The Spirituality of Place and Physicality (Leaving Our Marks)

I recently talked with a low church evangelical who recently went on pilgrimage to Palestine/Israel.  He reported that it was amazing, but that before the trip he hadn’t given much credence to the possibility that space, architecture, and place could be imbued with Spirit.  Based on his experience at the  pilgrimage sites in Jerusalem, he was convinced that those places were Spiritual, whether other space and places could also be he remained agnostic.

I’m astounded by how often I run across  this attitude that all places and spaces are the same that the Spiritual and the holy don’t attach themselves to place or architecture or space.  This seems particularly strange to me among those whose very belief system claims that God became united with matter and a body in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who as his name states was from a particular place and at a particular time, 1st century Palestine.

We perhaps get caught up in how this might be?  We can’t believe that a reality free of the constraints of physicality would allow itself to be  limited by the physical.  Yet this is exactly the claim of the incarnation.  As St John of Damascus says in his defense of icons in On Orthodoxy ” the uncircumscribable became circumscribed.”

In The Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann claims that our sense of the separation of the physical and Spiritual, mater and divinity isn’t the ultimate truth.  Rather God intended that all creation be the place of meeting between creature and creator.  The Sacraments work because in our unfallen state the whole world was Sacrament to us, God had always intended to meet us in and through the physical and material world.

I’m drawn to forms of Christianity that take seriously that space, architecture, place and physicality are Spiritual.  I’m also drawn to those forms of Christianity that then say what we do with the reality of the coincidence of the material and the Spiritual means certain things for the spaces we pray in, the images we look at, and the way we sing.  All of this isn’t necessarily as bounded (from my current point of view) as these Christians may assert.  I do believe that the tradition of the Church has a form, and not all Christian activity fits into that form.  I’m still questioning that form, I’m still seeking to think into that form.

My sense is that the Church has left its mark.  The Holy Spirit as the spirit of Christ comes to us through forms created and passed down (that is Tradition).  Place matters, the forms our buildings take matter.  These things have meaning.  I encourage us to take pay attention to the physicality of our spirituality, and to recognise it doesn’t necessarily mean all the same thing.  Difference in form is also difference in spirituality and faith.

  • Also places can be imbued, by their very glory, with a negative spirituality. Every time I step into the Basilica here in Quito I imagine all the slaves whose backs bore the stones and the lash, and the gold alterpieces seem a blasphemy to me.

    There is a legend about the monasterio san francisco, that the indigenous contractor had to sell his soul to build it. Once it was complete, he vowed to the devil, he would give the him his soul. So he stole a stone gutterspout and hid it from the devil and his angels. That’s how he cheated the devil. But how, exactly, did he sell his soul? Probably by swindling and enslaving his own people.

    When my in-law’s house was built in the 19th century, a cat was locked in the foundation to die. You can see the skeleton, still. That’s sort of like the ghost of oppression that haunts beautiful structures.

    I find these places demonic, even when all their glory is supposedly directed at God. I’m therefore suspicious of opulence because of its probably origins.

    • Jeremy, your reflection here is a good extension of my thought. The spirituality of physicality and form would include how those things were constructed or made. In the very least the Basilica in Quito may offer up a contradictory spirituality. I would agree that if the Spirit and the Holy can be imbued in a space, negative spirituality or evil can also be so joined to physicality.
      Though I wonder if the demonic or negative spirituality that attaches to space is something like haunting. Or at least your response to the Basilica in Quito is reminiscent in my mind to a haunting. And you explicitly make use of the term in talking about the cat buried alive in your in-laws house.
      I’m not sure how to evaluate opulence per se. Some argue iconography in and of itself is opulent arguing for a simplicity in space that verges on the destitute and ugly. Yet, It’s possible that the opulence of the Basilica of Quito is not in conformity with the Tradition of the Church, though built by members of the Church and under the authority of leaders of the Church. Simply because it is claimed that a space is dedicated to God and Christ doesn’t mean that I must accept that with out reflection or evaluation. The form (the opulence) as I suggest may not be in conformity with the forms of the Church and the Spirit. The line of my thought would require an evaluation of claims to be forms and physicality imbued with Spirit and holiness of the triune and crucified God. Blasphemy of form is certainly a possibility in the line along which I’m arguing.
      The legend you mention fascinates me. You ask one question: How’d the contractor sell his soul to the devil. Another question is how does he trick the devil out of his soul? Does the water spout represent baptism? Does he out wit the devil by in the end clinging to his baptism rather than his deeds that contradict faith in Christ? Can a space be both demonic and imbude with the Spirit? I’d answer yes possibly.
      after all none of us can stand pure of contradiction and free from the demonic apart from Christ. we are already compromised with oppression. Pablo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed suggests that even the oppressed have some complicity with their oppression (even if minute and for which the oppressor is mostly responsible) from which they must extricate themselves to be truly liberated. This I think is a very Biblical and Christian insight. None is righteous not even one, not even if you are the most oppressed person in the world. If some purity is required for a space to be imbued with the Spirit or the Holy then no space could ever be a place of encounter with the holy. But this is the beauty of the incarnation, purity wasn’t required, our encounter with God through the physical isn’t dependent upon our purity of motive or action, but the act of God. In fact if we take Schemann seriously, that it is the fall that makes the world opaque to the divine light, then if the demonic is imbued in a space that negative spirituality is at best a mere shadow of what physicality can reveal, and at worst a distortion, but never something as robust as God and the truly Holy to be found in space and physicality.
      I haven’t been to the Basilica in Quito, so I don’t know how I would experience it, but I would argue that if the demonic and the holy are seen within proper perspective that the Spirit of Christ is stronger in that space then the demonic forces that would want one to be blinded to the presence in the holy. The demonic would like us to believe that for us to encounter God some purity, some space devoid of our human contradictions needs to be created for God to show up. Rather the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth of the Holy, the Wholy Other, tells us that no such separation needs to take place.
      This doesn’t lessen the prophetic call rather it intensifies it. The incarnation says God has come to you, step into the light, the the transforming realm of God. A God who suffered, a God who saw our predicament and entered our contradictions and evil, descending into hades and the demonica realm itself, that we may find liberation. we all should hide and cling to the water spout, the baptismal font, the place where we only have the identity of the Righteous one Jesus Christ, the God-human, the one in whom God forever joined God’s self to the messy contradictory reality of matter.

