Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Next homily to be posted Sunday September 8, 2013

My next homily will be posted on Sunday September 8, 2013

Dear Friends:

I am away all of July and August — sort of a mini-sabbatical. I am planning to work on a couple of writing projects during this time. Also, I have been invited to present a major address at the 24th Congress of Societas Liturgica in Würzburg, Germany. Societas Liturgica is an international gathering of liturgical scholars from thirty-five different Christian denominations.

If you wish you can read the theme for the Congress. It is a brief review of “liturgical reform” in diverse churches over the past 50 years.

Have a wonderful summer!

Peace be with you.



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Jacob’s Ladder: Reaching for the Numinous in Uncertain Times

Jacob’s Ladder: Reaching for the Numinous in Uncertain Times

Note: This is the text of a paper I delivered as part of a panel discussion at a recent Symposium on “Transcending Architecture: Aesthetics and Ethics of the Numinous” which was held at the School of Architecture, The Catholic University of America, October 6-8, 2011.

The first words in the theme for this Symposium, “Transcending Architecture,” could be read as a double entendre. As a modifier the word “transcending” describes architecture as a means for delivering human beings to an experience of what is a numinous episode. However, as a verb, the word “transcending” also suggests to me a movement beyond our conventional expectations of how architecture functions as a pathway from the profane to the sacred.

On one hand, it is difficult to disagree that architecture has a role in shaping cultures, attitudes and value systems. It does.  Some edifices can transport even the most cynical person to heights never imagined.  On the other hand, one must ask if there are realities, still emerging, not fully understood, that are altering the role architecture plays in the hunt for a holy experience. My perspective will be focussed on religious architecture in the United States, more specifically architecture for worship.

In the texts of the Torah and the Koran  there is the story of Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebecca. While seeking a spouse in a foreign land, he dreams of a ladder set upon the earth but reaching to the heavens. He imagines angels going up and down the ladder. Seeing God by his side, Jacob proclaims, “This is none other than the house of God … the gate of heaven.”

Although there are different interpretations of this biblical story, it complements the diverse philosophies and theologies that later would also claim God is mysterious but accessible not only by faith and good work but also because of a wild imagination.

Dualities often shape our imaginations. We use contrasting words to organize and categorize ideologies and realities; words like left and right, heaven and hell, rich and poor, good and bad. The word “mystery” is often used when something real cannot be explained.  Other words like ineffable, transcendent, liminal and numinous offer possibilities for rising above the situation. These words give promise and hope. However, they are not strategies for successful living or discipleship. What we call divine is considered outside ourselves, unknown and removed from what and where we are. Then we try to figure out how to attain it or get there by climbing Jacob’s Ladder.

However, what if the holy other is more present than we ever imagined.  Annie Dillard wrote, “Beauty and grace are constantly performing whether we will it or sense them; all we can do is be present when they happen.

Countless human experiences are testimonies that the holy other is frequently met face to face in real time without the aid of a stepladder, or a religious building, or an artistic venue or the quiet beauty of a desert.

Human relationships and our attention to each other and the environment are found in our neighborhoods, the favelas, the battlefields and flooded towns. Here the experience of the numinous is cradled in times of joy and hardship. The arts, architecture, language, music — all works of humans hands — serve as narratives expressing and affirming our lived experiences. Sometimes they endorse  nothing more than the status quo, bolstering what is already familiar and comfortable. Sometimes, they offer new insights  boldly helping us see things in new ways, taking us to new places. What the arts and architecture know best is the human spirit. They can play back to us our stories. James Ingo Freed called the Holocaust Memorial a “resonator.” They can also shake our foundations.

Jacob’s Ladder then  is just one of many archetypal examples of a link between us and what is thought to be mysteriously beyond us.  Mountains, rivers and deserts serve the same purpose. The Ladder also suggests that there is a hieratic order in creation that, regretfully in my mind, separates the creatures from the creator.  For example, churches in western Christianity that disconnect, by design and distance, clergy from the laity, the holy of holies from the nave are good examples of such compartmentalization. They disregard, in a Christian context,  the significance of the incarnate God and the belief that Jesus changed forever the notion of an intangible deity. It also not only ignores the Pauline understanding of the people of God as living stones — the dwelling places of the holy one, it spurns those early Christian writers who eschewed temples and altars.

Of course, the time honored principles employed to create stimulating architectural forms, symbolized by Jacob’s Ladder, are still effective. A linear, vertical orientation, expansive volume, profuse light, the harmonious organization of organic materials, all in proper scale, with delightful proportions can serve,  in Jungian terms, as outward expressions of innermost longings. Joseph Campbell reminded us that buildings can reveal in a temporal way what is mysteriously illusive.

