(Part 6 of a 6-part series based on an interview with George Hoelzeman, Medieval scholar and liturgical artist.)
Churches were manifestations of heaven on earth. They weren’t simply buildings, but were the setting for the liturgy itself, a heavenly feast. The liturgy itself was a sensual experience, with all the senses engaged to create an experience of heaven on earth: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
Nowadays, the experience of church is sanitized and the beauty of the senses has largely been removed, in response to the Puritan ethos that repressed the physical. The Reformation and the Counter Reformation divorced us from the physicality of encounter with God, as we shunned that which appeared sinful and inappropriate. The Enlightenment killed off any need for the physical, focusing as it did on reason and the rational.
But encounters with God are meant to be physical. Throughout Scriptures, any encounter with God is pre-eminently physical (in the Word made flesh, in the burning bush, in the tongues of fire). Christ became man, to encounter us in our physical realm. He was a man who needed to eat, to sleep, even to bathe. Our flesh was his flesh. And he embraced man, woman, and child — God embracing us in our very beings.
We encounter God in all things and in all people. The people of the Middle Ages understood this, says Hoelzeman. Theirs was a world of physical encounter with God, through incense (the odor of sanctity), through liturgy, through music, architecture, and art.
We have lost something vital in our rejection of the physical, says Hoelzeman, and our embrace of the purely rational. If God had wished a merely intellectual relationship with mankind, He would never have been born Son of Man. But He was, the Word made flesh, and we, like His followers, are called to embrace Him, in prayer and worship.
(End of series. More interviews with Hoelzeman to follow: the aesthetics of Medieval art and architecture and how they beckon mankind to God.)