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American beauty

About seven years ago, I was driving to Chicago from Bloomington for the first time. I was with my friend Jonathan Wey, and we were on our way (as it were) there to pick up my wife up from the airport (long story). Once we were in northwest Indiana, I eventually saw this largish structure several miles off in the distance. My first thought was that it looked like an Orthodox church, but no, surely it’s a grain silo — why would there be an Orthodox church so large it’s visible from the freeway in Indiana, of all places?

As we got closer, however, it became clear that yes, it was an Orthodox church. Jonathan and I looked at each other, nodded, and I got off the highway so we could find it. It turned out to be St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Merrillville (pictured), and there happened to be somebody there who let us in and showed us around. From what I remember, it’s a stunning building, lovingly constructed in every way, with an incredible attention to detail.

St. Sava Church also appears to be the only place where one can buy prints of St. Varnava, the first (and so far only) Orthodox saint from Indiana. I ordered one so that my wife could give it to the Russian church in Kiel that has been so hospitable to her over the last year, and when it arrived this week, they had also enclosed a little booklet titled “St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church Visitor’s Guide”. It’s a lovely, professionally-produced spiral-bound publication that contains a history of the parish, details about the iconography, bells, and external mosaics, liturgical furnishings, and general information about Orthodox Christianity.

A few things jumped out at me about this little book. First off, this bit in the “Welcome” section:

Our present church was built on 140 acres… land purchased by the Church-School Congregation following [the burning down of the old building]… [T]he Priest and the Church Board undertook plans to finance and erect… what would be the “church of our dreams” in a “once-in-a-lifetime endeavor”. That seed having been planted, it gave birth to an ideal that included every church organization. Building and finance professionals helped to nurture the seed and guide its growth. It flowered as our unsolicited volunteers weed their labor-intensive work which epitomized God’s truth that “faith without work is dead”. All contributed their time, knowledge, talent and money to the church that would glorify God in the Divine Liturgy.

What’s interesting about this to me is that the building of a beautiful church is considered part of the work of the whole congregation, that it part of the expression of this community’s faith, and that this is What Orthodox Christians Do. This is reinforced a page later when the book goes into the exterior description of the building:

Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church was designed to conform with the spirit of Orthodox teaching. According to Orthodox belief, God is eternal King. Hence the church building, which is the sacred home for the worship of God, should be royal in every aspect. Orthodox Christians have always built their churches with that in mind and have always put into the church everything that they regarded as the best: the sturdiest building materials, the most beautiful adornments and the most costly utensils and vestments they could afford… Earthly royal splendor has always served as a pattern for the expression of heavenly glory. Orthodox church buildings are designed with the intention to make God, the Heavenly Kingdom and Salvation seem sensibly real and present.

Orthodox church have strict guidelines they must follow when building a church. The structure of church buildings is usually in the design of a ship or a cross. The ship plan resembles and signifies the ark of Noah in which he and his family were saved from the flood, while the cross plan reminds Christians of the Cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Strict Orthodox Church guidelines detail that the length of the building must run parallel to the east-west line, so that the church sanctuary is always facing east. Saint John of Damascus (d.753) affirms that it is an Apostolic Tradition to worship facing east. The main entrance to the church is always through the western portal. Most churches have two side doors, the northern and the southern, and Saint Sava Church was built in accordance to all these traditions.

Byzantine architecture evolved from the Roman in the 6th century. The most popular Byzantine plan is a cross pattern in a square. The building is topped by a cupola, a cylindrical or polygonal drum covered with a dome, with narrow arched windows cut all around the concave space. Oftentimes in Byzantine architecture, the central dome is surrounded by several smaller cupolas on a lower level. Crosses embellish the top of every dome and belfry, signifying the church is glorification of the Crucified Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. A great number of Serbian churches and monasteries have been built in the Byzantine style. Originality is expressed both in the design and the ornamentation, and no two churches are alike. Every church can be unique within traditional guidelines. Saint Sava in Merrillville was patterned after the church in Topola, Serbia, but differs with its columns and its west-facing windows.

