Domus Dei, Domus Ecclesiae: Sacred Space and the Liturgy

We can convey a lot by how we choose to decorate our homes. Growing up, guests to our home could learn (at least on a surface level) that my family was Catholic, that we were Mexican-American, and that we were huge Notre Dame football fans simply by looking around our house. Visitors to my apartment now can learn about my interest in reading, my love for icons, and that I have a significant other without my even telling them—it’s written all over my walls. We are very deliberate with how we construct the space around us, and we try to foster certain experiences—comfort (how we organize our couches and chairs), hospitality (do we have refreshments sitting out?), a sense of importance (that display of trophies, medals, and awards in our sitting room)—and communicate certain aspects of our identity to those we welcome into these spaces.

Space is important for worship, as well. This should come as no surprise, yet it often seems counterintuitive to people: are we Christians not the “true worshipers” who worship “the Father in Spirit and in Truth” (Jn 4:23–24)? After all, since “the Most High does not dwell in buildings made by human hands” (Acts 7:48; cf. Acts 17:24), can special, sacral places really play a role in the world of Christian faith? In this essay, I will argue for the integral connection between sacred space and liturgy. In the paragraphs that follow, I will explore two fundamental modes in which sacred space operates with regard to Christian worship: one is didactic, the other iconic—one catechetical, the other sacramental. Drawing primarily from the insights of architect Duncan Stroik and theologian Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), I argue that conceptualizing the Church building as both a domus ecclesiae and domus Dei illuminates two primary purposes Christian tradition has assigned to the Church building. These concepts, in turn, offer two lenses through which to articulate a theology of sacred space.

Before turning to a more detailed exploration of the theology of sacred space (by which I mean to encompass both sacred art and sacred architecture), it helps to outline briefly the concepts of domus Dei and domus ecclesiae as they are used in this essay.[1] According to canon law, the term church “signifies a sacred building destined for divine worship.”[2] The concept of the church as a sacred place encompasses the related concepts domus ecclesiae (house of the Church) and domus Dei (house of God). Domus ecclesiae has a long history of use, and my adoption of this term risks carrying with it certain historical ‘baggage.’[3] But by using domus ecclesiae I hope to capture something more than simply a gathering place for Christians. As I hope to show, organizing the first part of this essay under the heading domus ecclesiae helps us to understand the pedagogical nature of the church building, which turns sacred space into a kind of “catechism in paint, mosaic, and stone.”[4]

But this concept cannot be properly understood apart from its related (and in many ways more important) definition: the church as a domus Dei. Conceptualizing the church building as a domus Dei reveals the sacramental nature of sacred space, which in turn allows us to see even the church structure itself as a kind of icon—an idea I will explore in greater detail below. In approaching sacred space through the language of domus ecclesiae and domus Dei, I hope to point toward a theology of sacred space: one that takes seriously this multidimensional purpose and its role in the Church’s liturgy.

Domus Ecclesiae: Catechism in Stone and Glass

Reflecting on the teachings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and architectural beauty, architect Duncan Stroik remarked, “the role of a work of art is to express the truths of the faith in a way that can lead to reflection and inspire us to live life more deeply.”[5] Benedict XVI also spoke to this in a 2007 meeting with Roman clergy:

It truly seems to me to be a duty . . . to know these treasures [sacred art] and be able to transform all that is present in them and that speaks to us today into a living catechesis.[6]

Benedict XVI had a habit of employing sacred art and architecture for the purpose of catechesis and theological reflection, a methodology informed by his belief that “art and the saints are the greatest apologetics of our faith.”[7] This is especially apparent in his Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts, in which he meditates on the high points of the liturgical year through the famous art and architectural pieces of the various churches in Rome. For example, he uses the mosaic of the Annunciation from the triumphal arch of Saint Mary Major Basilica and its painting of the ox and ass at the crib as a way to lead the reader into a deeper contemplation of the Church’s celebration of Christmas and the Incarnation.[8] This is just one of the frequent occasions on which he was invited “to interpret one of the great images that are so abundant in the churches of Rome.”[9] Both before his election as Pope and throughout his pontificate, Benedict XVI insisted that sacred architecture invites such meditation on the Church’s patrimony because “every church building ultimately points to Him, the true center of the Church.”[10] The structure of the church building itself, therefore, presents its own kind of pedagogy—a pedagogy that invites contemplation of the mysteries of the faith through the art and architecture that adorns and even constitutes sacred space.

