as the scholastic axiom, agere sequitur esse, explains how man’s high human nature seeks its signature activity, so too with buildings. Man’s very being is translated into the text of his architecture. He cannot avoid it even if he tried.
All of this analysis pertains a fortiori to the buildings man erects to the Divine – his churches. The stone of those Churches bespeak the truths about his God. Throughout the ages man’s genius bursts forth with most transporting beauty when placed at the disposal of, in Newman’s felicitous phrase, “God’s palaces”. Emile Male’s 1898 monumental four-volume classic on the French Middle Ages and the Renaissance supplies a brief vignette to illustrate our point:
In its very beauty the great church acts as a Sacrament. Here mystery than in the world of fact. Already he feels himself in the heart of the heavenly Jerusalem, and tastes the profound peace of the city of the future. The storm of life breaks on the walls of the sanctuary, and is heard merely as a distant rumbling. Here indeed is the indestructible ark against which the winds shall not prevail. No place in the world fills men with a deeper feeling of security.
How much more vividly must this have been felt by the men of the Middle Ages. To them the cathedral was the sum of revelation. In it all the arts combined, speech, music, the living drama of the Mysteries and the mute drama of sculpture. But it was something more than art, it was the white light before its division by the prism into multiple rays. Man, cramped by his social class or hist rade, his nature disintegrated by his daily work and life, there renewed the sense of the unity of his being and regained equilibrium and harmony. The crowd assembled for the great festivals felt itself to be a living whole, and became the mystical body of Christ, its soul passing into His soul.
Cardinal Newman echoes these sentiments, with an appreciative nod to the men who build these churches:
Stability and permanence are, perhaps, the especial ideas which a Church brings before the mind. It represents, indeed, the beauty, the loftiness, the calmness, the mystery, and the sanctity of religion also, and that in many ways, still, I will say, more than all these, it represents to us its eternity. It is the witness of Him who is the beginning and the ending, the first and the last; it is the token and emblem of “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and for ever”; it is the pledge of One, who has said, “I will never leave thee or forsake thee, but even to your old age I am He, and even to hoar hairs I will carry you.” All ye who take part in the building of a Church, know that you have been admitted to the truest symbol of God’s eternity. You have built what may be destined to have no end but in Christ’s coming.
Professor Duncan Stroik has absorbed these truths well. He is a young architect happily shorn of any novel ideas. Of course, this premier architect bristles with imagination – and does boast new ideas – not novel ones. His one new idea is that the old ideas – or principles – are the ones of enduring truth. He is living proof of Chesterton’s principle, “We ought to teach the youngest children, the oldest things.”
Professor Stroik travels in the company of a terribly bright, energetic, and very young group of architects whose modest plan is to transform the dreary landscape of today’s church architecture from sea to shining sea. From his perch at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture he sallies forth, like some medieval knight on a white stallion, to remake churches again ad maiorem Dei gloriam to the glory of God. The New York Times recently called his friends, in an article on Thomas Gordon Smith, the cutting edge of a neo-classical surge in American architecture. Modernist architects tremble as we speak. Imagine trembling at so winsome a Catholic as Professor Stroik?
But tremble they should. Aside from being a distinguished professor at the School of Architecture, Duncan Stroik is also the founding and current editor of Sacred Architecture Journal, and is currently engaged in the design of at least six new Churches nationwide, among them the Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College. On guard, ye modernist architects. Liturgists – beware!
Originally written in 2008