Baroque churches are admirable for their artistic achievement and for the harmony of their parts, for the exquisiteness of their carvings and the vividness of their paintings, but there is something about them that has never really quite touched my heart. They can lead me without difficulty to ponder the intelligence and the giftedness of men, but they rarely lift my heart in prayer as other churches of a different architectural style do. Until yesterday, I did not really know why.
Yesterday afternoon I made a little pilgrimage to my favorite of Rome's churches, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside of the Walls, to pray for Great River Teens Encounter Christ #303 which will be held this weekend. This sole papal basilicas not built on a hill is my favorite in part because it has not quite yet been "baroqueified," if you will; the baroque artists certainly had an influence in certain aspects of the basilica, but they did not overwhelm its original form. But there is another, a simpler, reason why the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is my favorite church in Rome: it is almost always empty, as this photo taken during my recent visit demonstrates:
I find the length and the simple elegance of the basilica deeply moving.
Bookstores can sometimes be dangerous, but they rarely disappoint. After asking the intercession of the Apostle to the Gentiles, I popped into the basilica gift shop and found a new book, a treasure, really: What No Eye Has Seen...Visual Theology of the Basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls by Edmund Power (Citta del Vaticano, Lateran University Press: 2015 [ISBN: 978-88-465-1046-4]), who served as Abbot of the Benedictine community attached to the basilica from 2005 through 2015.
We sometimes need the experience of others to help us understand our own experiences. This came home to me as I read the opening words of Power's second chapter:
By now I am accustomed to the dimensions of the basilica of St Paul and to the great empty space of the nave and I look at the other basilicas of Rome, with the single exception of St Peter's, in a slightly patronizing way, thinking, "how small they are!" Although great size in itself is not a virtue, the vast space, especially when unpeople, imposes a sense of stillness and of silence. In contrast the other papal basilicas create the impression of activity. The baroque style is rarely calm: it stimulates the senses suggesting that God is active in every angle, carrying out the multifarious wonders of his creation (21).
There it was, the very reason I have never felt drawn toward the architecture of the baroque: it is rarely calm.
From a young age, my life is been filled with various periods of uncertainty, from the deaths of my parents to my struggles with arthritis, leaving me feeling tossed about and shaken. Without then, of course, knowing the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo, I knew his famous words written in his Confessions to be true: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (1.1). Even as a young boy, I turned to God seeking calm, somehow intuitively sensing that "he is our peace" (Ephesians 2:14). I prefer churches that reflect this.
Abbot Power goes on to continue his architectural reflections, saying:
In contrast, the nave of St Paul's with its pair of aisles on either side is devoid of monuments, sculptures or paintings, except those that are too high to distract the viewer. This nave expresses another attitude entirely: here, instead of busying himself with the six days of creation, God finds repose. Be still, and know that I am God (Ps 46:10); this verse is more suggestive in Latin: "Vacate et videte quoniam ego sum Deus." "Vacare": the original sense of the word is "to be empty" that implies the possibility of being entirely free, available, awaiting therefore the fullness of the divine presence. The emptiness expressed by the silence of the nave finds resonance in the "vacare" of God himself, in his availability, always waiting for us. God's repose is an image that evokes the condition of blessedness that we shall enter at the end of time. St Augustine understood it well: "suffice it to say that the seventh shall be our Sabbath, which shall be brought to a close, not by an evening, but the Lord's day, as an eighth and eternal day, consecrated by the resurrection of Christ, and prefiguring the eternal repose not only of the spirit, but also of the body. There we shall rest ("vacabimus") and see, see and love, love and praise" (The City of God, 22.30.5).
The emptiness, the quietness, of this great basilica helps me to rest in God and to hear the "light silent sound" of his voice; the very architecture helps me to rest in God and in this way is a foretaste of what awaits us (I Kings 19:12).
because of our varied personalities, different architectural styles speak to us and affect un in different ways, sometimes leading us deeper into prayer and sometimes continually distracting us with one thing or another. Pay attention to the buildings in which you pray. Find one that speaks to your heart and seek to enter into the heart of God.