“Owl among the ruins” – What shall we do with empty churches?

Netherlands church converted to private residence.

Netherlands church converted to private residence.

Entering into a church is a metaphor for entering into a shared world of symbolic narratives and meanings, somewhat like entering into a story and discovering the richness and internal coherence of its structure.   – Richard Kieckhefer[i]

A space’s or a building’s ‘sacredness’ is, with rare exception, neither a permanent nor an absolute black-or-white condition. The sacrality of even the most natural or ‘found’ sanctuary is vulnerable to defilement, and thus desacralization.[ii]   – Lindsay Jones

Where once the spire of the cathedral or the steeple of the church gave the first glimpse of city or village, today it is the Sears and Hancock buildings.[iii]    – Nicholas Wolterstorff

Fifty years ago on Thanksgiving Day, a group of friends shared a festive meal in a former Episcopal church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. First constructed in 1829 as St. James Chapel, then enlarged and renamed as Trinity Church in 1866, the white wooden structure, with pointed Gothic windows, steeply pitched roof and tall attached tower displays the Platonic ideal of a New England church, the transcendent anchor of so many Northeastern towns. But its congregation had dwindled over the years. In 1964 it was deconsecrated and sold to Alice and Ray Brock, who put a bedroom in the tower and made it their home.

As Arlo Guthrie tells it in his song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” the new owners had “a lot of room downstairs where the pews used to be. Havin’ all that room, seein’ as how they took out all the pews, they decided that they didn’t have to take out their garbage for a long time.” So after dinner, Arlo and friends offered to take all that garbage to the dump in their VW bus. But when they found the dump closed for Thanksgiving, they improvised, emptying their load onto an unofficial garbage pile spotted on a side road. Guthrie was arrested for littering, an offense which would eventually make him “unfit” for the draft. Absurd but true, and Guthrie’s 18-minute song about it became a uniquely comic anthem of the antiwar movement. Many of us would sing its joyful chorus as we marched on the Pentagon in November, 1967.

I thought about Alice and Arlo and old Trinity Church when I read an article by Inga Saffron about the fate of struggling churches in Philadelphia: “In the rush to build houses, churches are being discarded.” Her subject was St. Laurentius, an historic Gothic Revival church built in 1882 with the nickels and dimes of Polish immigrants. A prominent symbol of the city’s Polish heritage, but no longer a viable parish, it was slated for demolition by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The property would be sold to housing developers.

It’s a familiar problem. When neighborhoods change or religious affiliation declines, church buildings often lose their sustainability. In addition, significant changes in liturgical understanding and practice make many inherited structures unsatisfactory venues for the renewal of worship. Since historical preservation is not the primary mission of Christianity, religious institutions cannot be expected to hold onto every property in perpetuity.

But the decision to abandon a church building is not without impact on the surrounding community. What happens when a church’s physical and symbolic presence is erased from the landscape? As Saffron writes, “Certainly, Philadelphia’s archdiocese is stuck with far more buildings than it can use. But it’s dispiriting that it has taken to treating their disposition as purely a business problem, compounding the community trauma brought on by the closings of so many churches and schools . . . {T]he city can’t be just houses. It needs the punctuation of civic monuments – churches, schools, libraries, and even old factories. Without those larger structures to break up the relentless grid, our blocks would be run-on sentences, without meaning.”[iv]

It’s hard to imagine a Europe without its cathedrals, England without its country parishes, or a New England village green without its white church. And many residents of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood have protested the potential disappearance of St. Laurentius. “Can you imagine Fishtown being Fishtown without it?” Saffron asks.

At a city hearing on St. Laurentius, architect Susan Feenan argued for the preservation of historic structures. “I have no delusions about this building being a Catholic church again,” she said, “but a neighborhood without old buildings is like a child without grandparents.”[v]

However, if a building is no longer functions as shelter for a living congregation, or is no longer suitable as an enlivening worship space, is there an alternative to demolition, so that it may continue at least as an aesthetic presence and a repository of historical and cultural memory, without draining the Christian resources needed for mission and service?

