Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Evolving Catholicism

This weekend, as part of a school trip for my architectural studio class that focuses on cultural sustainability, I visited three pueblos in New Mexico: Acoma, Ohkay Owingeh, and Taos. I was surprised to discover that all of these pueblos are Catholic even though they also retain their cultural and spiritual traditions as American Indians. Each one had a church, and each one had a patron saint. Of course, their Catholic faith is a result of the Spanish who conquered them in the 16th century and established missions to convert the Indians. As the friars worked to bring the Indians to the faith, they incorporated some Indian symbolism and traditions into the Catholic faith in order to help them understand Catholicism. (I have to give one caveat here. Some of the traditions of the Indians may be contrary to the Catholic faith and many still pray in the traditional Indian kivas. I have not studied their rituals, but I do know they celebrate the Catholic holidays and Mass on Sunday.)

Of course, we were there to study architectural preservation, not religion, so that is what my class focused on. Each one of the pueblos has a very different idea of what it means to preserve their culture and buildings.

To be honest, the first one, Acoma, seems to be confused about what it is they are trying to preserve. While their center city, known as Sky City, that sits on top of a beautiful sun-lit red and gold mesa, has many traditional adobe buildings, there are no rules about how the people can build, and there is a hodge-podge of building materials, including concrete, wood, contemporary plaster, even tin. Not only that, but the tour we went took seemed somewhat irreverent to their culture, as we went tromping through their streets and plazas, and many of the residents stood outside trying to sell their pottery. I had a feeling that there was a disconnect between the sacred culture they were trying to preserve in Sky City and the Disney World conception of "white man" coming to see an exhibit. Only thirteen families live in that center city (with no plumbing or electricity, keeping with their tradition) and I was afraid that their true sacred culture would soon be lost to tourists.

The second one we saw was at Ohkay Owingeh. This one, in contrast, seemed to be a successful adaptation to contemporary life while keeping the key traditions of the people. In fact, an article I read on this pueblo mentioned that keeping the city center alive with activity was more important that simply preserving buildings. This city center has running water, bathrooms in the houses, and electricity. However, the buildings retain the adobe block and mud plaster with minor alterations such as metal coping on the top of the walls to make it last longer. The mud plaster was retained (though it requires more upkeep) because it was essential to the quality of the buildings. Once, when they had decided to use concrete plaster instead, they found that the new material did not bond with the adobe block or let it breathe, and the adobe block failed. So, they kept the mud plaster, a tradition of building that was key to the life of their homes.

The third peublo we toured was Taos. This is by far the most traditional of the three. There is no plumbing or electricity (only propane gas stoves are allowed) and the use of materials is very strict--adobe block with mud plaster and viga (large tree logs) / latilla (small branch) roof systems. To them, building construction is essential to their way of life and spirituality (there is a strong connection to the earth), so training their young men in this way of construction and continuing to pay attention to craft is essential to sustaining their culture. I will say, however, that this peublo had a similar issue to Acoma in that it allows tourist to roam through its grounds past those who still dwell in the center city every day. I also wondered how long people would continue to live in that center city when contemporary conveniences were so easy to find down the road.

So, you may ask, what does this preservation have to do with Catholicism? As I was touring these peublos, I considered what it means to preserve a culture or a spirituality (to them, it was very spiritual) for many many years. I thought of the Catholic Church, which has been around for over 2000 years. What a great example to follow! (Of course, the Catholic Church has the added benefit of the Holy Spirit to keep it going.) So how does a faith tradition carry on like this for centuries? To me, I think it is the result of having a universal faith that is expressed in a variety of distinct cultural ways. The ritual and tradition in Mexico surrounding Our Lady of Guadalupe is very different front the way tradition is expressed in Italy. (Notice tradition with a lower-case "t". I am not referring to Sacred Tradtion.) But the core beliefs, the ones that make us Catholic, never change, and are the same around the world. Because these doctrines remain and people are continually taught the beliefs of the Church, then our Catholic faith (The Eucharist and other Sacraments, the priesthood, the Mass) will carry on forever.

