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A Lovely Dwelling Place

The concept of church as home is foreign to most of us because, far from being a lovely dwelling place, the modern church is less adorned than the average living room.

The interior of Saint John Cantius Church in Chicago. (Image: Sjcantius | Wikipedia)

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD. My heart and flesh cry out for the living God” — Psalm 84:2-3

Where is God’s dwelling place? In heaven, primarily, but also in the soul of the Christian in a state of grace, and in the body of the Catholic who receives our Lord in Holy Communion.

But before that, where did God dwell?

He has had many dwelling places: wandering with His chosen people through the desert, He asked them to pitch Him a tent made of fine linen, with the ark of gold and acacia inside and the menorah with cups shaped like almond blossoms. Later, Solomon’s temple was likewise splendid, with carvings of gourds and open flowers all over its cedar paneling and enormous cherubim to guard the Ark of the Covenant. God had settled down in Jerusalem; He had made Himself at home.

And then, wonder of wonders, He dwelt inside the body of the Virgin of Nazareth, was born in a stable, and walked in Bethany and Capernaum. But still, He loved the Temple in Jerusalem. Every year, He made pilgrimage, singing the Psalms, perhaps praying the very words I quoted above. According to John Goldingay’s commentary, Psalm 84 “expresses the worship of people who make pilgrimage for Passover, Pentecost, or Sukkot”, and Jesus, faithful Son of God, was no exception. He yearned for the Temple because it was God’s home and His home; the next part of the same Psalm says:

As the sparrow finds a home
and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars,
LORD of hosts, my king and my God!

Goldingay also notes that the word “lovely” here literally means something more like “beloved,” a thing that is loved. The connection between these two concepts is clear: even a poor home is loved by its dweller, but the gold and acacia must have made this dwelling in Jerusalem yet more loveable to its pilgrims.

Today, God chooses to dwell in his tabernacle—literally “little tent”, from the Latin tabernaculum—inside every Catholic church. He dwells among us. And we, the faithful, make pilgrimage to our parish churches every Sunday and exclaim at the beauty of the stained glass and turreted high altars within: “How lovely!”

At least, that’s how it ought to be. Sadly, many American churches built in the last few decades hardly inspire the yearning and pining that the Psalmist experienced. Better writers than I have explored the reasons for the shift to ugliness in church-building in the last few decades, but I wish to focus here on the church as a home: as the dwelling place of God, primarily, and secondarily as a home to the faithful.

This concept of church as home is foreign to most of us because, far from being a lovely dwelling place, the modern church is less adorned than the average living room. The adornments of a home say much about its inhabitants; most homes display images of each member of the family at different ages and important moments. Likewise, a church should showcase the Divine Dweller and His family. Traditionally, images of our Lord’s family—Mary, Joseph, St. Ann—surround images of Himself at important moments throughout His life (birth, Crucifixion, Ascension), just like the family portraits in the hall. Pictures of His close friends, the saints, line the walls in the form of stained glass or other art. In order to show others who may enter the church that this is the court of a heavenly King, there should be a certain splendor and beauty about everything. Nothing is too good for our Savior.

“But when Jesus came to earth, He was poor,” you might object. “He was born in a stable and lived in a humble home in Nazareth. Maybe in the Old Testament, God demanded gold and acacia along with animal sacrifices, but now that Jesus has come, we don’t need any of that.”

True, we do not need fancy churches full of art any more than we need framed photos of our loved ones. But our ancestors from the time of Christ until just a few decades ago still thought it was right to give their best workmanship to the Lord, just as the three Magi brought their finest to the little Lord in Bethlehem. Someone has always objected that all the costly art in the churches should be sold and the money used to feed the poor; Judas Iscariot was the first to make that argument, when a woman broke an alabaster jar of ointment for Jesus’s feet. Jesus praised her and rebuked Judas: “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6).

So, it is unfitting that the dwelling place of God be ugly or too bare. It is fitting, according to Jesus Himself, to expend our best skill and costliest materials on Him. And the poor? “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said on the same occasion, and this brings me to another point: who benefits from the beautiful home of God? Not God, really, for He is self-sufficient and cares nothing for our trifles for their own sake. We—the poor included—benefit from having a beautiful place in which to visit Our Lord. The church should inspire the yearning and pining that the Psalmist expresses so that we all long to go and worship as often as possible.

With all this in mind, I feel distressed when I walk into a bland church with drop ceilings and, too often, an ambiguous sanctuary lamp. “Who lives here?” I want to ask. “Where is my Host, that I may greet Him?” The Lord of Hosts wants us to visit Him at home and to offer us a beloved place in which to dwell with Him. Let us not hinder the hospitality of our God, but rather do a beautiful thing for Him—and for ourselves.


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About Rachel Hoover 2 Articles
Rachel Hoover lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee.

6 Comments

  1. Nice article. Unfortunately I now am a member of one of those bland catholic churches in the NW Chicago Suburbs. Besides the poor and I think improper, minimalist design is the funding of new churches. In the church I now am a member, about 10 or so years ago it was decided to build a new church. The funding had to be raised in 2 or 3 years so the result is a minimally funded project to begin with. I don’t understand why funds can’t be borrowed for a more tradition design. Since many generations will be attending the church, it’s no wise to have it fully paid off in a few years and skimp on God’s house.
    Fortunately I grew up on the west side of Grand Rapids, where there are several beautifull and traditional churches. St Peter and Paul’s church, where I was baptized, is not large but still very beautiful. It was built by Lithuanian immigrants under the stewardship of great priest. While it took many years to build and pay for, it served and is serving the faithful of many generation. St Adalberts a few miles from St. Peter and Pauls is large, beautiful and I would consider the epitome of a traditional exquisite Catholic Church. It was built by Polish Immigrant over a number of years, who worked in the furniture industry of GR. It is now classified as a minor Basilica. There are also several others in GR that fit the categotry of beautiful tradional Churches.
    In reflecting on these churches, I now realize that in growing up I really did not appreciate them, assuming all Cathiolic Churches were like this. Now sadly I attend Catholic Churches that while the design was well attended, many missed the mark.
    I realize that the spaciousness or grandness is not required, but why limit the time needed to fund a Church where we worship God, which will serve many generations. To me it is a little ironic that designers and some thinkers promote a minimalist design, while God’s direction to Moses was certainly not a minimalist tent. I think it would be wise to consider God’s direction to Moses in a church design.

    • Yes! Grand Rapids Mike!
      I was baptized at St. Adalbert’s and was raised and schooled at Sacred Heart of Jesus. Also married there. I so much miss the churches of “old” where quiet Sacredness was built into them. The thought process then was God first not $.
      Thank you for your “memorable” comments!

      • Yes Sacred Heart of Jesus is another beautiful Church in GR. Attended mass there last summer. An item of note regarding Sacred Heart Parish is that the school has been revitalized and expanded to include a High School. It is a nice turn around story for the school.

    • Thank you for telling us about St. Adalbert’s. When I first saw the picture accompanying the column, I thought it might be the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee, which was also built by the contributions of Polish immigrants. It is very much worth seeing.

  2. Yup, it’s a puzzlement. You almost wonder if some architects build churches purposely to undermine our sense of the sacred & transcendent?
    We have several of those locally. One is entirely painted in a drab, industrial grey & a cheap white metal rod of the variety that we hung curtains from in the 1970’s supports drapery from the same era behind the altar.
    I know that church cost a boatload of money to build. If it were a mission church & that’s all they could afford I’d understand but this just has to represent something lacking in our culture.

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