One solution has been repurposing – the conversion of churches to primarily secular uses. In the last decade, 52 Philadelphia churches have found a new life without religion. Some of these conversions retain a community function, such as art gallery, bookstore, school, brew pub or restaurant. Some become offices or private residences. There are many examples of converted churches on the web. Their creative adaptation of challenging interiors is impressive, and they are all alluring. Who would not want to spend time in these lovely spaces?

I confess to some uneasiness here. I feel a certain melancholy in deconsecration. A sense of loss. Loss of community, loss of shared symbols, loss of faith, loss of God. Generations of prayers and hymns have thinned to fading echoes. Spatial or visual symbols, detached from their roots like cut flowers, seems sadly bereft and disregarded. The meaning of the space has been disconnected from the intentions of its builders. One couple who has taken up residence in an old Serbian Orthodox church “couldn’t live with all the wall paintings,” and they covered most of them up. The starry ceiling, happily free of explicit religious narratives, did please them, so it survived.

I’m not saying the Church should hold on to specific buildings when their day is done, no matter how many beloved memories they contain. Death and resurrection is the pattern we live by. Death is not the opposite of resurrection, but its necessary component. Sometimes we just need to let go so that the new may happen.

But the continuing physical presence of religious buildings provides a vital sign of a reality beyond our human projects and mirrored desires. Their importance is not only aesthetic and emotional. It is also spiritual, imploring all who pass by: Don’t forget!

Even a repurposed church retains a memory, a trace of the faith that built it. And that trace puts a question mark to the depthless horizontality of materialist culture. Can you dwell within or among such places without pausing to wonder?

Of all the options for church conversion, the residential privatization of sacred communal spaces seems the most troubling. Places once devoted to public welcome and communal prayer seem substantially trivialized when their function is reduced to the personal pleasure of the lucky few. But make old churches into places of public conviviality and conversation, of art and music, teaching and learning, or feeding and sheltering the poor, and Jesus will be there as surely as he was in the midst of the old worship community.

And whatever happened to the former church of “Alice’s Restaurant”? After being a private residence under several owners, it was bought by Arlo Guthrie in 1991, who turned it into the Guthrie Center at the Old Trinity Church. Reconsecrated as a home for all religions by his guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, it provides social assistance, communal hospitality, educational events, concerts and lectures, and interfaith services. Sometimes a building just knows what it wants to be.

[i] Richard Kieckhefer, Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 135

[ii] Lindsay Jones, The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Integration, Comparison – Vol. Two, Hermeneutical Calisthentics: A Morphology of Ritual-Architectural Priorities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 291

[iii] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action p. 23, quoted in T.J. Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 199

[iv] Inga Saffron, “In the rush to build houses, churches are being discarded”: http://articles.philly.com/2015-06-06/entertainment/63090297_1_historic-register-fishtown-based-st

[v] http://articles.philly.com/2015-07-11/news/64310933_1_fishtown-preservation-law-church-architect

Paying attention

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Day creeps after day, each full of facts … And presently the aroused intellect finds … that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.     – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of today’s first facts was a blackberry that called to me as I ran by at dawn. Blackberries normally ripen in August, but here was one, dark and soft to the touch, ready for harvest in mid-July. Like Moses turning aside from his path to investigate a revelatory shrub, I interrupted my run to taste that precocious berry. How delicious! Sweet sacrament of summer.

This is the day I was born, long ago in another century, and I am celebrating by setting aside tasks and plans to slow down and take time, giving over the hours to what poet Mary Oliver calls “noticing and cherishing.” There are birds to watch, poetry to read, music to play, water to swim in, trails to explore. Or maybe, like Thoreau in his cabin’s sunny doorway, I will just sit among the trees, rapt in reverie, “in undisturbed solitude and stillness.”

After the blackberry, what else will offer itself to my attention?

Never in eternity the same sound –
a small stone falling on a red leaf.

So wrote Jane Kenyon in her poem, “Things,” which shares Emerson’s awareness of facts as epiphanies. But Kenyon, whose own time on earth was all too brief, was keenly aware that such joys are always on the verge of disappearance.