As you know, the Church has adapted its disciplines to work with a contemporary world. We saw that adaptation in Vatican II when the Church decided to allow the language of the Mass to be in the vernacular. Now, we see it again as the Church is changing the language of the Mass once more to help contemporary men and women regain a sense of that spirituality and sacredness of the Mass (It was always there; it's just a matter of helping us understand it.). But, as I said before, the doctrine never changes. These small disciplines do not change the understanding of the Mass or our relationship with God and Heaven as we celebrate Mass. They do not discredit all the Masses that have come before. They simply work with a contemporary world and perception.

Sometimes, the world tries to change doctrine, claiming the Catholic Church is old fashioned (gay rights, women priests, contraception). But even when the doctrine becomes difficult in contemporary society, it cannot change. We cannot succumb to a hodge-podge of differing ideas and allow Catholics to simply believe what they want. We cannot be like Acoma, which has allowed many different building practices to create a city that is no longer unified.

So, at these pueblos, it seems to me that in order to retain a culture that is strong enough to move into the future, there must be some adaptation to contemporary society without losing the core "doctrine," so to speak. Taos, while traditional, may not be able to sustain itself into the future as its members become frustrated without contemporary conveniences and move away. Then their culture will become completely foreign to them. Acoma seemed to have lost an idea of what was important, retaining some traditions but forgetting about others. Ohkay Owingeh, on the other hand, allowed for plumbing and electricity, but they retained their adobe walls. In order to sustain their culture, they must remember to teach their children of the important connection to and protection of the earth. If they can do this, then the adobe walls will never go away. If they can help their people understand why they believe what they believe, then it will no longer be preservation of something in danger of being lost, but continuation of a rich culture into the future.

To me, my Catholic faith is like the adobe block way of building that must never change. Our disciplines are like the metal coping, the plumbing, the electricity, that allow the house we've built to work into the future. Our doctrines are like the mud plaster that seals and protects the adobe block. Though the mud plaster requires upkeep (concrete plaster would be so much easier to apply), it is the only material that works with the adobe block. To try to change it and use something else would destroy the faith. To use concrete plaster instead would cause the adobe brick to melt away leaving nothing but the plaster. Eventually the plaster will not be able to support itself, and it will crack and the whole house will crumble.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Life-Giving or Life-Retaining?

"The man said: 'This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called 'woman,' for out of 'her man' this one has been taken.' That is why man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body."  (Genesis 2:23-24)

I heard a preacher on the radio the other day speaking of how husband and wife should treat each other.  He reminded me that in my relationship with my husband I must always remember that we, united in God, are one body.  As surely as I would never do anything to harm my own body, I should never do anything to harm my husband.  Even if my body were doing something to hurt me, I would not harm it.  If my hand were aching, I would not cut it off but try to heal it.  If my stomach was growling, I would feed it.  If my body was gaining weight I would do my best to help it get back into shape.  I would nurture the life of my body.  In fact, I am so united with my body that I consider my body as me.  I, as a person, and my body are one.  Of course, there is more to me than just my body in the physical sense, but my body represents me as a whole person, and I cannot be separated from it.

So, when man and woman are married, they become one body.  Not just two bodies who happen to live together, but utterly united.  I must treat this new body, united with my husband, as my own (because it is!), and as one that represents us in our new life together in the same way that my physical body represents my whole person.  This body, united in marriage through God's grace is not merely a physical body, but is much more than that--we become one in heart and mind.

Really?  Of one heart and mind?  This may seem shocking to our society today.  Society screams:  I am an individual with my own more important personal needs!

Let me explain what I mean by this:

We, of course, understand becoming one body in the conjugal sense.  Man and woman become one in the marital act and the unity between them is so great that it gives life in the form of a child.  Marriage, by nature, is a life-giving relationship.  In fact, it can be compared to the relationship of the Holy Trinity, perpetually giving life.  According to Catholic.org, the Trinity is the perfect family:  "The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. We might say that the life of the Triune God is the highest and supreme principle of familial relationship." (http://www.catholic.org/hf/love/story.php?id=37200)  So, in marriage and family, we are imitating the perfect love and life-giving relationship of the Trinity.  Of course, the Trinity, specifically the Holy Spirit, is the life giving force of all of Creation.  We, as married couples are life-giving not only in the literal sense of bearing children, but in the sense of giving life and love to our spouse and those around us.

