The Brick, Mortar, and Soul of Our Building (May 10, 2009)

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:14 PM by Neal Jones

        I asked Gloria, a new therapy client, one of my routine questions I ask clients during their first visit.  “Have you seen a therapist before?”

        “Sort of.”

        “Sort of?”  (That’s what therapists do a lot of.  We repeat clients’ statements back to them as questions.)

        “Well, I went to this therapist, and while I was waiting for my appointment in her waiting room, I noticed that all her plants were nearly dead.  I thought, what kind of therapist could she be?  If she can’t nurture her own plants, how could she nurture me?”  So I left before seeing her.

        Without moving head, I moved my eyes around my office furtively to check out the condition of my own plants.  I was relieved to see that they were all green, except the tips of the leaves were brown.  Darn it, I meant to water those plants earlier this week, but I got busy and forgot.  What kind of therapist will Gloria think I am – kind and nurturing up to a point? 

        If she noticed and disapproved, she didn’t say anything or act disappointed.  As soon as she left, I grabbed a pair of scissors from my desk drawer and snipped the brown tips of every leaf in my office.  Problem solved.  Now I was a thoroughly green plant therapist. 

        The fact is that our offices, our homes, our living space, wherever we happen to live and work, give us away.  The kind of furniture we have and the way we arrange it, the colors, the lighting, the objects on our table tops, the pictures on the walls, the stacks of paper on our desks – they all reflect something of our personalities, our values, our identities, our souls.  One of the principles of dream interpretation is that one's house represents oneself. Our living space is like our bodies – they are extensions of ourselves.  When I see a person with unkempt clothes and hair, I see someone who doesn't care and possibly even feels that he or she doesn't matter.  I feel the same way about someone’s home or office.  Show me an unkempt, chaotic home or office and I'll wager that the person who inhabits it has an unkempt, chaotic life. 

        So Gloria, the client who draws conclusions about her therapists from the condition of their plants, got me to examine my own office and wonder what my work space says about me.  As I talk about this, I feel a little self-conscious, like I’m bearing my soul, because to some degree, I am.  But since I’m the one doing the interpreting, I will give it the most wholesome and positive interpretation possible.  When someone enters my office, I think he or she will notice that I am a minimalist, that I don’t have a lot of stuff, and that the stuff I do have is neat and orderly.  I can’t help it.  I was raised to believe that neatness and orderliness are next to godliness.  Too much clutter makes me feel as if I am going to drown.  I guess you could say I have a natural Feng Shui spirit.  Or maybe I’m just anal retentive. 

        The colors of the walls and carpet are light, perhaps suggesting that I am cheerful and upbeat.  Or perhaps I’m just a cheapskate since the carpet came from the Habitat for Humanity store.  My desk, book shelves, and sofas are rich and dark.  I’m not sure what they symbolize, except they look more expensive than they are, which is always a good deal in my book.  I do know that I like natural look and feel of imitation leather, except that you slide around more than you want once you get situated, which may unconsciously reveal that I’m a slippery character. 

        My sofas and chair are arranged in a kind of semicircle that embraces you as you enter my office, as if they are saying, “Come in and relax.  It’s safe and comfortable in here.  You can be yourself in here.”  And they are spaced far enough apart so that the other person and I can actually talk and see each other’s reactions and consider our words before sharing them.  I don’t like getting too close to people when I talk with them.  If you stand too close, it feels like you’re smothering one another.  Conversation needs space, and I think my office accomplishes that.

        I hardly ever use the overhead fluorescent lights because fluorescent lights have a cold, sterile, institutional feel to them.  I usually turn on the soft, subdued lamps because they are more relaxed, more welcoming, and I always have the shades pulled up to let in the sunlight and the sight of the treetops.  Unfortunately, the open shades also let in the sight of the decrepit fence around the air conditioning units.  When the weather permits, I open my windows to smell the fresh air and to hear the birds, and I have placed a bird feeder outside my window to attract as many birds as possible ... when I remember to fill it with birdseed.  I prefer the outdoors, and I can identify completely with Frank Lloyd Wright when he said that he wanted to be an architect who would bring the outside in.  I, too, want to bring as much of nature indoors as I can, so I have plants in my office, thoroughly green plants with no brown tips, a fountain that sounds like a mountain stream, a print of the Nantahala River on which I have kayaked, and a painting of the 200-year-old oak tree that once stood in our playground, painted by our own Regina Moody.  I know that it's hard to imagine a minister as Nature Boy, but in my heart, I know that I am.

        There are shelves of books which show that I, like many Unitarians, am over-educated, and they reveal my interest in theology, philosophy, psychology, and children's books.  My love of children's books is also given away by these two characters, Frog and Toad of my favorite children's book series.  Other objects on my shelves and table tops announce who I am, as well.  There's Dwight Schrute, with his over-sized head, from my favorite TV series, “The Office.”  There's my Galileo thermometer that somehow measures the temperature with suspended spheres of various densities.  I don't think Galileo actually invented it, but because it was created in the 1600's, he got the credit.  I have a rock collection which is not so much a collection of rocks as a collection of souvenirs.  Whenever I travel, I like to bring back a piece of that place, like this piece of concrete.  It’s a fragment from a German bunker on the high cliffs of Normandy, shelled from the Allied fleet on the early morning of the D-Day invasion. 