What role does this pedagogy have in the Church’s liturgy? One answer to this question lies in re-conceptualizing the church building as a “domus ecclesiae.” In cultivating a deeper understanding of this concept, one moves from the realm of pedagogy into the realm of catechesis. That is, while “pedagogy” denotes a method of teaching, catechesis involves both a handing on of the Word of God, as well as an effort to form the faith community into witnesses to Christ and to open their hearts to the spiritual transformation given by the Holy Spirit.[11] This is the key to understanding the catechetical nature of the church building, through which we “learn to see the openness of heaven” and obtain “the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified.”[12] To put it another way, sacred space not only instructs, but forms: it has the capacity to form the Christian heart and the Christian imagination.

To say that the church building is a domus ecclesiae is to affirm that any given church is more than a sum of its parts.[13] This is because domus ecclesiae is fundamentally a theological category. It calls to mind the Old and New Testament archetype of Qahal, or “εκκλεσια”: the people of God who, having been called together, assemble, hear the Word of God, and seal everything with a sacrifice, thereby establishing a “covenant” between God and man.[14] “εκκλεσια” eventually came to be used in reference both to the people who assemble and the place where they gather. But the assembly has a purpose—it is ordered toward worship. This gathering, or convocatio, also preserves the continuity between the Qahal of the Old Testament and the εκκλεσια of the New Testament, a continuity that Ratzinger traces in detail in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy.[15] If the church building is more than simply a meeting place, then special significance must be given to the role of art and architecture in the worship of the εκκλεσια.

As mentioned above, understanding the church building in light of the Old Testament Qahal and the New Testament εκκλεσια allows us to see the importance of sacred space for pedagogy and catechesis. The precise nature of this meaning and the relationship between Qahal and εκκλεσια is made clear in The Spirit of the Liturgy, in which Ratzinger argues that there is both a continuity and a newness between the “temple” of the Old Covenant and the “church” of the New:

The fundamental image of the Old Testament is retained, but it is reshaped in the light of the Resurrection and given a new center: the God who no longer completely conceals himself but now shows himself in the form of the Son. This transformation of the narrative of the Ark of the Covenant into an image of the Resurrection reveals the very heart of the development from Old Testament to New.[16]

This dual nature of continuity and innovation from the Ark of the Covenant to the Resurrection of the Son is apparent in the question of images. The synagogue, according to Ratzinger, had already begun to establish a canon of images, which the early Church then took up and developed. The representations of scriptural scenes that archaeological evidence tells us adorned the ancient synagogues functioned not simply as history lessons, but as a narrative (haggadah), which “while calling something to mind, makes it present.”[17] Sacred images “make present” specific instances of salvation history, allowing us to participate in them. “The point of the images,” writes Ratzinger, “is not to tell a story about something in the past, but to incorporate the events of history into the sacrament.”[18] The images, then, are involved in the liturgical re-presentation, and are themselves a kind of anamnesis, a “remembrance in visible form.”[19]

Thus, the art and architecture of the church building catechize not because they are representations, but because they are re-presentations, in a similar way that the liturgy as a whole is a re-presentation. “There is no portrait of the risen Lord,” writes Ratzinger; there are only icons. The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize the Lord. Rather, they must first be led into a new kind of seeing. Their eyes “are gradually opened from within to the point where they recognize him afresh and cry out: ‘It is the Lord!’”[20] This is certainly characteristic of the icon. Might we say that, more broadly speaking, the church building operates as a kind of icon as well? The paintings of the Way of the Cross, the statues of Mary and Joseph, the stained glass windows depicting saints and events in salvation history—every aspect of the church building can become a kind of icon if it comes from prayer and leads to prayer.[21]

