I leave today for The Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois where I will be giving a conference on — Are you ready for this? — the “theology of church acoustics.”
The conference is entitled: Heaven on Earth: Building or Renovating Your Church. The Institute describes it as “a theological and practical conference about envisioning the church building as a sacrament of heaven. Includes sessions on understanding traditional architecture, choosing a church architect, finding craftspeople, acoustics and music, the nature of the image, fundraising, and a beginning–to–end walkthrough of a completed church project.”
I will not be posting anything on Vultus Christi while in Mundelein. Here, though, is a bit of my conference for those of you who are wondering what I am going to say
Is there a theology of church acoustics? Acoustics, derived from the Greek akouo, to hear, is not all that far removed from the very first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, ausculta, “listen,” or “give heed.” “Listen, my son, to the instruction of your Master, turn the ear of your heart to the advice of a loving father” (RB Pro:1). The sacred liturgy, insofar as it springs from the mystery of the Word, calls for a unique quality of listening and engages at the deepest level man’s capacity for hearing. Could it be then that church acoustics have more to do with hearing than with speaking, more to do with listening to the word than with projecting it, more to do with enhancing silence than with enhancing sound?
The Sound of the Church
Being a theologian and not an acoustician, I will not venture into the more technical aspects of how a church might best be constructed for the transmission of sound. I must, however, argue straightaway that the acoustical quality of a church must figure into the very construction of the building, into its materials, size, dimensions, proportions, shape, and furnishings and not be left as an afterthought. “Now that we have constructed our church, let us look into fitting it with a good sound system.” Wrong! The church building is, in itself, the primary sound system with the living Church, hierarchically ordered, providing the sound.
Space for the Resonance of the Word
The Cistercian artisans of the twelfth century understood that a church building is, first of all, virginal space for the resonance of the Word. The abbatial churches of the Cistercian reform had a certain Marian quality about them; they were constructed to be indwelt sacramentally by the living Word. They were characterized by a certain noble austerity and by what, for want of a better term, I choose to call “spatial chastity.” One engaged in designing a church does well to meditate the mystery of the Annunciation. The suitability of a church building is measured, first of all, by its capacity to provide optimal resonance for the Word of God.