✜ Inebriated by the Infinite ✜ (Dennis Aubrey)

… A faith that itself worked true miracles, even while it believed in unreal ones.” Edward S. Creasy

12th century cloister of Abbaye de Fontenay (Côte-d\’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Clearly, architecture communicates values in some visceral way. There is a reason that the Nazi power structure in Germany gravitated to the architecture of Albert Speer with its imperial vistas resonant with martial themes. Universities are awash with classical structures designed to evoke the wisdom of Greece and the glory of Rome. Modern skyscrapers show the power and the aspirations of the masters of commerce, soaring high into the sky like a stock chart in a bull market. This is, of course, intentional, the product of long development in the history of man.

Religious architecture has always communicated its values as well. What does Stonehenge tell us of the ancient people who moved massive stones across Britain to build their circle in Wiltshire? What moved people to expend such enormous effort on a funerary monument 5,000 years ago, a millennium before the first pyramids of Egypt? And in those Egyptian – and later Mayan – pyramids, one feels the power of their gods and the subservience of man to those gods.

Side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine (Vézelay) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There are also structures with more refined intent. Zen and Buddhist temples are designed to encourage contemplation, certainly contemplation of matters of a spiritual nature. To sit in a Karesansui garden, with its raked sand or gravel, is to understand how life continuously changes and evolves in almost abstract ways.

Karesansui garden – Photo by Stephane D’Alu (GNU Free Documentation License)

Islamic architecture uses its decorative motives to add a sophisticated message about the will of Allah. The intricate, mathematically-based designs that characterize that architecture demonstrate that divine intentions do exist, are real. One senses the significance of the design even if its complexity is such that we don’t understand its reasoning. What a perfect demonstration of the relationship of man and God. To look at a great mosque with this decoration extending over an entire dome above the interior of the structure is to see a wonderful metaphor for the infinite that characterizes Islamic architecture.

Golden mosaics in the dome of the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Photo by Hans Peter Schaefer (GNU Free Documentation License)

In the Romanesque church one senses the power and glory of God, certainly, but also the sheltering hand of a protector, and a serenity designed to encourage contemplation of His relationship to us. We feel something else, something very profound. Inside these churches, we feel something in our inner selves that we cannot really feel in the outside world. We feel the possibility of higher aspirations for humanity, of spiritual matters that carry us beyond the daily grind of reality. Walking through the streets of a city, surrounded by taxis and buses and scurrying pedestrians, all in their own private worlds, with neon signs winking like seizure-inducing machines, with great billboards insisting that we replace something that we already own for something that is more fashionable, I cannot imagine that mankind can have any higher purpose than to somehow claw above the masses to gain some relief from the noise and frenzy surrounding us.

Contemplation in Vézelay, Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But walk from those same streets into one of the great Romanesque or Gothic churches and everything changes immediately. One is surrounded by silence, whispers, murmurs. Lighted candles testify to prayers of supplication and gratitude. You sit, and the space fills you with thoughts and feelings that yes, there may be a God here, and yes, we may have a higher purpose. We may indeed exist for something more than acquisition and consumption. It is, in fact, a promise.

It is a secret promise made by the architecture, by the building itself, reflecting the beliefs and the understandings of those who designed and built them, reinforced by the repetition of worship and veneration over a thousand years. Jorge Luis Borges said, “It can be discussed, but like everything important, it conceals a secret.” The secret here is the silence – the deafening silence of contemplation. Central to the ideal of monasticism is the belief that contemplation is the path to God. “Be still and know that I am” was fundamental to the monastic community, the belief that the soul, with distractions removed, will move inevitably toward the contemplation of God.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine (Vézelay) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Two things seem to have been universally known in the Middle Ages; first, that the ideals and practices of monasticism might rank with the greatest contributions to society; second, that the failure of the monks and nuns to live up to the strict monastic ideal was a source of contempt and condemnation to the rest of society. But these churches speak not about the failures of man, but the aspirations of the monastic ideal. Humanity’s behavior is forever at odds with its ideals, but it is the very existence of that ideal that identifies us as human, a being with a soul. And that soul, that ideal – and here is the great secret – exists with or without God.

38 responses to “✜ Inebriated by the Infinite ✜ (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Exactly. But perhaps that is because everyone has something inside that responds to these structures designed to express spiritual matters. I would not call myself spiritually inclined, but am moved tremendously.

  1. I took a seminar on the labyrinth with Lauren Artress, who is to a large degree responsible for raising awareness today about the existence and use of the midaevil cathedral floor labyrinths. She called them a “technology of the soul”. I think you hit it when you said that sacred archictecture was designed with “refined intent.” It can transmit ideas over aeons of time, even if we are not able to reproduce their creation or exact religious intentions today. In that way, some structures embody a sort of DNA of the eternal.

