Divining the patterns of a prayer in stone

A study of the way faith is inscribed in a Roman church

This delightful book is a biography of a church, St. Agnes Outside the Walls in Rome. Margaret Visser, a onetime professor of classics who has branched out as an "anthropologist of everyday life," has written a guidebook that starts where ordinary guidebooks leave off.

Instead of reporting merely the usual tourist information about architectural features of the church and its connections with famous personages, she gives us a profound analysis of it as a representative of churches, specifically Roman Catholic ones, everywhere. How are the physical facts of a church building related to the thought constructs, the spiritual precepts of Christianity? What, in other words, does this church mean?

Organized not chronologically, but spatially, the book follows a literal walk around the church interior and environs, extending to the surrounding roads, but concluding at the tomb of the eponymous St. Agnes, who was martyred at age 12 in AD 305. Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, to give the proper Italian name, has existed for more than 1,350 years. "It is a building that feels as if it has been on a very long journey out of the past, has altered and suffered and gathered accretions, and now it is here with us, still bearing its cargo of memories, and still carrying out the purpose for which it was built," Visser writes.

And she finds in the very floor plan of the church - quite literally the "geometry of love" - metaphors for the pilgrim's progress, the Christian's journey heavenward: "It takes only two words to say the most mind-boggling article of Christian belief there is: 'God cares.' "

One has to quibble, though, just a bit with the reference in her title to "an ordinary church." How many churches in your neighborhood are built on the tomb of a Roman martyr?

Visser writes with a rich sense of the paradoxes of Christianity, not least among them that of having church buildings at all. She writes, "The church as 'journey' recalls the words of Jesus: 'I am the way, the truth, and the life....' And so the building erases itself before what it represents, namely Christ himself, who now 'is' the temple and the path we are to follow. These bricks, marbles, and mosaics were set up in full consciousness that all they can do is point to what they mean."

This is a scholarly book; it is a beautifully written one. (I resist connecting those two clauses with a "but.") One of my favorite little bits: A discussion of how the children's game of hopscotch - with its pattern of squares and "transcepts" recalling the floor plan of a traditional Latin cross church - can be seen as a metaphor for the Christian's "journey."

This is the third book Visser has written in a genre that we might call "deconstruction of the ordinary," an intense examination of something usually taken for granted. To her analysis of a church, she brings a commitment as a believing Catholic. But one can imagine what she might do with, say, a European market square, or a courthouse, to cite other examples of public spaces layered with social, cultural, and other meanings. She reminds us that culture consists in large measure of things we know without being aware we have learned them.

Ruth Walker is the Monitor's correspondent in Toronto.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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