The Mall & Our Religious Need
by James K. A. Smith
I would like to invite you for a tour of one of the most important religious sites in our metropolitan area. As you approach…you notice the sheer popularity of the site as indicated by the colorful sea of parking that surrounds the building. The site is throbbing with pilgrims every day of the week as thousands and thousands make the pilgrimage.`
As you make your way toward the building — a dazzling array of glass and concretes, the architecture of the building has a recognizable code that makes us feel at home. The large glass atriums at the entrances are framed by banners and flags; familiar texts and symbols on the exterior walls help foreign faithful to quickly and easily identify what’s inside.
As we enter the space, we are ushered into a narthex of sorts intended for receiving, orienting, and channeling new seekers as well as providing a bit of a decompression space for the regular faithful to “enter in” to the spirit of the space. For the seeker, there is a large map— a kind of worship aid— to give the novice an orientation to the location of various spiritual offerings and provide direction into the labyrinth that organizes and channels the ritual observance of the pilgrims.
The pilgrim is also invited to escape from mundane ticking and counting of clock time and to inhabit a space governed by a different time, one almost timeless. However, while daily clock time is suspended, the worship space is very much governed by a kind of liturgical, festal calendar, variously draped in the colors, symbols, and images of an unending litany of holidays and festivals— to which new ones are regularly added, since the establishment of each new festival translates into greater numbers of pilgrims joining the processions to the sanctuary and engaging in worship.
Unlike the flattened depictions of saints one might find in stained-glass windows, here is an array embodied pictures of the redeemed that invite us to imagine ourselves in their shoes— to imagine ourselves otherwise, (to look like and become like them).
As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within the chapel— invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see. We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms.
Having a sense of our need, we come looking, not sure what for, but expectant, knowing that what we need must be here. After time spent focused and searching in what the faithful call “the racks,” with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar, which is the consummation of worship. While acolytes and other worship assistants have helped us navigate our experience, behind the altar is the priest who presides over the consummating transaction.
And this is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion. When invited to worship here, we are not only invited to give; we are also invited to take. We don’t leave this transformative experience with just good feelings or pious generalities, but rather with something concrete and tangible, with newly minted relics, as it were, that are themselves the means to the good life. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season. Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement— not necessarily to leave, but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?
Excerpt from: Desiring the Kingdom