  2. even without your beautifully written thoughts one could spend time in silence absorbing the beauty of your images and understand the secret promise of the beautiful architeture, and those who build them. lovely.

  3. Dennis, Your writings are always very interesting. I think all your readers enjoy your curiosity about these churches and about the God they glorify. Even those of us who worship that God are wondering what the reasons were for the monks, who took a vow of poverty, choosing to build massive churches that today would cost a zillion dollars and anyway no one would be prepared to wait the hundred or more years it took to finish one. Is there anything today in Christianity that’s like Romanesque and Gothic churches? Before going to France, I had never experienced anything like these churches – there is no place, other than in nature, that is as peaceful. I’m not surprised it leaves you inebriated. Something I’ve noticed, and is amusing, is your blog theme: Customized ChaoticSoul.

    • Trish, you made us laugh with the Customized ChaoticSoul line – maybe we should make that the name of the blog!

      As far as your question if there is anything like the Romanesque and Gothic today, the answer is probably not. The Romanesque movement was part of a spiritual renaissance in Europe and a special confluence of circumstances. The result was a movement that built thousands of churches – five thousand Romanesque churches survive in France, all built within a two-hundred year span. That’s 25 churches per year that have survived! It has been observed that in the 12th Century, France built 80 cathedrals. In doing so, the French people moved more stone than was used in building the pyramids in all of Egyptian history. And this was done with free labor – no slaves. An astonishing mobilization of the population. I am trying to do a mathematical calculation of what percentage of the population might have been involved in that effort; whatever the numbers are, it will have been significant. Something important was happening, and that is what we are looking for.

      • Dennis, I’d like to write this bit of amazing information on my blog in the next week – the part about the cathedrals requiring more stone to be moved than the pyramids. I’ll direct readers back to your site. Is this ok? Can I also check the length of the Romanesque period? Was it 200 years long? Were 250 churches or 25 churches built per year? Thanks in advance.

      • Trish, the Romanesque period was 200 years approximately – 5000 of their churches still exist (we don’t know how many were destroyed). That averages to 25 per year, not 250, of course. Sorry. But what I was trying to calculate was how long it took them to be built and therefore how many were being constructed simultaneously. I think this was the 250 per year number. The amount of stone is referenced in “Mont Saint Michel and Chartres” by Henry Adams.

      • At the National Library here in Canberra yesterday I requested the book on Mont Saint Michel. Not all the pages had been cut so it had to be returned to the conservation people. I love that – it means I’ll be the first one to read those pages. This also happened with another book I needed, about the French author George Sand. Perhaps it says something about Australians.

  4. Denis, this has to be one of your very best posts: the poetic quality of the prose, the joy of the spirit behind it and the fabulous photographs – all superb. Thank you.

    • I am a little nervous when talking about the writing because I’m dealing with subjects that are far beyond my capability to describe, and addressed by people with far more insight and experience. That said, these structures and the people who built them move both PJ and me greatly and I have made a choice to describe those sensations, feelings, and thoughts in a way that is direct and clear. Occasionally I slip into something of the language of the mystery, but those are usually late-night posts. Viv,thanks for your kind words.

  5. The Vezelay image: a path open before us into archetypal recesses of primordial subconscious, often a frightening path to travel in our dreams. But this view offers the protection of solid columns, thick walls, soft, enveloping darkness with a distant bright awareness and release at its end. An entrance ( in trance) of solid material leading to lightness beyond matter.

    • Stephen, you’ve hit on they key to the Romanesque, in my view. The sense of protection and sheltering is pervasive, almost like a cupped hand. These builders knew exactly what they were doing and saying with their stones; they knew these deep fears and they knew redemption.

      • Just a thought: include with your book a CD of chant from the appropriate eras, eg. Miserere by Allegri, etc. Something to get one in the mood.

      • Stephan, we have been in several places where the monastic residents have been conducting their services – Vézelay (several times), Abbaye Notre-Dame de Fontgombault, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, and others. Always a marvelous and moving thing to hear. As you suggest, definitely gets one in the mood!

  6. Pingback: Quotation: Edward S. Creasy (1812 – 1878) | New Gottland

  7. I had the opportunity to visit many Shinto Shrines during my time in Japan, and although I love basilicas, I think I may love these shrines more. They just communicate a different type of peace than you see in a church – more outdoorsy, communal with nature.

    • They do communicate a different message, don’t they. What I love is that there is a variety of architecture to communicate the beliefs of different peoples and different cultures. Thanks for your observations.

  8. Pingback: 366 unusual things: days 144-148 « Sounds like wish

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