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Online Edition Vol. III, No. 3: May 1997

Places for Iconoclasm
"Re-imaging" Required After Removal of Confining Christian Symbols
(Review of
Places for Devotion by John Buscemi)

by Irene Groot

Places for Devotion
John Buscemi
Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
"Meeting House Essays".
32 page monograph, illustrated.

Few Catholics in America have been unaffected by the current church-renovation craze. John Buscemi, a former priest, is among the most influential of those actively engaged in the radical remodeling of churches. This brief monograph is noteworthy because it contains a forecast of the next phase of church renovations.

Places for Devotion, illustrated with photographs of the author's projects, seems puzzling at first. For example, Buscemi begins by praising the traditional architecture of the Hispanic Southwest in the Santuario de Chimayo near Santa Fe, New Mexico, and even seems to approve the devotional customs which flourish at this famed oratory. (He especially likes the Chimayo "custom of signing one's self from a hole in the earthen floor [which] reconnects people to the earth.")

But later on, the author reveals that he regards iconoclasm ­ the destruction of sacred images ­ as necessary to the process of renovation. Furthermore, iconoclasm is not enough. Of the stripping of churches, Buscemi writes that "our iconoclasm was not the final answer, but part of a transitional period that is endemic to every growth process. Because we have been iconoclastic, we are able to re-image."

Apparently, then, it is not so much the true meaning of Chimayo's devotions which elicits Buscemi's praise, but rather the way in which the shrine's "devotionalism" can be used to further his objective of replacing old images with novel creations of his own.

"Devotionalism" seems to serve two purposes. The first is to win over resistant parishioners who are unwilling to finance such renovations as the removal of the Blessed Sacrament (which Buscemi elsewhere terms the "little white guest"). Offering people a spot in the garden for their statues or an inconspicuous niche in the church for their out-dated devotions may defuse their opposition to other changes. Second, recognizing "devotionalism" provides an excuse for liturgical designers to fill with their new works the very churches they have earlier stripped bare.

Buscemi's answer to bare churches is to "re-image to replace the images that no longer work with new contemporary ones that embody our new way of thinking and changed way of living." These new images must come from within, he says; and they "emerge only from deep contemplation, from standing empty and receptive before the great mystery. A sad characteristic of our time is to short-circuit contemplation and substitute the cliché." Among the "clichés" are such potent Catholic symbols and images as crucifixes and tabernacles.

Buscemi's re-imaged symbols, though he describes them in Catholic terms, are barely recognizable as Christian. Concerning the image of Jesus, he says, "The liturgy teaches us that if we are to know more about resurrection we will learn more from fire and water than from the literal representation of Jesus."

Buscemi does not describe how this is "taught" by fire/water imagery. But this notion, like the depiction of ancient Persians marching across the windows of a church in Tampa, Florida, is more Zoroastrian than Catholic. Buscemi also evokes the spirit of the ancient Near East in his notion of "gathering place." His desire to have parishioners gather in spaces outside the church recalls Sumerians praying outside the ziggurats of Marduk and Ishtar.

In a Modern Liturgy interview, Buscemi eschewed "artificial things" such as silk flowers, "a perfect example of the denial of death". Yet, ironically, the image he evidently most abhors is the crucified body of Jesus Christ. He chides Catholics who "still cling steadfastly to the notion that a crucifix is necessary in the worship environment." Such a concrete, literal image as Christ on the cross limits the spiritual imagination, according to Buscemi.

It is Buscemi's view of the crucifixthe most powerful icon of the Catholic faith, a representation of Christ's ultimate Sacrifice and a symbol of the Massthat most clearly reveals his objective in "re-imaging" Christian symbols.

The body of Christ must be removed from the cross and replaced with a hole which Buscemi calls a "birth canal" an opening at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal elementsan image, he says, of resolution of conflict. The hole symbolizes a "way out". A photograph in Places shows a "birth canal" cross made of twisted metal rods with a hole at the crossing.

Another of Buscemi's striking "hole-y" crosses was displayed at a recent Great Lakes Pastoral Ministry Gathering. This Christ-less cross combined "eco-spirituality" with overt sexual symbolism. He describes it thus:

"The center of the cross heralds the force of fire and water in the act of creation. The 20 prisms within the cross echo the wonder of raindrops encountering the fire.This encounter results in a rainbow The circle [inside the cross] is punctuated by the V-form of the plow which digs into the earth and prepares it to receive the seed. In this circle, 20 seeds are set into the earth."

Buscemi's fertile re-imagination extends also to the saints. Statues may be re-introduced into bare churches so long as they conform to Buscemi's novel iconography.

Saint Anne, for example, "represents the earth, the ancient mother who teaches wisdom and in whose lap the wisdom of one's own center can be found. Here also [in Saint Anne's lap] is found the First Testament tradition of Sophia, the wisdom of God."

The Holy Family is "problematic", because "the traditional nuclear family is not all that typical and the church is struggling to welcome families with same-sex parents."

Those who suspect that many liturgical innovations reflect a radically changed ecclesiology (or essential nature of the Church), will find their suspicions confirmed in Places for Devotion. According to Buscemi, people gather in "a church not the literal house of God but the house of the people of God".

A photograph of a renovated church in Pueblo, Colorado, illustrates this point. An imposing chest containing parish records placed directly beneath the altar is the focal point of the church. Replacing relics of saints with the parish membership roster seems an apt symbol for "We Are Church."

Places for Devotion suggests that radical "re-imaging" is the second stage of the iconoclasm which has characterized so many recent church renovations. This phase would capitalize on Catholics' love of imagesbut with a difference. Again and again, Buscemi detaches Catholic symbols from their Biblical roots, and opens the door to myriad interpretations ­ gnostic, eco-spiritual, Jungian, pre-Christian ­ all are antithetical to Christianity.

Renovators like John Buscemi seem relentlessly determined to impose on countless unsuspecting Catholics "post-Christian" images drawn not from the rich treasury of Christian tradition but from somewhere "within." These symbolic innards will be a toxic mix.

Caveat emptor!

Irene Groot teaches in San Jose, California. Her essay "Matter Matters" was published in AB in May 1996.

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