I’m a big architecture nerd. I love the grandeur of great buildings and how their styles can teach us something about goodness, truth, and beauty: from the expansive, encompassing rounded arches and domes of Byzantine basilicas that give us the sense of being embraced by the cosmos; to Gothic Cathedrals, whose long vertical lines and pointed arches draw our eyes up towards the heavens; to the towering, sturdy, art deco skyscrapers of Chicago, New York, and even Toronto — temples of modernity, proclaiming their gospel of a new and bright future filled with possibility and prosperity.
Because of this interest, I’ve been continuing to think of cities and architecture and temples since my post the other day in which I reflected on how God dwells in our hearts, and how that means our hearts are beautiful and strong — worthy habitations for our God.
I made reference in that post to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians where he urges the faithful treat their bodies like temples, asking: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, cf. 1 Cor 6.19, 2 Cor 1.22, 2 Cor 4.6).
The irony of Psalm 48, which was the springboard of my thoughts the other day, is that as beautiful as the words about the security of God’s city and God’s Temple are, they turned out to be a little misguided. The “city of our God” “established forever” was sacked, the Temple was destroyed, and the people were sent into Exile. It wasn’t that God had abandoned the people as much as they had abandoned God. And this remains a challenge for us and our own temples of the heart.
It’s always easier for us to trust on something outside of us. As much as we might like the idea that God dwells within us, if we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of the time we’d prefer for God to live in a temple of stone or wood — a temple we can visit when we need God, but forget about when God is inconvenient. Christians have historically been more than happy to spend sacrificial amounts of our time and resources on beautifying our churches — not even houses of God, but houses of the community of faith in which God dwells. This is all well and good; there’s nothing wrong with ensuring our spaces and our worship are beautiful. The question and challenge, though, is do we spend similarly sacrificially of our resources of time, talent, and treasure on beautifying our hearts?
Reflecting on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the twentieth-century Serbian bishop Nikolai Velimirovic reminds us of this challenge: for the temples of our hearts must be greater and grander than our temples of stone:
What will become of your temples, if your soul does not heed and follow Christ’s example? If the domes of your temples are forever higher than your souls? If the width of your temples is forever wider than the narrowness of your souls?
If the candles in your temples of stone are forever brighter than the thoughts of your mind? If the myrrh and incense are forever more fragrant than the fragrance of your hearts?
If your altars are forever shining more brightly than all the shrines of your souls? If the splendor of your liturgies are forever more splendid than the splendors of your souls? If the resounding of the prayers in your temples finds more of an echo in the walls of stone than in your souls? What will become of your temples?
They will become the dead monuments of dead souls. And once they become this — once they cease to be an example for the building up of the soul and become arrogance — truly, stone will not remain on stone. (Prayers by the Lake, Prayer 89).
God is still at work in the world.
God is building something big and beautiful in the world, greater than any building, tower, or temple built by human hand: More expansive and all-embracing than a Byzantine basilica; drawing us higher and brighter than any Gothic Cathedral; more honest yet more hopeful than North America’s shining art deco temples to human progress. And, we are all called — chosen, inspired and empowered — to be a part of that.
Thanks be to God.