Further, there is no doubt also in my mind that the employment of these ingredients is not constrained by time or place or a particular building typology.  An appreciative study of architectural and religious history provides emotional if not empirical evidence that the experience of the numinous especially in places of worship, knows no boundaries and may be discovered in the simplest ritual chamber, great cathedrals and temples and in contemporary mosques and churches.

Are there ways, then, to shift the paradigm, to transcend the conventional ways built forms take us to a numinous or liminal experience? How can theologians, architects and artists  help others to perceive, recognize and respect other humans, eight million seven hundred thousand species and innumerable but not inexhaustible natural resources? Can clients, architects and artists work to create spaces and objects of beauty that reveal and celebrate the cosmic enterprise that is not out there somewhere but one that embraces us here?

The use of the thematic word “transcending” as a verb can stimulate a movement beyond the conventional understanding of the role of religious architecture in convening sacred experiences. In describing the daily human dance in Grand Central Terminal  in New York City, the writer Alastair Macaulay asks, “Are the people at Grand Central different? He was writing about the impact of the Terminal on human behavior comparing it with that of the  stale and dull Pennsylvania Station across town. In the article he recalls a story his mother told him. Her employer had a maid from Milan to whom she once said politely, “I understand the  cathedral in Milan is very beautiful.” The maid replied: “Oh, but Madame! You should see the railway station!”

This brings me then to the question of the teleology or end purpose of a built form especially one that is defined as a convener of numinous experiences. We casually call them sacred spaces. Is it the completion of the work itself? It is the satisfaction of the architect or client? Is the purpose of architecture to transcend what is tangible or is it something even larger but not always apparent, something not confined by categories or dualistic thinking? Could the purpose of architecture be to shape our imaginations about the deep dimensions of the creative process we are part of and then transform us and the way we live?

Buildings, especially in urban settings, that are sustainable in design, ecologically sensitive, and easy to navigate are places where the human spirit can be lifted up. Places of worship that also house  soup kitchens, food pantries, child care centers are expressions of how human beings can elevate themselves, climb that ladder, in face of dire circumstances. Imagine such buildings  with windows that look out to a city street or to nature. Such glazing would ground the congregation or individual in the immanent expression of God’s presence. Imagine if during worship the assembly sat in  concentric circles rather than longitudinal rows? That arrangement would help them focus on their collegial embodiment of the holy other experienced in the context of worship.

If the architect can also incorporate the components mentioned earlier — light, volume, materials, scale and proportion — and still manage to render the space delightful, functional, sustainable and accessible to all, then architecture can be a servant to humanity rather than an icon to be revered by us. 

When religious architecture is dull and unimaginative, when it fails to stir the mind, the body, the human spirit, it is easy to see why people are flocking to concert halls and museums.  The maid from Milan seemed to be saying that other venues can also provide a spiritual stimulus. What is going on in these places that evoke a sense of something beyond or bigger than a world view? Is it a bold, fresh architectural style alone or is it more about the story that is being told. Could it be that we humans  want to be refreshed and inspired now, to live peacefully with dignity in our own time; that we do not want to wait for paradise to show up somewhere beyond reality. We want to find it here and now?

Further, if religious behavior can provide us with any clues about the teleology or purposefulness of building types that are expected to provide stepping stones to a liminal or numinous experience, what is the shift in religious behavior in this country and elsewhere telling us?  The extensive research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life among other studies provides glaring statistics. Twenty-eight percent of Americans have left their childhood religion. Forty-four percent have switched to another religion. Sixteen percent practice no faith, a number that has doubled since 1990. Latest studies on the millennial generation point out the 18-39 year old age group claims to be spiritual but not religious.

Studies are showing that  while mainstream religions are concerned about dwindling congregations, independent, non-denominational churches are growing.  These communities are known for hospitality, lively music, charismatic preachers, advanced technology in proclaiming God’s Word and outreach programs in their communities.  They are not known for building places of worship that replicate the architectural, artistic and symbolic conventions usually employed by more traditional religious groups.  There is no Jacob’s Ladder in these places other than the spiritual experience of being connected with others in the same search for peace, stillness and holiness.

If architecture is not essential in the search for what is spiritual or sacred in the lives of these large numbers of people, these emerging Christian and Jewish groups, what can be said about the power of religious architecture and art in triggering a connection with the supernatural or numinous one?

As the place of mainline religion goes through a time of transformation could it be that the role of architecture as a stimulant of what is good, true and beautiful is indeed also changing? Are other places, not necessarily categorically defined or recognized as sacred indeed serving to convey the experience of what is liminal and numinous in life? Could it be that the time honored archetypes often mimicked in places of worship need fresh interpretations?

The story of Jacob’s Ladder is an excerpt from a biblical passage filled with intrigue, war, multiple marriages, dueling brothers and the emergence of imperialistic nations. In the end, the story does give birth to new ways of living. Perhaps the lesson is that the search for the gentle touch of a loving, unpredictable creator is found no where else than in the untidiness, the imperfection and the instability of human nature.