The persons of the Trinity, because of their perfect love and perfect unity, are "inseparable in what they are" and "inseparable in what they do." (Catechism 267)  They are so utterly united that they cannot be separated in will.  Likewise, we, as a married couple, in striving for that perfect unity and love must become of one heart and mind, through God's grace.  "Conjugal love, involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter--appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will." (Catechism 1643)  So, in our new life together, as one body, we must strive to become of one heart and mind working towards the ultimate goal that is eternal life with God the Father, in Heaven.

Society today, however, instead of being life-giving is what I would call "life-retaining."  We have this individualistic mentality that declares, "This is my life.  I can do what I want with it and no else matters.  If I don't look out for myself no one else will."  In marriage, this mentality often turns to, "If I'm not happy, then I must get out!"  So we retain life for ourselves and are reluctant to give to others.  We are afraid that we will lose our individual life.  We don't realize that in giving of our lives, we are able to live more fully.

If we look at our marriage through the example of the Trinity and understand that we are truly one body, then we will know that giving life and love to our spouse is giving life and love to ourselves.  In caring for and wanting what is best for our spouse, we are nurturing the body that belongs to both of us.  In commonly striving for the greatest good--life in Christ--we are nurturing the new life, the new body, that fills us with greater love and joy than we could ever have before.

So, nurture your marriage body!  Take care of it, let it grow, and strive toward oneness in God!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Whispered Word

So I decided to start writing reflections on the readings again...  Here goes:

Reflections on the August 7th Readings:
“After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.  When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.”  1 Kings 19:12b-13a

The Lord was not in the mighty wind, or the powerful earthquake, or the great fire.  No, God is found in the tiniest whispered sound, perhaps sometimes a sound that is difficult to hear.

I have often heard the complaint that if God were so great then he should come down and show himself to us, make us believe.  If Jesus would just perform miracles today the same way he did in the New Testament then of course we would follow him.  If he would just tell me his will, then I will do what he says.  Why can’t he be so bold and blunt?

If we look at the Gospel reading for August 7th, however, we find that our convictions that Jesus could just give us proof by standing before us don’t really hold water.  In Matthew 14, Jesus walked on water before Peter and the Apostles and yet, as Peter boldly jumps out of the bold and begins to walk on water himself, he suddenly becomes afraid and loses faith, even in the presence of Jesus.  Peter had just seen the miracle of the feeding of the 5000; he had been walking in Jesus’ presence for quite some time, and yet his faith wanes.  The mighty wind distracts him, terrifies him, and he doubts the calming presence of Christ.

Our world today is so full of distractions and misleading “truths” that even when God does speak, we lose his whisper in the chaos.  We are diverted by mighty wind of promises of successes, the powerful earthquake of pain and suffering, the glorious glow of the fire of material possessions.  We are swept away by temptations that often seem more powerful, more splendid, more prominent than the tiny whisper of God.

In focusing on the mighty works of the world, we fail to see God in the loving care of a friend, the pleading voice of a family member asking us to do the right thing, the letter of an organization in need of assistance to help the poor, the gentle smile of a neighbor, the rolling laughs of our children.  We don’t realize that every good thing, and I mean all that is good in our life, is from God.  If we stop to think about our blessings, we know they speak louder than any mighty roar.

But why, then, does God make it so difficult for us to recognize him? Do we not see that God has no desire to force us to believe in him by asserting his power through great and mighty works?  Even if he did perform these mighty deeds, would we recognize him?  Or would we claim it was only our imagination; it was some strange fluke; there must be a scientific explanation (after all, science has struggled to explain the miracle of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the tilma to no avail, yet much of the world still does not believe in it).

God chooses to speak to us in the tiniest whisper because, more often than not, this is the most powerful way to touch someone.  When I was a teenager, the most effective way for my mother to get through to me was through a gentle talk.  She would softly explain why I needed to finish my schoolwork and chores before going to hang out with my friends, why I shouldn’t bring boys back to my room alone, and what it really meant to be a woman.  If she had yelled at me, or “exerted her power” over me, I don’t think I would have responded so well.  I might have been a rebel.  In fact, studies have shown that yelling at children is not very effective; it causes anger and bitterness while calm conversations build confidence and help the child to make the right decision while feeling like it is his own decision.