Hence the church building, the domus ecclesiae, is catechetical: it assists in handing on the Word of God, in forming the εκκλεσια, and in opening the believer’s heart. Sacred space not only teaches the narrative of salvation history, but also makes this mystery present and leads those at worship into it. The church building is catechetical because it forms our imaginations, expanding our senses to their widest capacity, enabling us to understand the mystery of the liturgy with a new vividness.[22] In the church building, the mystery of liturgy is “unfolded in an extremity of concreteness, and popular piety is enabled thereby to reach the heart of the liturgy in a new way,” making “the Church’s common faith visible and [speaking] again to the believing heart.”[23]

Domus Dei: Eternity in Stone and Glass

We have referred to the church building as a kind of “catechism in stone and glass.” Thus far this essay has been rather loosely concerned with this catechetical nature of sacred space, drawing attention to its didactic, pedagogical, and iconic characteristics under the admittedly somewhat arbitrary heading of domus ecclesiae. But perhaps a closer look at the church building as domus Dei and drawing attention to the significance of the presence of God will shed greater light on the preceding discussion, emphasizing especially in what way we can call sacred space an icon or sacrament.

The inscription over the north transept doors of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, designed and built in 1906 by architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray and his patron, Archbishop John Ireland, reads: “Truly this is none other than the House of God (domus Dei) and gate of heaven” (cf. Gen 28:17). This is to act as a reminder that “Christians throughout the ages have understood their churches as the site of the real presence of God and have called them by the Latin name, domus Dei.”[24] The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that a church is “rightly called ‘house of God,’” as it is “the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ”(CCC §1180; cf. §§1179–1186). Here again, we turn to Ratzinger in order to grasp what is meant by the term “house of God.”

Relying heavily on Louis Bouyer’s Liturgy and Architecture, Ratzinger devotes a number of pages in The Spirit of the Liturgy to tracing the development of the domus ecclesiae from both synagogue and Temple, as noted above. Integral to this undertaking is an account of the mysterious presence of God. The presence of God, it would seem, is the point on which the concepts of domus ecclesiae and domus Dei converge. It is the key to understanding the development of the Christian domus Dei out of the Jewish Temple and synagogue, and the continuity and innovation between old and new (see above). The synagogue is always oriented toward the presence of God, while the presence of God likewise “was (and is) indissolubly connected with the Temple.”[25] Bouyer articulates this and Ratzinger takes it up when he writes:

The rabbi does not speak from his own resources. He is not a professor, analyzing and reflecting on the Word of God in an intellectual way. No, he makes present the Word that God addressed and addresses to Israel. . . . God is speaking.[26]

Ratzinger uses this point to demonstrate how the rabbi, like everyone else in the synagogue, looks toward the Ark of the Covenant, the empty throne, the sign (and embodiment) of God’s presence. He whom the heavens cannot contain has chosen the Ark as the “footstool” of his presence.

The synagogue and Temple, Ratzinger reminds us, contain the “Ark of the Covenant, which means it is the place of a kind of ‘real presence.’ . . . The shrine is surrounded, therefore, with signs of reverence befitting the mysterious presence of God.”[27] If one approaches the church building—which is both domus ecclesiae and domus Dei—in light of the “mysterious real presence,” the role of sacred space in the church’s liturgy begins to become apparent. The church is a house of God because God is truly present in it. If this could be said of the Temple and synagogue, how much more could it be said of the Christian altar, which “brings heaven into the community assembled on earth”?[28] Christ is on his way through the ages, according to Ratzinger, and we are taken up into the events of this advent. In fact, these events themselves “transcend the passing of time and become present in our midst through the sacramental action of the Church.”[29] Sacred space assists this act by re-presenting the events of salvation history in icon, painting, statue, and architecture, and by leading those gathered deeper into the mystery of the liturgy.