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8/23/11 – Worship Facilities Conference & Expo

Worship Facilities Conference and Expo (WFX) will be held in Dallas, TX November 9-11, 2011 at the Dallas Convention Center. The annual WFX draws around 3,000 pastoral leaders mostly from non-denominational independent churches. Designed to put church leaders in touch with the latest technology for communicating the gospel WFX is geared toward anyone who is passionate about helping their church achieve its vision.

Richard Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA will be making two presentations during WFX. 1) A Biblical Base for Sacred Space and 2) Art, Artistry and Architecture.

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8/17/11 – Intersection of Religion and the Arts

The Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture (ARC) will mark its 50th Anniversary with a celebration at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City November 11-12, 2011.  ARC honors, challenges, and cultivates the relationship between religion and the arts. The celebration will include music, poetry, panels, painting, architecture, conversation, and more. Board member  Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA will be on a panel discussing the architecture and art of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on Saturday, November 12, 2011.

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8/9/11-Transcending Architecture: Aesthetics & Ethics of the Numinous

An interdisciplinary symposium will take place this Fall (October 6-8, 2011) at the Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning. It is entitled “Transcending Architecture: Aesthetics and Ethics of the Numinous”.  Attendance is free of charge but you must register to secure a seat.

In an age obsessed with speed, consumerism, technology, immediacy, and quantity, an architecture that transcends constitutes a radical and risky act of love and compassion born out of a spiritual and cultural awakening.

This symposium will consider the aesthetics and ethics that move us from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the profane to the sacred. Far from avoiding the charged issues of subjectivity, society and intangibility, we will examine the phenomenological, symbolic, and designerly ways in which the holy gets fixed and transmitted through architecture.

A remarkable group of presenters will provide attendees with ample opportunities for intellectual, spiritual, and professional growth. Confirmed speakers include Juhani Pallasmaa Hon FAIA, Karsten Harries, Thomas Barrie AIA, Karla Britton, Michael Crosbie AIA, Lindsay Jones, Rebecca Krinke, Travis Price FAIA, Susan Reatig FAIA, Kevin Seasoltz, Maged Senbel, Duncan Stroik, Richard Vosko Hon AIA, Mark Wedig, and others

AIA CE credits will be available for parts or full program.

For more information, visit:


Berakah Award Received

L-R: Vosko, Dr. Don Saliers, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, Dr. Jill Crainshaw, President

Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA received the Berakah Award, the highest honor given by the North American Academy of Liturgy on January 9, 2011 in San Francisco, CA. Vosko was recognized for his liturgical scholarship and award winning contributions to sacred art and architecture. A priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, Vosko has worked for forty years as a sacred space planner collaborating with Catholics and Jews throughout North America in creating places for worship. His work is well known internationally.

The North American Academy of Liturgy is an international and inter-religious organization composed of scholars, artists and musicians. It was organized in December 1973, ten years after the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. Vosko is a founding member. The Academy’s purpose is twofold: To promote liturgical scholarship among its members through opportunities for exchange of ideas, and to extend the benefits of this scholarship to the worshiping communities to which its members belong.

In his Berakah Award response Vosko spoke about “The Language of Liturgical Architecture: Archetypes and Clichés.”

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Cathedrals As Seers

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY was rededicated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, D.D., on Sunday, November 21, 2010. The event provided our Diocese with an opportunity to focus on the meaning of a cathedral in the 21st century. This  article was the last ina series of three written for the parishes and institutions of the Diocese of Albany.

Some decades ago a religious building in downtown St. Louis, Missouri was becoming a victim of urban gentrification. The Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral was not only deteriorating it was losing members because of the socio-cultural changes in the neighborhood. Edwin Lynn described that Cathedral in the title of his book as a Tired Dragon. However, rather than sell and move to the suburbs the Cathedral board decided to stay put, energize the people and invest in the building.

That Cathedral congregation began to imagine the possibilities for the future. It realized it needed a new vision to survive. First, the Cathedral building itself was stabilized and restored, a project that attracted new members. The enhanced and flexible interior made it possible to celebrate liturgies in diverse ways. Along with its many programs, the Cathedral building became a prominent voice in the public square. It was envisioned that the Cathedral could be a place not only for congregational gatherings but also a place for neighborhood meetings, a center for interfaith events and ecumenical discourse.

In many ways the cathedrals of yesteryear were places of imagination — where liturgy, architecture, music and all the arts could flourish; where civic problems could be addressed; where downtrodden people could imagine living anew; where scientists and theologians could wrestle with spiritual and ethical issues and where religion could take its rightful place in the political forum.

Our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with its refurbished interior and its proximity to civic, artistic, medical and university centers has the potential to join hands with many allies addressing issues that pertain to the quality of life. Although our Cathedral still requires more work it can be a model for parishes and institutions in our Diocese working together to experience an amazing God.