Who Is this Robert Barron Guy?
Learning to "Read" a Church with Bishop Robert Barron
By Carrie Gress
About 10 years ago, as I waited for my first child to arrive, I needed to find a new dissertation topic. My director had moved on to a different university, and although I had just learned to read Polish for the topic, I wasn't deep enough into the actual work to warrant working with him remotely. I spent several months topic-hunting, particularly in the area of beauty, when I ran across this book.
"Hmmm, I wonder who this Robert Barron is? I haven't ever heard of him, but this is a great book," I thought to myself.
Several years later, after I delivered my fourth child, I remembered the book. I pulled it from the shelf and read the author's name again. "Robert Barron? Wait, this was written by Bishop Robert Barron?" Suddenly I knew who this Robert Barron guy was, but I also knew why I liked the book so much.
Published in 2002 by Crossroads, Heaven in Stone and Glass is a great entry point into reading about the Church, beauty, and architecture. As one would expect, it is full of details, insights, and information, but doesn't require and advanced degree in theology or architecture to read.
The book's goal, the then Father Barron explains, is that our modern cast of mind makes it difficult to "read" a church, particularly one packed with symbolism like the Gothic cathedrals of France. They were built to tell a story accessible to the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate alike. We just have to know how.
Heaven in Stone and Glass covers all of the fascinating details of Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedrals that have captivated pilgrims for centuries: the rose windows, the balance of light and dark, the cruciform shape, the intriguing use of sacred geometry, and, of course, the churches' height. All of these purposeful details were in the minds of the master builders, stone cutters, and perhaps even many of the laborers, most of whom knew they would never live to see their work completed because of the project's length. And all of these details large and small, do their part to help make these churches feel like heaven on earth.
In typical Barron-esque style, however, the analysis goes much deeper than just the externals of these two famous churches. He explores rich theological concepts associated with these sacred spaces to animate our own faith -- even if we have never been to France. "In a spiritually hungry time," the future Californian bishop explains, "I think that cathedrals can do what they have always done for those who are open: teach the faith and focus the journey of the spirit."
As I revisit this book, I am reminded of how similar "reading" a church is to to trying to wrap our minds around what it is that God wills for each of us. I sometimes find myself thinking, "Can't he just send me a text? Put the message in a fortune cookie? Have someone tell me directly?" But God hides his will in the story of our lives and we have to "read" them in a similar fashion to reading a church. There is wisdom hidden in this medieval skill of reading symbols.
And while yes, sometimes God can speak though the mouth of another, a fortune cookie, or billboards, even these messages have to be "read" back into the story of our life to see if all the pieces fit and are in accord with what we know he has already called us to do.
With Lent approaching, this is a perfect book to chew on ideas that will inform the mind and deepen one's appreciation for architectural beauty. It will also swell one's faith in Christ to see how he has worked through his Church throughout the centuries in spiritual and material riches that are still offered to us today.