The Cathedral Effect

National Cathedral-1

When I was 18 years old, I went to Paris for the first time and visited Notre Dame. It was the first cathedral I distinctly remember, and it was definitely the first Gothic Cathedral I visited.  I have been to many more cathedrals since then and every time the physical and emotional effect is profound. I feel my breath slow, my voice drops to a whisper and I turn my thoughts inward.  My aunt aptly described cathedrals as having the ability to simultaneously uplift and humble the visitor.  Perhaps this is because we have been taught to have tremendous reverence for these spaces.   However, research is also showing that there is more to this effect.

Designers have a term for what I am describing called the cathedral effect.  In fact, a 2007 study published by the Journal of Consumer Research(PDF) explored the link between ceiling height in stores and the psychological effect on customers.  Participants placed in rooms with 10 foot ceilings thought more freely, using expansive ideas. While, participants in rooms with 8 foot ceilings tended to focus on specific details.  This and other related studies lead to a resurgence of rooms with high ceilings being used for creative teams.

However, none of these studies reviewed the effect of extremely high ceilings, like those found in cathedrals.  We know from the simple existence of cathedrals and great libraries, that architects and artists have used this effect long before it had a name.  Frank Lloyd Wright would often speak about wanting people to occupy a space that would serve all of human spiritual life through ascetics.

When we walk through those massive cathedral doors light, sound and even the air has changed quality.  The massive stone footings arching gracefully as they reach for the sky draw the eyes and heart upward.  The point at which it meets another footing bringing us again back to the ground creates a sense of order, through repetition, thereby creating a sense of ease. The play of light streaming through stained glass windows, intermingling with candle light and directional up-lighting softens our eyes. The smell of musty stone, incense, candle wax, burnt matches and wood oil permeate the senses.  All these combine to create a distinct memory of solitude while being within a presence larger than any one person’s solitude.

I have visited mosques, temples and cathedrals and the depth of experience is hard to neglect. For communities using these buildings regularly, the struggle is to make the space less intimidating and more intimate, without losing the tremendous gift of height and depth.  For communities who could only wish for that kind of height, the trick is use the interplay of light, sound and smell to create the depth of experience.  The trick is to curate the worship space with these experiences in mind.

Frank Lloyd Wright reminded us that these experiences are not confined to specifically religious buildings.  Many, many buildings have been designed to elicit just such a response as the one I experienced my first morning in Paris.


Chasing the wild goose


Celtic Christians had a name for the Holy Spirit–An Geadh-Glas, or ‘the Wild Goose.’ The name hints at mystery. Much like a wild goose, the Spirit of God cannot be tracked or tamed. An element of danger, an air of unpredictability surround Him. And while the name may sound a little sacrilegious, I cannot think of a better description of what it’s like to follow the Spirit through life. I think the Celtic Christians were on to something…

Most of us will have no idea where we are going most of the time. And I know that is unsettling. But circumstantial uncertainty also goes by another name: Adventure.

This introduction from Mark Batterson’s book, Wild Goose Chase, aptly describes the adventure called my life.  A year ago I started feeling a transition happening. The feeling that I was on the threshold of a new space, a new moment in my life.  I had been living in the same city for 3 years, which after 7 years of never living in one place longer than a year, was a huge change. There was no discernible event that was creating this feeling, no new job, no death in my family. The only event that I could point to was my upcoming 30th birthday.  Since this number has never held any significant value for me, I still do not feel like it was the impetus for my feeling of transition.

This threshold I could feel myself on was and still is a mystery.  I have seen new gifts emerge, and old ones be renewed.  Recently, I have remembered an old dream of mine.  A dream to create spaces where people can move through and experience a form of peace that is created, by the building, the selection of light, sound, scent, and the integration of natural elements in our urban environments.  This dream was tied to being an architect, because I loved beautiful buildings, especially ones that created a definite sense of peace.   Once I  began to study architecture that specific manifestation of the dream didn’t fit my ideals.  I really couldn’t see myself sitting at a computer all day. So, after visiting Hebron in the Westbank of Israel/Palestine,  I began to pursue a new passion to understand people, religion, and conflict.

Without diving into a long review of my academic and professional wanderings, I have found myself the Coordinator of Youth ministries at a church where I have been given incredible creative freedom. With this freedom I have discovered my new gifts for design of large spaces through the use of theological themes.  I have been able to co-create, with a group of people, several spaces that have engaged our community.

Through this blog I will explore the many manifestations of space that I have discovered. The space we create around us using the buildings and art we live and work in.  The space we create for the exploration and emergence of new gifts and blessings through our use of time.  And the space we create within ourselves to provide healing and growth for our souls.

I will share the examples of worship curation as myself and a team of people explore, experiment with and engage our community.  I will frequently ask guest bloggers to share their understandings and exploration of space.

Join me as we contemplate space and its many manifestations in our lives and our world.  Join me as we chase the Wild Goose on this adventure.