The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota, remarkable for its setting on a hill overlooking the city and for its light-filled interior of arches and dome, has inspiring descriptions of its artwork and architecture posted for visitors to read, and I particularly enjoyed this one:
Just as sound is the language of the musician, so here space becomes the language of the architect. Here we have symphonies of space and proportion producing on the senses and the soul something of the tonic and inspiring effect of Sacred music. The moment you enter [a grand space] you feel that you have taken flight from the material world and in the majestic composition of space the soul soars heavenward…Truly such a building sings the glory of God.
We have need in our lives for lots of different kinds of spaces. Homes can provide nurture and tranquility. Public spaces can provide communal engagement or, as with libraries and parks, places of retreat. Whether we notice or not, design and architecture do so much to create these places of tranquility or engagement, of inspiring grandeur or nurturing comfort.
My husband and I made a brief trip to Lourdes when we were in France a few years ago. I wanted to see for myself what I had read about in a book by Dr. Esther Sternberg, titled Healing Places: The Science of Place and Well-Being. In it she explores the science behind why certain places – places as divergent as Lourdes in France and a well-designed and light-filled nursing home in Connecticut – promote healing. What she writes about are largely things that people have known intuitively for most of human history. Natural beauty, sunlight, the comfort of those things which connect with our happy memories, and the stimulation of new experiences – all of these things are healing.
Sternberg saw something more than the kitsch and potential for false promises that many believe Lourdes represents. She saw love, compassion and acceptance at work among the healers and those seeking healing. She saw empathy and generosity among strangers, and the healing of hearts and minds, if not always bodies. She noted that the physical terrain around Lourdes served as a way to enter into another world and at the same time to “step from inside yourself to the world you share with others.”
Dr. Sternberg’s TEDx talk in 2013 has some lessons for places that have long been seen as places of healing – our churches. She tells of meeting an executive from Disney who said their goal was to consider every element of Disneyland in their quest to take someone from a place of anxiety and fear to one of hope and happiness. Every element. And she finishes with the story of her father, who found the only possible healing place during his internment at a concentration camp to be in his mind as he recited the 23rd Psalm. To consider every element of the present experience, while giving people the tools of our deepest faith connections, are the best guiding principles for any place of worship.
Those great intangibles of sacred sound and space are the beginning. Our wounded and closed hearts can be liberated by beautifully designed physical spaces and music that complements the architecture, but the healing really only continues with the fruitful relationships we have along the way. That’s when a building can sing the glory of God.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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