Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Lamp of Sacrifice

In preparation for a trip this spring, I started reading John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture today, a book I had supposedly read my freshman year of college (we won't discuss my undergraduate study habits). Ruskin, in his poetically complex nineteenth-century diction, lays out seven principles that govern the moral law, explaining that moral laws govern all practical laws (like architecture), for:
However mean or inconsiderable the act, there is something in the well doing of it, which has fellowship with the noblest forms of manly virtue; and the truth, decision, and temperance, which we reverently regard as honourable conditions of the spiritual being, have a representative or derivative influence over the works of the hand, the movements of the frame, and the action of the intellect.
Clearly, a sometimes-recovering Platonist like me is delighted.

The first “Lamp” of architecture he names is Sacrifice, which “prompts us to the offering of precious things, merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary,” which he says is “the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost.”

And it just so happened, as I read Ruskin, sipping on my New Orleans style café au lait that the owner of my favorite coffee shop was offering customers in celebration of the day, that I remembered it was Mardi Gras, and Ash Wednesday is tomorrow. I wondered if the Lamp of Sacrifice that Ruskin highlights in architecture applies especially to us who prepare for Lent in a culture that cannot understand the utility of fasting.

In the building of the soul like the building of a cathedral, perhaps there is no utility in sacrifice. Perhaps (as I remember reflecting during Advent as well) the value is the sacrifice itself, not the results. Perhaps as we offer what is precious because it is precious, we are carving the marble of our souls into a temple worthy of being inhabited.
I do not want marble churches at all for their own sake, but for the sake of the spirit that would build them. The church has no need of any visible splendours; her power is independent of them, her purity is in some degree opposed to them…It is not the church we want, but the sacrifice; not the emotion of admiration, but the act of adoration; not the gift, but the giving.

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