While the Ark of the Covenant embodied God’s presence in Temple and synagogue, the key to understanding the mysterious real presence of God in Christian churches is the mystery of the Incarnation, through which “the invisible God enters into the visible world, so that we, who are bound to matter, can know him.”[30] In his essence God is utterly transcendent, but the Incarnation tells us that he can be (and wants to be, as Ratzinger puts it), represented as the Living One. This essay began with the question of why Christians build churches, when their Almighty “does not dwell in buildings made by human hands.” The Christian answers that he builds churches because “the eternal resides in time, and the incorporeal is spatially located.”[31] The Christian builds churches because his or hers is an incarnational faith. The church building itself is an icon, as liturgy is an icon, because it is a “place of meeting or joining [sum-bole] of different realities.”[32] The effect of the Incarnation is that sacred space is more than something practical, a meeting place for Christians, and more than something merely educative. Because of the Incarnation, sacred space is literally “standing on the ground of Mt. Tabor,”[33] where the curtain between heaven and earth is torn in two and we are taken up into the cosmic liturgy.

Sacred space is didactic, to be sure: the inanimate stones of the churches inform us, the living stones of the Church. But sacred space transcends this purely didactic function. The church building obtains a “thoroughly sacramental significance”[34] when taken seriously as domus ecclesiae and domus Dei. For Stroik, who writes from both a theological as well as an architectural standpoint, the terms domus Dei and domus ecclesiae are contained within each other. The church building is a house for both God and his people, as “the house of the Church is by definition also the house of the Body of Christ, and therefore the house of Jesus Christ the Bridegroom and Head.”[35] Both concepts help us understand the church building as an “icon of eternal realities . . . a window into the spiritual reality.”[36] Sacred space is catechesis and sacrament, pedagogy and mystagogy. The church building lends itself to the liturgy by leading believers into a new kind of seeing, forming their imagination while also making present the mysteries it imparts to the εκκλεσια. It is connected to what happens in the liturgy, helping to mediate the heavenly liturgy to earthly eyes.[37] And in pointing to the sacraments, to a real presence, the sacraments of the Church are contained within the liturgical space itself.

Featured Photo: Cathedral of Saint Louis (St. Louis, MO); Thomas Hawk; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

[1] It is important to note that there is much overlap between the concepts, and the two cannot be entirely separated, nor can they be fully understood apart from each other. But for the purposes of this essay, a distinction between the two is helpful in grasping the ways sacred space serves the liturgy.

[2] Code of Canon Law, §1214.

[3] Duncan G. Stroik hints at this in The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal (Chicago / Mundelein, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2012), 15.

[4] Stroik, The Church Building as a Sacred Place, 1.

[5] Ibid., 145.

[6] Benedict XVI, “Lenten Meeting with the Clergy of Rome” (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, February 22, 2007).

[7] Benedict XVI, “Meeting with the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone” (Bressanone, Italy, August 6, 2008).

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2006), 9–22.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger, trans., Michael J. Miller and Matthew J. O’Connell, Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2011), 236.

[11] This definition of catechesis is borrowed from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[12] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2000), 61.

[13] Stroik, The Church Building as a Sacred Place, 15.

[14] Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), 23–38; cf. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 63.

[15] Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 62–73.

[16] Ibid., 116.

[17] Ibid., 117.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 121.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 123, 128.

[23] Ibid., 128, 134.

[24] Stroik, The Church Building as a Sacred Place, 13.

[25] Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 64.

[26] Ibid., 64.

[27] Ibid., 65.

[28] Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 71.

[29] Ibid., 117.

[30] Ibid., 122–123.

[31] David W. Fagerberg, Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology? (Chicago / Mundelein, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2004), 15.

[32] Alexander Golitzin, Et Introibo Ad Altare Dei: The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita, with Special Reference to its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition (Thessaloniki: George Dedousis’s Publishing Co., 1994), 219.

[33] Fagerberg, Theologia Prima, 14.

[34] Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 118.

[35] Stroik, The Church Building as a Sacred Place, 15.

[36] Ibid.

[37] See Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 60–61.


Anthony J. Oleck

Anthony Oleck holds a Master of Theological Studies ('16) from the University of Notre Dame and is the full-time Assistant Rector of Dunne Hall.

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