Scientists have evicted the Divine from outer space, says Moyra Doorly, and popular culture has filled the void Circles, and forms which suggest them,
are highly favoured in the modern age. Groups of people who gather together in circles are displaying their modernist credentials by emphasising the informal and the egalitarian. New Age people like circles because they are considered non-hierarchical and suitable for the inwardness of much New Age spirituality. And in Britain, at least, school classrooms have been re-ordered in the name of child-centred education so that the children sit around loosely arranged tables and the teacher circulates offering guidance.
In The Spirit of the Liturgy, recently published by the Ignatius Press, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger writes: "The turning of the priest towards the people has turned the community into a selfenclosed circle. In its outward form it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is locked into itself. The common turning towards the east was not a 'celebration towards the wall', it did not mean that the priest 'had his back to the people' ... it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction ... They did not lock themselves into a circle, they did not gaze at one another, but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us ..."
It is argued that this shift from the linear to the circular and the dismantling of the hierarchy between sanctuary and nave, between priesthood and people, represents a return to the forms of worship of the early Church. In the early basilicas, the apse was in the West and, it is claimed, the priest celebrated Mass facing east, towards the people. But the people in fact stood at the sides, in the side naves, and they also turned to the east, where the main doors were, at the moment of consecration. This model followed the design of the Temple of Jerusalem which allowed the light of the rising sun to shine in through the main doors and illuminate the inner chamber. The impulse to recapture the simplicity of an earlier age and strip away the styles and traditions of intervening centuries is a modernist one, as is the emphasis on looking inward and concentrating on the human until the action of the people becomes as significant as the divine. A number of influences have shaped church design and liturgy in the modern age. And the least obvious and most underestimated can only be understood fully by breaking out of the circle. Because if there's anything in the argument that the form of sacred space in an age reflects the form of the universe as understood by that age, then it is outwards and upwards we must look.
And that's the problem. The contemporary universe hardly invites contempla tion. The astronomers love to tell us that we inhabit an insignificant planet orbiting an ordinary sun that is one of 100,000 million other suns in our galaxy alone. They say that our galaxy is nowhere in particular in a universe so vast that the most remote galaxies are 18,000 million light years away. And given that a light year, being the distance light travels in a year, is nine million million kilometres, that's a lot of zeros.
We may inhabit the most measured universe in history.
Observatories built like mini cities and radio telescopes that can obtain a resolution equivalent to detecting a cricket ball 16,000km away, gather streams of data from beyond the planet. But there doesn't seem to be much out there but endless space.
After Galileo, theology and science agreed to go their separate ways. Space became the realm of the scientists who may have promised to solve the mysteries but have given us a universe full of zeros instead, a universe that has been desacralised. What's more, relativity tells us that absolutes are no more, that the unbounded, value-free infinity out there contains no truths or definite answers.
It's hardly surprising if the response is to acknowledge there's a lot of space in the universe, shrug the shoulders and turn away. And if the only truth is subjective truth, where else is there to look but inwards.
The featureless and emptied out interiors of many contemporary churches only encourages this tendency. St Andrew's Cathedral, Glas gow, and the parish church of St Francis Xavier at the Carfin Grotto are only a couple of examples of which there are far too many. The early Victorian St Andrew's has had its sanctuary re ordered. The altar rails have been removed and remod elled into furniture — i.e. chairs for the "presiders". The old high altar has been dismantled and the tabernacle moved to the Lady Chapel. The impression given by the newly carpeted interior is of a "space" where people either busy themselves or relax. God has been moved to one side and what remains resembles a slightly untidy meeting room where human activity prevails.
St Francis Xavier's is in the neighbouring Diocese of Motherwell and was built in 1973. Like so many churches of the period, one of the first questions it provokes is: "How can there be a God if he produces churches like this?" Here the building is circular and people sit on three sides of the sanctuary which resembles a stage in a Greek theatre. Perhaps it is used as a stage — who knows if the overhead projector is a permanent feature or not.
The tabernacle has been put to the side again, in a separate chapel — if you can call it that. There's hardly a statue and not a single candle to be seen. The interior of St Francis Xavier's doesn't just suggest emptiness — it screams out.
Examples like these abound and their message is that no matter which way you look there's nothing out there. And that's a deadly message for a transcendent religion that calls for a reaching towards what is beyond.
To make matters worse, we may be the first humans in history to inhabit an invisible universe. If you live in a city, or close to one, you will hardly see more than a handful of the stars that are visible to the naked eye. If you live where it never gets truly dark at night you are missing the greatest show not on earth — the night sky. Satellite photographs show a world that is all lit up. The 24-hour city shines all night. One third of the light from public sources in Britain escapes into the night sky, costing millions and blotting out the stars. Astronomers describe the spillage as "light pollution" and the British Astro nomical Association's Campaign for Dark Skies tries to publicise the problem. But the lighting up of these islands continues, so that only in mid-Wales and the Highlands of Scotland is it dark enough to see what the medieval people would have taken for granted.
At the same time, we fill out churches with directionless, blanket lighting — and with noise and activity. It is virtually impossible to escape amplified noise in the modern world, even in churches with their microphones and sound systems. And where is the stillness? Not in the Church where everyone is busy and involved.
Meanwhile, popular culture steals the show. Space may no longer be a celestial realm where the spheres make music as they turn, or a place of angelic choirs and the souls of the blessed. And science, try as it might, cannot fill the imaginative vacuum created by the eviction of the Divine. Instead it is popular culture that has plugged the gap by revising the myths, adding technology and looking beyond the planet for a backdrop. Popular culture sets some of its most popular stories in space and, in the process, sacred space has become mythical space.
In the making of the Star Wars series, George Lucas was greatly influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly by his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The themes which Campbell and his followers claim are common myths are in Star Wars and the genre it inspired. And Christianity, according to this school of thought, is just another myth.
The formula also includes some Jungian psychology. The mythological hero does battle with the forces that are about to destroy him with supernatural help. That his battle can also be identified as an inner conflict originating in the unconscious gives the story its "spiritual" credentials. Set the story in space with plenty of special effects and camaraderie and the tale can't fail.
The makers of film, fantasy fiction and computer games understand the imaginative potential of space and exploit it to the full. But their reaching out is essentially opportunistic. The spirituality they claim is inward-looking with its emphasis on selfrealisation, self-fulfilment, self-employment.
There would be no harm in exploiting this contradiction. The Church, by restating its transcendent powers, can offer a universal view which is outwardreaching, both imaginatively and spiritually. In Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton writes: "Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners."
Here's the suggestion. Christianity needs to reclaim sacred space. This requires a turning, or a re-turning, towards what is beyond, to what is out there. The universe really is full of music and dancing. Spend some time under the night sky, the real night sky, in silence and stillness, and you will hear it.