Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Subterranean Homesick Prayer

I didn't expect to be transformed by Rome when I visited the city in 2005, but walking through the ancient Forum was like riding a time machine to the days of the early Church, when everything about my faith was being figured out by people no different than you or me.

From an architectural standpoint, I saw that these Christians in the 1st and 2d centuries had little time, money, or opportunity for building elaborate basilicas. Faith seemed more about learning to understand one another and sharing God's love -- and avoiding persecutors. At times, Christians literally went underground to worship.

Without a doubt, threats of brutal persecution would have made faith lonelier for me.  More than anything, my faith would have needed a strong community to love, challenge, and encourage me. My fellow Christians would have become family, and the church would have felt like home.

The church would have become home.

Alain de Botton, who writes on how architecture affects the human condition, described the intimacy of these subterranean churches in his book The Architecture of Happiness. His writing, like walking around Roman ruins, helped me to better understand the roots of my faith.

It is the world's great religions that have perhaps given most thought to the role played by the environment in determining identity and so--while seldom constructing places where we might fall alseep--have shown the greatest sympathy for our need for a home.

The first attempts to create specifically Christian spaces, buildings intended to help draw their occupants closer to the truths of the Gospels, date from some 200 years after the birth of Christ. On plaster walls in low-ceilinged, candelit rooms, beneath the heathen streets of Rome, untrained artists painted crude renditions of incidents in Jesus's life, in primitive style which might have done justice to the less gifted students of an art school.

These Christian catacombs are only more touching, however, for their inarticulancy. They show the architectural and artistic impulses in their purest forms, without the elaboration supplied by talent or money. They reveal how in the absence of great patrons or craftsmen, with no skills or resources to speak of, the faithful will feel the need to daub the symbols of their heavens on damp cellar walls--to ensure what is around them will fortify the truths within them.
Alain de Botton 
 The Architecture of Happiness, Pantheon Books 2006