Which is, of course, what God wants us to do—make our own decision to listen to Him.  After all, he gave us Free Will.  He comes to us in a whisper not because he wants to hide from us or make it difficult but because he wants us to find and follow him through a free act of love.

We can always turn to the saints, who were the greatest examples of fervently listening for God’s whispered words.  They did not look for great signs and wonders but often found God through silent prayer, holy adoration, in the faces of the poor and suffering with whom they worked.  And these saints who made themselves small and lowly, constantly pushing attention away from themselves, often seemed the quietest, least powerful people of all, yet somehow, by the grace of God, their tiny whispers echo around the world.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Master's Project

I am in architecture school pursuing my master's degree.  This year, my final year, I will be doing a final Master's Project of my choosing.  Similar to a thesis (though not the same--I don't have to write a paper and defend it the way thesis students typically do), I will be doing research this Fall semester and then will complete the project in the Spring.

I get to choose what the project will be.

I want to do a Catholic Church.

Is that surprising?

Lately, I have been fascinated with what it means to experience sacred space.  Of course, sacred space can mean more than just churches, but Christian churches are the ones I am most familiar with and, especially after visiting many churches and cathedrals in Italy during a study abroad four years ago, I am struck with how powerful and spiritual a space can feel simply because of the symbolism, tradition, and meaning it holds.  There is a theology embedded in the walls of many churches, and that fascinates me.

Of course, I haven't figured out exactly how this will unfold into a real project yet, but hopefully at the beginning of the fall semester, I will have a better idea.  Already I have been reading a number of books and articles that explore this issue, especially in relation to the modernist functionalism and how it has impacted contemporary churches.  How do we combat the blank walls and central plans (with no historical significance) while still creating an architecture that does not dwell on the past but is relevant today?  After all, the Church herself is not an ancient set of rituals with no contemporary relevance, but a living faith that bears a long standing tradition that is only stronger in today's world because of its heritage.

I am aware that my task will not be an easy one, especially because of the nature of a public institution (that, more often than not, seeks to be "tolerant" and "inclusive" by subtly excluding any sort of religious implications), the more mainstream modern ideologies of current students and professors, and the fact that most professors would prefer to impose their personal agendas onto specific students.  But, the more I read, the more excited I become, and I don't want to let myself down now.

So, I'll use this as a tool to report on my progress as well as keep my thoughts together.  Next week perhaps I will discuss the experiential nature of architecture and how it relates to the sacraments.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

To my studiomates, who love Chartres Cathedral as I do:

Amazing how tired you get of people and projects,
school and studio
Sitting between two blank white walls with ribbon windows,
fat plastic shades, cheap and broken.

You’ve spent too many late nights in this prison room
peering at your computer screen, connecting lines,
catching occasional glimpses
of the dingy Doubletree across the street,

flat and red,
with windows punched into walls
of perfectly modeled, even lines,
thoughtless repetition.

You hear the professor’s badgering,
think of work not done,
crumble under the weight of deadlines,
marvel at the fragility of inspiration--

like a pane of tinted glass
beautiful and bright casts shimmering rays,
painting your brain in color until
it cracks, shatters, under solid stress.

Think of cathedral glass, exquisite blues and reds
and turn to Chartres
soaring buttresses, branched arches, ribbed vaults
Rose window of pieced glass;

intricate figures, brilliant patterns,
composed like music, singing vibrant songs,
echoing in colored reflections,
illuminating the walls in a thousand hues.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Doctor's Words

Wow, it's been way too long.  I've started grad school--Master's of Architecture--and my time has flown out the window.

But I've been taking a poetry class while in school--I'm getting a creative writing certificate--so here is one of my poems from last semester.

Doctor's Words

are crystal glass
offered to expectant guest;
vessels of light
in blues and golds,
or lurid reds.

sparkling champagne in
finest etched flute
set with china on the table.

mirrored shards, sharpened
knives in slippery,
fumbling grip.

brilliantly glaring,
within reach,
translucent, relentless;
this wine-filled chalice
is a cheerful toast
or goblet of drunken dejection.