Merton on Architecture

Thanks to my summer sojourn with Robert Barron’s The Strangest Way, I’ve been reintroduced to the writing of Thomas Merton. My wife gave me The Sign of Jonas a number of years ago, and Fr Barron’s praise for Merton’s epilogue led me to pull the volume off my shelf and go directly to the master.

Each night I’ve been reading a little of the journal of Merton’s early years at Gethsemani (1946-1952) and I have to wonder why I’ve not walked with him for so long. Long ago I read Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary, which is an obvious homage to Merton’s frank, put-it-all-out-there journaling style. Actually, my journal is pretty frank, too, but I can’t imagine publishing personal thoughts like that. Certain other confessions on this web site get me in enough trouble.

The post-war years were heady ones for Trappists. Merton relates a flow of postulants and visitors, and lots of activity setting up monasteries in Utah and at Conyers. His message on architecture applies to our present-day struggles with music, art, and naturally, architecture.

The perfection of twelfth-century Cistercian architecture is not to be explained by saying that the Cistercians were looking for a new technique. I am not sure they were looking for a new technique at all. They built good churches because they were looking for God.

How shall we build a beautiful monastery according to the style of some past age and according to the rules of a dead tradition? Thus we make the problem not only infinitely complicated but we make it, in fact, unsolvable. Because a dead style is dead. And the reason why it is dead is that the motives and circumstances that once gave it life have ceased to exist. They have given place to a situation that demands another style. If we were intent upon loving God rather than upon getting a Gothic church out of a small budget we would soon put up something that would give glory to God and would be very simple and would also be in the tradition of our fathers.

One of the big problems for an architect in our time is that for a  hundred and fifty years men have been building churches as if a church could not belong to our time. A church has to look as if it were left over from some other age. I think that such an assumption is based on an implicit confession of atheism–as if God did not belong to all ages and as if religion were really only a pleasant, necessary social formality, preserved from past times in order to give our society an air of respectability.

(Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, from his entry dated December 28, 1947)

Sacred art aspires to God. That seems to be the core value.

Do various neo-styles really carry an implicit atheism? Given Merton’s assumption of beauty, and considering his vantage point of the mid-20th century, his indictment of (what I presume to be) American church buildings adds a lost perspective to the current discussions of architecture. What do you think?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to Merton on Architecture

  1. Liam says:

    I think Merton created a straw man for his thesis about implicit atheism.

  2. Todd says:

    Strong language, I think. But in some cases it might have shown a lack of courage.

  3. R.S.Newark says:

    The Thesis based on atheism is more acurrately defined by the lack of religious belief finding a real foundation in a crudely secular world. The ages of “great faith” are no longer with us as a driving force. Ergo; no culture, no good religious buildings. The capitol sin of greed, of money, is the driving force in our culture today. Mamon is our culture. Tall investment office filled buildings are our new cathedrals…remember the Woolworth Building? When it was built it was desribed as a “Cathedral of Commerce”. Can’t improve on that.

  4. Liam says:

    I am not a person who believes that modern architecture is necessarily antithetical to good architecture for the Catholic church. Far from it. That said, it’s not always mere historicism (let alone implicit atheism!) to cultivate and extend historical styles of building churches.

    First, the church itself long re-used building forms and techniques that had proven themselves over time, even when other forms and techniques had subsequently arisen. One finds, for example, basilican forms and techniques yet used anew even after the development of Gothic forms and techniques, and in turn Gothic forms and techniques continued to be used well into the Renaissance and even Baroque eras. So even historicism itself has long roots in the tradition. And there can be many good values for liturgy and the community in those older forms.

    That does not mean all older forms are better than modern ones. For example, for the postconciliar liturgy, the acoustics of vast complex Gothic structures and of centrally planned and/or domed churches in the Renaissance and Baroque manner is not opportune. The acoustics in those spaces tend towards the diaphonous. Those designs arose in an era when the laity in the nave was not expected to participate dialogically in the liturgy.

    However, basilican and Romanesque forms and materials offer many great models for a resonant but clear acoustic that is much more hospitable to the postconciliar liturgy.

    Modern church buildings that are premised on the assistance of amplification to overcome the acoustical defects of the visual design tend to fall very short in this regard. It’s theoretically possible to avoid that problem, but in my experience it’s rare for that to be so. The favoring of centrally planned designs has not helped.

  5. Pingback: Merton’s Popularity « Catholic Sensibility

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