Monday, May 09, 2016

Appearance and Reality

SMC from the outside
I happened to be in Palo Alto, California a while back and saw Stanford Memorial Church from the inside.

It’s an amazing structure, built in the memory of her husband by Jane Stanford between 1898 and 1903. The memorial service for Steve Jobs was held there and it has been called the university’s “architectural crown jewel”. I wouldn’t disagree.

You can Google Image it if you’re interested. I’d rather not violate anyone’s copyright by posting their pictures, but some of them are as beautiful as the experience.

It struck me that it is a lot like C.S. Lewis’ palace of Charn:
“ ‘What a queer place!’ said Digory
   ‘I don’t like it,’ said Polly with something like a shudder.”
— C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
It is what many people think of when they use the word “church”: stained glass, high ceilings, faux-renaissance art, the musty odor that says “old” and “religious” and a plethora of weathered inscriptions that sound more scriptural than they actually are. It reminds you that at one time religious buildings were man’s most impressive architectural works, rather than banks and hotels.
“ ‘Look well on that which no eyes will ever see again,’ said the Queen. ‘Such was Charn, that great city, the city of the King of Kings, the wonder of the world, perhaps of all worlds.’ ”
Of course Charn was not all bad:
“... the blaze of their colours made this room look, not exactly cheerful, but at any rate rich and majestic ...”

“ ‘They were nice people, I think,’ said Digory.”
As the Chinese tourists set up their tripods to take better pictures, or maybe video to upload to YouTube, a woman knelt between the front pews staring into the oculus far above her, hands folded, mouthing a prayer to Someone. It obviously meant something to her to be in a place that she understood to be “holy”. I still thought it felt like Charn:
“Both of them, without quite knowing why, were talking in whispers.”
So I talked in whispers too, because a posted notice asked for silence, and whispering was as close as I could manage.

Stanford Memorial Church is, of course, not a church in any sense in which the Bible uses the word. That should not surprise us since “church” merely means “assembly” in scripture and refers to a gathering of individuals, not any sort of sacred structure.
“ ‘Do you think anyone lives here? said Digory at last, still in a whisper.
   ‘No,’ said Polly. ‘It’s all in ruins. We haven’t heard a sound since we came.’ ”
I don’t think anyone lives there either, though it is unwise to underestimate the grace of God. He may well make the occasional appearance in such edifices for the purpose of gathering up some lost and desperate soul that doesn’t yet know where he may be found nowadays.

I must admit the reality of God’s presence among his people in 2016 is markedly less visually impressive and aesthetically moving than Mrs. Stanford’s gorgeous building. Because I have found the presence of the Lord among people who meet in buildings without any significant architectural adornments; without crosses, stained glass, pews, candles or altars. For that matter, I have found his presence in living rooms and basements, and may well do so again one day.

Stanford Memorial Church is an aging thing of beauty, but it still feels like Charn to me:
“ ‘That doesn’t look very safe,’ said Polly.
   ‘If it’s lasted till now, I suppose it’ll last a little bit longer,’ said Digory.”

1 comment :

  1. Talking about churches, here is a link to my parish church which is also a stunning and beautiful church much older and with a much more interesting and deeper history concerning its founding than Stanford Memorial church. See here,

    Since it is a very old traditional Catholic church it has all the expected d├ęcor and trimmings and with a lot of atmosphere that makes you feel that God is there. But, just like you, we have found and still do find God in closer circles when mass is said in our or at a friend's home on special occasions or in smaller community settings and events (not in the basement though :).

    Here are some photos.

    So, our family, friends and parishioners have long ago concluded that God is found in small quiet settings just as well as in the larger and more ostentatious settings of beautiful parish churches and cathedrals. After all there is nothing wrong with also honoring God's kingship in a manner closer to what we perceive as such based on tradition and the majesty of which is even described in Revelation.