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.

So much beauty, so many epiphanies. Do we have enough time? Robert Louis Stevenson said that “you have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer day.” So today I will try it. I will make an experiment in attentiveness and wonder, gratitude and joy. It is, I know, a luxurious waste of time. But it seems “meet and right so to do.” As photographer and writer Walker Evans reminds us, paying attention is what we were made for:

Stare. Educate the eye.
Die knowing something.
You are not here long.

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson rose before dawn, recorded the temperature at 6 a.m. (68 degrees), had some tea and biscuits, and made his way to Independence Hall. Sixty-nine years later, Henry David Thoreau chose the day to begin his sojourn at Walden Pond. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s Confederate army began its decisive retreat from Gettysburg, and on the same date in 1895 Katherine Lee Bates published “America the Beautiful”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Foster, Louis B. Mayer and Obama’s oldest daughter were all born on July 4, and both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50thth anniversary of the Founders’ Declaration. So what do the rest of us have planned for Independence Day?

It was Adams who predicted that the Fourth would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] We have more or less fulfilled the externals of Adams’ vision, but the mindfulness with which we keep the feast is subject to question. In 1975, just before the American Bicentennial, a Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans were unable to identify what significant event happened in 1776.

What should we remember as a people? Do we create simplifying myths that unite us with some intoxicating blend of nostalgia and amnesia? Sanitizing and depoliticizing the past is a way to reduce conflict, as in the efforts to heal sectional division after the Civil war. But that can leave grievous social ills unaddressed and unhealed. The current debate about the Confederate battle flag shows how deeply embedded such sanitizing mythology can be. Preserving “heritage,” we discover, is a massive process of forgetting where, in Joan Didion’s memorable phrase, “no one is bloodied by history.”[ii]

Some governments try to supervise the formation of collective memory. The late Soviet Union is a notorious example, but there are also more benign forms of cultivating shared cultural identity (mais oui!). But in America, as Michael Kammen has noted, “people forget and remember largely on their own.”[iii] We have no ministry of culture, and national memory is contested without official referees.

But few of us will give much thought to either politics or culture tomorrow. As a radio talk show guy put it in his summary of America’s military mission: “Those guys are fighting so we can have barbecues and drink beer.”[iv] Pursuit of happiness indeed. But as Daniel Webster noted, it has always been so. “The tavern,” he said, “was the headquarters of the Revolution”[v] – a gathering place where ideas were exchanged and debated. In these latter days we have retained the conviviality of the tavern while dispensing with the ideas. The long-winded orations of old-time Fourths are long gone. There will be little thoughtful discussion of liberty and the common good around the barbecue. No radical challenges to tyranny and oppression will be issued. We’ll just enjoy a day off with our families, friends and neighbors as we pursue happiness together. And in a society fraught with so much division and disconnection, being together in peace and play and joy may be as good a way as any to keep the American feast.

One of the moments when I feel community most vividly is after the last fireworks fade to black above our local harbor. All of us who have watched from the beach begin to make our way along a forest path back to the road. It is too dark to see faces, or anything else that distinguishes one from another. We are an egalitarian procession of shadows, walking together. No longer pursuing happiness, we seem to have found it. Being there together in the night, for a few lovely minutes, is the most important fact about us.

The wonder I feel in the holiday’s concluding moment is beautifully expressed in Samuel Hynes’ memoir of his childhood in the 1930s. Although he grew up in a very different America, his description touches on something timeless:

The last rocket is always the best of all – burst after burst, the echoes rebounding, and then another burst just when you think it is all over. And then it is. The families rise slowly in the sudden silence and fold their blankets, and walk home through the dark, still streets, not talking much, purged by the high splendors they have seen, satisfied that another Fourth is over, another summer has been celebrated with a proper hullabaloo.[vi]

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203

[ii] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 667

[iii] ibid., 700

[iv] Overheard on a Montana roadtrip a few years ago.

[v] Angel in the Whirlwind, 494

[vi] Samuel Hynes, The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 111