All church buildings must be consecrated by a bishop before a Divine Liturgy can be celebrated. When a church is consecrated or christened, Kumovi (sponsors) are chosen. Glisho Rapaich, Michael and Yvonne Galich served as Kumovi to Saint Sava Church. Every Orthodox Church is dedicated to a Holy Event in the life of Jesus Christ; to the Most Pure Mother of God; to the Holy Trinity; to the Archangels Michael or Gabriel; to the Holy Apostles or to a Saint or Martyr for Jesus Christ.

The church of Saint Sava in Merrillville is a magnificent edifice which attracts great interest. People who see it from a distance are drawn to visit it personally (pp1-3).

So the building first and foremost is for the glory of God, being tangible, material icon of the Heavenly Kingdom on earth. The building itself is rooted firmly in the witness to Apostolic Tradition, the wider history of the oikoumene, that is to say, the Christian Roman Empire, and the specific, local history of Serbia. This adherence to tradition is confirmed by the whole Church, in the person of the Bishop, the people, and those in heaven with whom we worship. And, finally, this is done for the benefit of the larger community, not just for those who attend the church. The church building, in other words, is not incidental; it’s not just a random gathering of four walls and roof that only the Orthodox in a given area know about. It is an image of the Kingdom, and a witness to both the entirety of the faith and the unity of the Church for all who might see it. A lot of this we’ve heard before in the abstract, but here is an amazing, concrete example of a community making it happen.

I read a book a few months ago called When Not To Build. It’s written by a former Protestant church architect who became convinced that building new buildings is a distraction for congregations, and that churches are better off treating their buildings as more-or-less necessary evils for the purposes of gathering as we’re commanded, but beyond that, the building of big, expensive buildings is a money-pit and something that prevents churches from doing what they’re actually supposed to be doing. It’s a book that has some decent practical suggestions, to be sure, but much of it is problematic from an Orthodox point of view — it embraces the narrative of of post-legalization decline, certainly, and it has no patience whatsoever for a theology that would treat the building as having any kind of an iconographic function.

Problematic though it may be, it genuinely seems to be how a lot of people think. For the last six years, I have been part of the conversations at my parish towards building our permanent building, and these conversations continually circle back around themselves and go nowhere. Some of it has to do with money, but I think a lot of it has to do with being genuinely baffled at the idea that the building has any or all of the iconographic and traditional functions outlined by Andrew Gould and the people of St. Sava Church, and certainly the notion that the church building itself is intended to reflect royal splendor in materials and design runs contrary to Middle American ideals about avoiding conspicuous consumption. For some, it need be no more complex than a practical question of space to be solved practically — build whatever size pole barn or brick box you can manage, and retrofit a dome on top of it if it’s really that important to you for it to look “Orthodox”, whatever that means. Anything else is surely just too theoretical and abstract to be relevant to those of us here and now who have to build and use the place. I’ve even heard it suggested that building a beautiful church building is something that materially wealthy but spiritually dead communities do (usually implied somewhere along the way that these are “ethnic” parishes in addition), and that parishes that are spiritually alive (i.e., “convert” parishes) don’t need such trappings.

When Gould was here, he spent some time talking about multi-aisle design of his interiors, complete with interior columns and transepts, and how there’s a traditional diversity of kinds of spaces inside the church. Somebody asked a question that amounted to, well, so what? Why is anybody here going to think that that’s a good thing? It contributes to the beauty of the nave, Gould replied. “I don’t come to church for the beauty, I come for the participation,” was the answer. Now, to be fair, there’s evidently something of an assumption somewhere that multi-aisle designs are problematic or at least unnecessary in an American context; in the St. Sava booklet, it says that “we preserved the original model and its general characteristics of style and beauty, with additional attributes more practical to serve the religious needs of an American parish. The use of steel eliminated the need for interior columns in the nave…” (p.3) Still, it’s clear that St. Sava Church, in making those kinds of decisions, tried to work things out in the context of a traditional understanding of these matters, rather than an approach that assumes that the traditional practices are irrelevant and impractical.

And yes, traditional practices are also expensive. No question about it. Right now my parish is trying to replace our unsightly, inexpensive metal music stands with a proper analogion so that we can actually look like we belong in our little, awkward corner of the nave, and just that alone could be a few thousand dollars. One Orthodox woodworker said it could be done for as little as $1,000 and as much as $8,000, depending on how much carving we want. Extrapolate from there the cost of a full set of liturgical furnishings needed just to be functional, and it can’t be argued that there aren’t a lot of fantastic low-budget options for an Orthodox church that doesn’t have a woodcarver, metalworker, carpenter, iconographer, architect, mason, and general contractor all in-house. As somebody said to me recently, “Most of us struggle just to be able to pay the priest.”

