Chester Cathedral, England (image via Wikimedia)

We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need — but are at constant risk of forgetting what we need — within.

—Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

The first church I ever loved was St. Bartholomew’s in New York, a 19th-century Episcopal parish on Park Avenue. In truth, it was one of the first churches I, an irreligious, halfhearted Jew, had ever entered. A beloved high school art history teacher led my class on a tour of some of Manhattan’s best-known churches: St. Thomas, St. Patrick’s, St. John the Divine. Since then, I have returned to all of them many times, but St. Bart’s happened to be first, and it has remained foremost in my mind. The paneled, gold-leafed chancel shone under the watchful eyes of plate-haloed saints and latticed glass. The light pulsed warm and steady up and down the pilasters flanking a broad Roman arch. The organ at St. Bart’s is world famous, but I don’t remember if it was playing. I was lost inside myself.

What is a church? Is it a building or a religious apparatus — in other words, is it defined by its structure or its function? The answer, of course, is an inexact combination of the two. Some churches, like St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican or Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, straddle the line nicely. They are “in use” to different degrees and in different ways. Tourists and worshippers inhabit these spaces for their respective purposes, but the groups cannot help but cross into each other’s territory. The worshipper is not immune to visual spectacle and historical significance; the tourist must adopt a posture of reverence to have the full experience — or at least must cover her shoulders.

Sagrada Familia interior, Barcelona (image via Wikimedia)

For most of its history, “the church” was a metonym for the Roman Catholic Church, just as the physical edifice embodied the institution. Throughout the history of man, secularism has been the exception, not the rule. The religious disposition has not waned because religious institutions have; if anything, a mass longing for order and communion has grown more clamorous in the absence of shared cultural outlets. Nearly all modern literature and art maps the edges of a gaping hole where God used to be.

To me, churches have always represented space outside of time. Perhaps this is because, by nature, they gesture to the ineffable, the unearthly, or perhaps it’s because the heyday of their social and cultural importance is long past. Their symbolism is, in a sense, frozen, conscripted to be forever what it once was. Whatever the reason, I find that crossing the narthex of a cathedral is like starting a great book: You simply aren’t in your home world anymore. Your body feels different here — lighter to some, heavier to others. This land exerts a different gravitational pull on each visitor.

What does it mean to love church but not God? I have never been a theist, but I have always been a reader. A church is an object that is meant to be read, deciphered window to window by a trained eye. If you know how to read a church, you are in on a secret that comparatively few in the modern era spend any time with. In a painting, each brushstroke carries the intention of the artist, but the meaning of the sum is up for debate. Meaning within the architectural elements of a church is fixed. The nave and transepts make a cross, a crucifix. The front-facing façade is often divided into thirds, like the Holy Trinity. The vaulted roof inverts the hull of a ship, or an ark, which carries believers to Heaven. The altar rests high above congregants, evoking Biblical mountaintops. We enter and exit a church through the same doors, for in our beginning lies our end. An apse at each end of a square means an ancient Roman basilica; lancet windows and elaborate stained glass are Gothic. Imagine the power of these signs and symbols in our postmodern world of infinitely destabilized meaning.

Elgin Cathedral floor plan (image via Wikimedia)

But in my view, the truest kind of reader/viewer is not the intellectual, but the supplicant. To “consume” a work of art is really to be consumed by it: to surrender your will to the vision of the creator — or, in this case, the Creator. In my experience, church people comprise a particular type, uncorrelated with religious or ethnic affiliation; their defining characteristic is a willingness to be obliterated by something greater. As French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres said, “It is on our knees that we should study the beautiful.” The blessing of knowing how to read a church is that you can, for a little while, be done with knowing. You can rest in the comfort of the medieval illiterate that you know what all the pictures and panels mean, that this shared meaning holds you securely in place. You can move on to states of being deeper than intellect.

(Side note: Have I ever found myself in a synagogue that evoked a similar state of mind? I have not. I suspect a kind of somber austerity native to Judaism limits the Jewish temple’s reach toward the visual sublime. The Jews see God in a tradition of textual interpretation that is perpetually renewed — no fixed meaning there. And the Protestants? They need not see God; they feel Him.)

Being in church makes me want to find the quietest, most passive part of myself and take up residence there. It’s a state documented by hundreds of years of Western philosophy: what Freud called the “oceanic feeling,” what Kant called “the sublime,” what contemporary Buddhism-tinged practitioners might call “mindfulness.” In short, organized grandeur makes us feel small and powerless, yet connected to something all-powerful. I think of a line from T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”: “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still.” Church, if we take it seriously, if we give in to stillness, threatens to reorder what we care about.

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, New York, interior view (image via Wikimedia)

But churches can only be experienced within space and time. We all live in bodies, bodies that we must maneuver through the world. Architecture, of all the arts, asks most directly that we consider the symbolic effect of the material. We can steer clear of museums, performances, and books, but we can never be nowhere. An extraordinary environment forces us into a confrontation with a striking somewhere, reminding us that we can and should take care in choosing where we place our bodies, for there we also place our minds. We know this intuitively — think of the depressing office cubicle, which has spawned its own genre of literature, or the mind-numbing gray crisscross of highways — but the pointless frenzy of modern life makes it frighteningly easy to forget.

I took a trip to Italy in the summer of 2015. My visit coincided with the great European heatwave that choked the continent through late June and July, sending even the most tenacious tourist scrambling for shelter on a semi-hourly basis. The symbolism was almost too precious: We creatures of the firmament finding respite from hell on Earth inside the marbled cocoon of God’s house, in Rome, a city at the precise juncture of pagan and Christian history. In a way, it was simple: We were hot, the church was cool. And in a way, the power of the church is that simple. It’s a spiritual balm in a world that has ceased to prioritize pleasure and meaning above capitalistic production.

Internal light in the Pantheon, Rome (image via Wikimedia)

Church is a reminder that, if we are not careful, we may fail to seek what we most essentially and deeply need. It’s easy for us to become mired in the material, the temporal, and miss those amorphous wells of meaning that the material and temporal are, after all, only meant to serve: beauty, goodness, connection with the infinite. The spear-tip windows of a cathedral lead inexorably to Heaven, even if only a heaven of the mind. Its ambulatory chapels pull us into separate worlds, belonging both to themselves and to the universe as a whole. The nave suggests the possibility of a single path through life, straight and true. Light through colored glass dapples the floor like spots of truth. And the organ? It swells the space with sound like water, clear and luminous, through which all the church’s visual glories are refracted, and which gestures beyond the seen and felt toward the far reaches of the senses, where suspecting a thing is as good as knowing it. This is the place I want to live.

Jennifer R. Bernstein is a Seattle-based writer and co-founder of the New Inquiry. She has written essays and criticism for LARB, LitHub, Brooklyn Magazine, Pacific Standard, Catapult, and elsewhere. She...