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