I have been following an interesting discussion on my friend Todd Flowerday's blog on worship spaces - decor, images, distraction, Catholicity, etc - second tier discussion is ongoing at http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/should-liturgy-be-easy-or-hard/ - and I have to ask myself when have I found a worship space conducive to my own participation - and not. As a convert, used to the traditional vaulted ceilings and colored stained glass of Lutheran and other Protestant churches, I have to admit that modern Catholic church architecture occasionally challenges me. I guess I am just more comfortable entering a Gothic-inspired church space that is familiar. Then I can go about the business of worship without too much thought.
However, I am convinced it is not just the space, but the elements of lighting, art and evironment that contribute to a good (or poor) worship experience.
Last Holy Thursday, I had an interesting opportunity to compare worship spaces. I went on our diocesan young adult 7-churches-before-midnight tour with my son, and I have to admit - the spaces that spoke to me were indeed the more "modern" ones. And, that sometimes it was the actual space that struck me, and other times it was the way environment was used to enhance (or to detract). The most memorable church, a recently renovated space, was architecturally simple, but strikingly appropriate because it was totally dark, only lit by a path created by paper-bag lumnaria, which led you to the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was in repose. Inside the chapel, a scrolling marquee of phrases in English or Spanish (it was a Spanish parish) from the Gospel of Holy Thursday was being projected, crawling over the wall and ceiling around the eucharistic display. What a profound sense of mystery this space created. In the harsh light of day it may seem cold and empty, but appropriate lighting and creative elements enhanced the experience.
In contrast, there was a brightly lit very traditional Gothic space, which was cluttered with a tasteless homemade grotto in which it was difficult to discern the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I spent most of my time there trying to find it. Not an appropriate space to enhance the Holy Thursday experience.
Another church, a predominantly African American parish in a lower-economic area, had purple Lenten decor elements out in place of the normal white-enhanced ones - but in that church the chief adornment of the space was the hospitable spirit of the people, who greeted us with a "mini-revival" instead of the expected Adoration experience. OK, so it didn't feel like Holy Thursday - but you know, I still remember how it felt. They were being themselves - simple, devout and enthusiastic.
In yet another church, the sanctuary was stunningly beautiful - but someone had attempted to cover up the traditional wall-statue images of Mary on one side, and Joseph and Child on the other, by painting them medium grey - to go with the two-tone medium and dark grey used on walls and ceiling (with traditional gold accents). The apparent intent was to harmonize the appearance of traditional Gothic elements with the fabulous Art Deco black marble and gold altar, ambo and tabernacle which are truly stunningly beautiful. Certainly the sanctuary was a delight to the eye, but the distressing attempt to marry the two styles through the paint job on the rest of the church was truly distracting.
So, what? This little tour helped me understand that some spaces lend themselves harmoniously to the worship experience, for whatever reason, while others call so much attention to the space that worship becomes all but impossible. Maybe if I worshiped regularly in one of the distracting spaces, I would become innured to the distraction?