      • A few scattered thoughts:

        Agreed. Iconographies and illuminations are a different matter, they’re usually not the product of broad systemic oppressions like the grand cathedrals.

        I wonder if time doesn’t purge the oppression from the spaces?

        I also think of the taint of oppression on our beautiful technologies, our Apple and Google phones.

        I have lately thought of your and your iconography: http://glassdimly.com/blog/faith/cost-words-illuminators-manifesto

        • Priestly Goth

          You missed my point about iconography (and I suppose by extension illumination), I’m not certain they are different. inks and paint require pigments that are mined, iconography and illuminations use gold also that needs to be mined. Unless the iconographer or illuminator is digging up her own gold and/or pigments the same contradictions and predicament as with the cathedrals in all probability stands. Personally I’m ignorant (and thus probably complicit with oppressive working conditions) of the sources of my pigments, the gold for my gold leaf and the metals for the imitation gold leaf. Given the reality that lies behind the extraction of minerals for our electronics, even my iconography isn’t a pure space or object. There is difference but it is not in a guarantee that no oppression went into the making of my icons. I certainly hope the workers who extracted the minerals that make up the pigments for my paints and who dig up the gold for the gold leaf are treated justly and fairly, but I do not know that. In the ancient and medieval world mining was often slave labor. All that to say that I brought up iconography not to claim difference but to claim continuity with what I do and the Basilica in Quito. even my iconography is marked in contradiction.
          Yes, I think there is something about time and matter, though possibly not the mere passage of it, but holy time, time that also is imbued with the Spirit.
          and thanks for the reminder of that post, I had begunt or read it but didn’t have time to finish it. I had meant to get back to it and forgot.

        • You missed my point about iconography (and I suppose by extension illumination), I’m not certain they are different: Inks and paint require pigments that are mined. Iconography and illuminations use gold also that needs to be mined. Unless the iconographer or illuminator is digging up her own gold and/or pigments the same contradictions and predicament as with the cathedrals in all probability stands. Personally I’m ignorant (and thus probably complicit with oppressive working conditions) of the sources of my pigments, the gold for my gold leaf and the metals for the imitation gold leaf. Given the reality that lies behind the extraction of minerals for our electronics, even my iconography isn’t a pure space or object. There is difference but it is not in a guarantee that no oppression went into the making of my icons. I certainly hope the workers who extracted the minerals that make up the pigments for my paints and who dig up the gold for the gold leaf are treated justly and fairly, but I do not know that. In the ancient and medieval world mining was often slave labor. All that to say that I brought up iconography not to claim difference but to claim continuity with what I do and the Basilica in Quito. even my iconography is marked in contradiction.

          Yes, I think there is something about time and matter, though possibly not the mere passage of it, but holy time, time that also is imbued with the Spirit.

          Thanks, And thanks for the reminder of that post, I had begun to read it but didn’t have time to finish it. I had meant to get back to it and forgot.

          • Good points there, you’re right, I had missed the point about iconography.

          • Another thought on the possibility of contradictory spiritualities in the Basilica in Quito, and taking seriously your experience of the blasphemy and demonic spirituality of its form, physicality and beauty: Is it beauty that over time because it is beautiful that can exorcise a space of it’s demonic haunting? This thought is an extension of the Orthodox identification of God with beauty and the good. (The identification is partly a coincidence of the greek language “kalos” means both good and beautiful.) It is also a further reflection on the assertion found in a Dostoyevsky novel that “Beauty will save the world.” That statement really only makes sense if God is also beauty.
            If it is correct to identify God with beauty, then the demonic may use beauty but it never can claim possession of it, rather it in the end is God’s. Then the question comes is God triumphant over the demonic or is the demonic an equal to God? If we are caught in an endless dualistic struggle between Holiness and the demonic (God and the Devil) then we can’t hope in the beautiful and our contradictions as humans stand forever condemning us. But if God is also not only totally other than our humanity and the physical creation but also the angelic and demonic then what we or even demonic or we unleashing the demonic, don’t have the last word.
            My thought is that even compromised beauty like that of the Basilica in Quito, or even my own less obviously contradictory iconography, can still be spaces of encounter with the holy. In the more deeply haunted portions, the call to repentance may be very strong.
            Of course all this assumes the incarnation and the cross, and the continual call for repentance and conversion. As our contradictions and demons confront the astounding grace and beauty of God, that call us to another reality than our failures and contradictions.