        There's my photo from Strawberry Fields in Central Park of the “Imagine” mosaic honoring John Lennon.  Lennon is one of my favorite song writers, and “Imagine” is one of my favorite songs, reflecting the idealism of the 60's and my own idealism, which hasn’t faded too much over the years.  I’m still a dreamer who believes that we really can live for today and live in peace and live as one.  There's the bust of FDR, the photo of JFK and RFK from the 1960 Democratic Convention, and the photo of yours truly with Barack Obama on the night of his first fund-raiser in South Carolina.  I was invited to give the invocation that night at the Columbia Museum of Art, and Senator Obama signed it two years before he became President Obama.  When I showed Mike Paget my autographed manuscript, he said, “Wouldn't it be something if that guy became our next President.”  These items reveal not only my political affiliation but my esteem for public servants who view public service as a high calling to make our national community more humane and more human. 

        I notice that many of the objects around my office come from times past.  Like these Radio Flyer red wagons, replicas of the ones I used to pull and ride in as a boy.  There's this model of a 1957 Corvette that I used to yearn for as a boy and still do.  There's this glass insulator that used to insulate the power lines along railroad tracks and that I used to collect  walking down dirt roads as a boy in eastern North Carolina.  There are these antique cast iron banks like the ones I used to have that made frugality fun.  I'm not sure what all these old things mean, except that maybe a part of me does long for a simpler time that has slipped away, even here in the South.  I have to admit that as I get older, I feel less at home in our increasingly impersonal, hectic, rushed society.  I have to admit that I don't like the way our lives are evolving.  I don't think that it's healthy for our bodies or our souls.

        Well, that's a little bit about my space and what it says about me.  What about our space and what it says about us?  To understand our present space, we first have to understand our past.  I know it’s hard to believe, but we Unitarian Universalists are direct descendents from the Puritans.  We may have left behind their rigid religion, stuffy morality, and those tall hats with large buckles (why do hats need buckles?), but we have inherited their worship space and worship style.  For one thing, the Puritans, like all Protestants, emphasized the preaching of the Word of God, whereas their Catholic forebears emphasized the celebration of the mass.  So the Protestants placed the pulpit at the center of the worship space.  In Catholic churches, the altar, where the sacrifice of Christ takes place, takes center stage.  In Jewish synagogues, the Torah is placed in the center.  By the way, how many of you know that the Torah was kept here at the center of the stage when the Tree of Life synagogue was here?  These days you won’t hear the Word of God preached from this or any other UU pulpit.  Instead you’ll hear the word of Jones or Smith or Johnson, and it will be a word celebrating life, love, and meaning and the community where we find life, love, and meaning. 

        Another part of our Puritan heritage is simplicity.  The Puritans wanted to purify worship of established forms and patterns of ritual and liturgy.  Architecturally, this was symbolized by replacing stain glass windows with clear glass and removing all icons so that there were no visual representations of God or Jesus.  A simple cross on the wall might be the only religious symbol.  We tend to forget that the Puritan meeting house functioned as a church on Sunday and a town hall during the week, so the building was simple and ordinary.  A church didn’t have to be a large cathedral in order to be sacred.  In fact, the Puritans thought the size and ornaments of the cathedrals were pretentious.  What makes a place sacred is the purpose for which it is used, and in this the Puritans were following Biblical teachings of what is sacred.  In the Bible we find that the ancient Hebrews carried their place of worship, the Tent of Meeting, around with them in the desert.  God met them where they were.  And in the Bible we find that God’s son is born in a stable with smelly barnyard animals.  God can appear anywhere.  No place is more sacred than another.  Any ordinary space can be sacred.

        I like the fact that our worship space is simple and ordinary.  Our sanctuary is not sacred because it has ornate chandeliers or Renaissance paintings or marble floors.  It is sacred because we are gathered here as a community of people seeking dignity and destiny.  I like the fact that we have wide, uncluttered space because community needs space.  Children need space to run and play.  Adults need space to talk to one another and see each other’s reactions and consider their words before sharing them.  We need space to set up chairs in rows for lectures and presentations and in circles for discussion and personal sharing.  We need space to set up tables for shared meals, and what better way to nurture community than around a meal, where we nourish our bodies with food and our souls with fellowship.  People who are into Feng Shui say that we need uncluttered space to allow the flow of our life force energy, or chi.  I like to think that we need space to form community and become human.  One of the meanings of the word “sanctuary” is that it is a refuge, a place of safety and protection, as in the way the city limits are often a bird sanctuary.  I think of our sanctuary as a refuge from the clutter of things and noise that bombard us in our society. 