At the same time, the St. Sava booklet acknowledges all of this, giving an account of things that makes it clear that the entire community made it its responsibility to contribute sacrificially of time, talent, and effort to build a church that would be an Orthodox witness to an entire area. They wanted people to see it from the highway and pull off to find it, and they were willing to do what they had to in order to make it happen. Maybe not everybody wants that, I suppose, but it seems to me that there’s a problem when we on the one hand criticize “ethnic” parishes for being insular and functioning as “little more than the tribe at prayer” and then set up churches in places that are hard to find, inaccessible, and invisible. However “ethnic” St. Sava may or may not be (and I don’t know, having never been there except for that afternoon), you can’t come down on them for trying to stay unnoticed.

I’m not entirely certain how to put all of these pieces together. Is a true “culturally American Orthodox Christianity” going to reflect a core frugality and practicality that sees the architectural and iconographic traditions as ostentatious and unnecessary? Are former bank buildings and insurance offices adapted as well as possible for liturgical use what we’re looking at? I suppose you could argue that church buildings started out as converted temples and public buildings, but it seems to me that that’s a different kettle of fish entirely. Do we get that there’s a difference between chronos and kairos, and that the church is built for one and not the other? Is beauty in Orthodox worship and building design something we’re going to have to redefine along American egalitarian, “horizontal” lines in order for it to be “relevant” enough? Is it a case where, if we see examples like St. Sava, we’ll be inspired to do it ourselves? Or is it a case where examples like St. Sava make us think, “Yeah, how nice for them. Nothing to do with us”?

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4 Responses to “American beauty”


  1. 1 Laura 25 June 2011 at 5:31 pm

    It is indeed a lovely Church. I would also like to humbly submit my “home Church”, St Paul’s in Dayton. Last year, we celebrated our 25th Anniversary and we are still installing our icons…bit by bit, as God blesses us and our finances allow. We are on 5 acres which a volunteer has coaxed into a beautiful, peaceful woodland; a place of respite and quiet where one can walk, pray, meditate and truly find the God of Creation…the God of Beauty Who saves us all.

    Truly, I think we Americans are starved for the Beauty of His holiness and as we learn that our lives are a living sacrifice, all of which is offered to Him, we will find more and more that our Churches are places built slowly over time, as we are given the blessing of working in concert with a creative ethos outside of the “instant gratification” of our post-modern times.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking essay!

    http://www.stpdayton.org/pictures.htm

    Laura.

  2. 2 Ole 15 July 2011 at 12:41 pm

    To follow up on Laura’s point, many (Orthodox) churches these days seem to be built rather quickly – in the matter of a year or so or even months complete with iconography. This seems to be a case of parishoners not having patience. The iconography usually ends up being in acrylic on canvas. No can honestly tell me that acrylic iconography is traditional, when the medium has only been around for 50 years or so. Unfortunately, is becoming the norm in the USA since acrylic painting can be produced a lot faster than egg-tempera or frescoes.

    While I’m a bit frustrated at the slow rate of the frescoes painted in my church, it is still refreshing to know that they are authentic, traditional and that you pretty much have to travel to the Mediterranean to see Orthodox frescoes elsewhere.

  3. 3 Dorothy Paunovich 7 September 2011 at 12:02 am

    Here’s a sampling of one Easter Divine Liturgy. Many more can be found on St. Sava’s YouTube Channel. Over 100 videos.

  4. 4 Basil Crow 10 September 2011 at 10:44 pm

    “Still, it’s clear that St. Sava Church, in making those kinds of decisions, tried to work things out in the context of a traditional understanding of these matters, rather than an approach that assumes that the traditional practices are irrelevant and impractical.”

    This is, in a nutshell, the difference between healthy innovation and unhealthy innovation in Orthodoxy. For further writing about this topic, see a related discussion by Papa Ephraim of St Anthony’s Monastery and a related analogy by Bishop Avgoustinos of Florina.


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