The Prodigal Architect

Finding the Sacred in a Profane Life

Duo Dickinson / 7.25.22

Editor’s note: Duo Dickinson works as an architect and has worked on over 20 religious places. One of the churches he worked on is Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral in Hartford, CT which is the featured image for this post. 

The day-to-day realities of our lives overwhelm our minds and senses. Earning a living, eating, sleeping, and dealing with children and parents and friends are a time and energy dump for everyone. That is how we live in this profane world.

However, there is a flip side to the secular life that we live. Why we live our lives, reveals what is sacred to us – the joyous, inspiring, irrationally meaningful portion that manifests what we love. My profane life is often spent in the pursuit of the sacred. I help create buildings every day. I have been an architect for over forty years, toiling in the transactions of money, technology, law, materials, and the humans who weave them into buildings.

Architects are depicted in popular culture as shamans who channel illusive beauty. But architects, including me, are as profane as any human. We are all gifted by God with the burden of knowing the possibilities of what we can make. Whether it’s the farmer’s diligence, the musician’s ear, or the accountant’s mind, those gifts define our mission in life. For architects, the ability to create shape and space in the service of buildings is just our burden and gift.

Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, Hartford, Ct. Photo courtesy of the author.

Every gift from God is definitionally sacred, but few of those gifts bear the responsibility to reveal the sacred to the world. In that way, architects are living with the same gifts as priests, rabbis, and imams. Like the lives of those who clerics minister to, buildings are gritty constructions that use human time, cost, risk, and skill in their making.

Goethe once said that architecture may be “frozen music.” The language of music is sound, sound that connects to our brains in ways that are both instant and direct. Architecture uses a more indirect path to do the same thing. Architects use materials to make shapes, create space, capture light, manipulate sound, direct movement, and focus attention. But architecture is also triggering in ways music is not.

You can turn the volume of music up or down. You can also simply turn the music off. But architecture is often unavoidable. Buildings are as universal in our perception as the natural environment all around us. While there is an “off” switch to many stimuli, the sense of the sacred is unavoidable, as is its absence.

Like everything else, humans try to define what we sense in the never-ending effort to control what we do not understand. The Pew Research Center Report on Religion in America parsed the distinction between “religious” and “spiritual.” While almost 20% of us are self-defined neither “religious” nor “spiritual,” about half of us are connected to God in a religion and less than a third of us are just “spiritual,” with no religious connection. Even though 6% of humans say they are “religious but not spiritual” (!), every human I know is moved by things that are beyond their understanding – perhaps because they cannot understand them.

But buildings can be understood by humans because we make them. And whether intended to be religious or spiritual, the sense that a place meets more than the profane needs of safety and utility renders it sacred. The divine spark that animates us is inherent in all life. It is the joy we feel in all the realities we cannot control. It can be found in the buildings that we create, for God has gifted us with a connection in architecture beyond the profane. And I am afflicted with that gift.

The humanity of a building’s designer can transcend the purposes and potential of that which is being built. The conundrum of trying to live into God’s inscrutable yet essential reality is part of every life. But the burden of finding the sacred via profane means is a unique part of architecture. The great writer, scientist, and architect Christopher Alexander noted in one of his final essays: “We cannot make an architecture of life if it is not made to reflect God.” The creation of sacred space doubles down on the mantle to create an “architecture of life.”

In touching beauty, the architect simply needs to get out of the way of it. Trying to control beauty, the essence of what is sacred, puts humanity in front of God. We are endlessly temporal in our mechanisms of survival and prosperity. But the devotion of the faithful aspires to transcend this world, even though we are trapped in it. Architects are no different, so creating the sacred in architecture is uniquely problematic. That, to me, is the prodigal architect’s mission – born of a life living in the transactional mundanity of the day-to-day, but ultimately connecting to the beauty that is always there to reveal God.

Temple Beth Tikvah, Madison, Ct. Completion 2022. Photo courtesy of the author.

In the end, what we build is just who we are. After the fact, rationalization of the joy found all around us begs the simple truth that we did not make this world, let alone ourselves. If we could, we would control what gives us joy – and thus eliminate what we are afraid of. Ultimately, we do not have that control. If we did, every building would be a sunset or a baby’s smile, and death would have no sting.

Our lives are lived in the dance between our motivations, perceptions, and outcomes. The world (including architecture) is how our dance partner, God, leads us. Humans struggle to define the melody, meter, and even the lyrics of the dance. For me, if I can listen, I can hear the beauty that has already been given to us. Like Michelangelo who sculpted to “set the angel free” that was in the block of marble before him, I, and every creator, face the simple and inscrutable beauty that is with each one of us every day.

It is tempting to define what is sacred. But finding the sacred in anything means listening, not defining. Control is impossible when trying to capture the sacred, because the sacred isn’t made by us, it is already there. Beauty, the song of the sacred, is fully present in us. For architects, the revelation of the sacred is not the cynical application of aesthetic triggers. Rather it is like the prodigal son, returning to God when we know our humanity always fails us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Beauty is God’s Handwriting.” I try to read that handwriting every day. Despite all hubris, I am but the prodigal son of God, never earning anything, but inevitably living the grace that passes all understanding. That grace is revealed to me, the prodigal architect, when the sacred happens.

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