        I like the fact that we have a high ceiling in our sanctuary.  Remember when we had to hold our worship services in the social hall while we were having the concrete floor treated in here?  The low ceiling and low pulpit stage in the social hall, with the chairs arranged in a close semicircle around the pulpit, helped to create more of a feeling of community.  But many of us noticed that it didn’t feel as worshipful without the high ceiling.  Our spirits need space above in order to soar.  Now don’t press me to define “spirit” too exactly because I’m not sure I can, but I do know that there is that part of us that yearns to soar and that must have room to soar if we are to be fully human.  Call that part of us our dreams and aspirations, call it hope.  It’s that part of us that Bobby Kennedy alluded to when he said, “Some see things as they are and ask why; I dream things that never were and ask why not.”  One of our Unitarian Universalist theologians, James Luther Adams, said that worship connects us with intimacy and ultimacy.  I think our space helps us to connect with both.  I like to think that our social hall is where we experience intimacy, and our sanctuary is where we experience ultimacy.

        I’m glad that when we renovated our sanctuary, we place the pulpit closer to the congregation.  This, too, has roots in our Puritan heritage.  In the cathedrals of Europe, the priest is separated from the congregation by a choir screen.  He (and it’s always a he) has a special place reserved for the consecration of the host and the completion of the mass, while the laity wander around in the nave of the cathedral.  The architecture has theological significance.  It implies that the priest is special, that he is set apart from the people in a kind of holy-of-holies space.  In the Protestant tradition, the minister is called out from the people but is not separate from them.  He or she is called by God and a congregation to serve as minister because he or she possesses gifts for ministry that all recognize.  In the Puritan and Congregationalist tradition, we ministers are literally members of the congregation.  This reflects our theology of the priesthood of the believer, that we are one people before God with no one more special than another.  So there is no barrier between the minister and the congregation, and you may have noticed that the trend in UU congregations – and maybe in other denominations as well – is to lower the pulpit stage and bring the chairs closer to the pulpit.  We had this experience when we worshipped in the social hall, and as I said, I think we felt a closer sense of community as a result of that.  One of the ideas for renovating our sanctuary is to place the pulpit stage over there against the wall on a low stage and arrange the chairs in a semicircle around it.  If we do, maybe we can experience intimacy and ultimacy in the same place.

        As much as I like stained glass and even have a couple of stained glasses in my office, I’m glad that we have clear glass windows like the Puritans did.  I like to be able to look out and see the sky and trees and to be reminded that we are part of nature.  Our Landscaping Committee is looking at the possibility of creating a garden courtyard right outside the social hall with windows and doors in the social hall and the foyer opening to the outside.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go out of the social hall during our coffee hour and socialize on a patio?  Instead of bringing the outside in, we would take the inside out.  These connections with nature reflect our current naturalistic theology in which we recognize that humanity does not stand above nature or against nature or separate from nature but that we are an integral part of nature, that humanity has emerged from the earth as a limb grows from a tree, that the earth is our home, that its destiny is ours, and that humanity and earth are one organism. 

        Our worship space may be simple and ordinary, but we have some extraordinary touches on our building left by members past and present.  Like the banners on either side of our stage and on the back wall, created by Velma Smith, and her husband Pete made the large black flaming chalice in the foyer and our name on the front of our building.  For these and many other contributions they made to the life of our Fellowship, Velma and Pete are honored with a photo from the Mountain Retreat Center which hangs on the other side of that alcove wall.  Since then, other artists have created banners, like Pat Mohr’s chalice banner on the stage which hides the huge hole in the wall where the Torah was kept and Janet Swigler’s blue UUFC banner that she personally paraded across the stage at the UUA General Assembly in Boston.  Helen Moody donated our piano, Jessica Kross our two chalices, and Carita Barr and Polly Laufer our antique membership book table.  Carita and Pat also donated the print of musicians behind the piano, and our partner church in Beszterce, Transylvania, gave us the embroidered print with the Unitarian motto in Hungarian, “Egy Az Isten” (Edge Oz Eeshten), “God is one.”   

        The ghosts of members past linger here through the touches they have left on our building.  Their distant voices call to us to make this place our spiritual home.  Homemaking is a primal, innate impulse.  Birds make their nests and beasts dig their dens, their homes reflecting something of their identities.  As children, we make tree houses, forts, camps, and tents with blankets outside in the woods and backyard and inside under card tables.  As adults, we make our homes daily, weekly, and yearly as we vacuum the floors, mow the lawn, paint the living room, fix the door, and add a piece of furniture.  Little by little we leave our touches on the place so that more and more of it reflects something of our personalities, our values, our identities. 

        So it is with this place.  Every time we reorganize the kitchen, clean out the closets, trim the shrubbery, take up the theater seats, remove the orange extension cords from the social hall ceiling, we leave our touches and make it our home so that, like a mirror, it reflects who we are.  This place, our spiritual home, shines with our souls.