"People sing in unison with the singer’s voice, resonate with his or her emotions – there is a real sense in which it is the singer’s physical body which then becomes a temple, a space of release, maybe of truth, sometimes of growth".
Few things awaken the pride of cities and nations more than their temples. London is no exception. Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of the National History Museum, was asked to build a ‘cathedral to nature’ – and the intended awe-inspiring outcome of this commission has never failed to impress me during these past few years, each time I have driven past it on my way from Earls Court to Knightsbridge. Wembley and Wimbledon stadiums are often referred to as ‘temples of sport’. Uniquely, London’s main legal district is literally called ‘temple’ – built as it is in a place historically linked to the ancient order of Templars – but few would object to it being also figuratively called a ‘temple of law’. And then there is a building very familiar to all of us, only a couple of miles from here – if ever an edifice deserved to be called a temple to music, that’s the magnificent Royal Albert Hall.
Etymologically, a temple is a ‘consecrated space’ – that is a space where people engage in worship. And if we trust the way we usually use the word ‘temple’, then we can gladly acknowledge that churches are not the only ‘sacred’ grounds in our cities, that is places where we can worship, places that lift up our hearts, our minds, and our souls above the mundane, obsessive, compulsive, anxious rhythms of everyday life.
As it happens, I went to the Royal Albert Hall only two nights ago – for the first pop music concert I have attended since I was 18 – a very long time ago! I went to listen to a singer I must admit I adore, Sam Smith – just as I was mulling over the homily for today – especially the words from the Gospel that say: “Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body”.
A museum can be a temple – so can a sport venue, a library, and a concert hall. But so can one person’s physical body, charisma, personality, message, mind, feelings, history, pathos – especially when conveyed by an extraordinarily enveloping voice – as it is the case with Sam Smith – and by just the right words:
Fire on fire would normally kill us But (with) this much desire, together, we're winners They say that we're out of control and some say we're sinners But don't let them ruin our beautiful rhythms 'Cause when you unfold me and tell me you love me And look in my eyes You are perfection, my only direction It's fire on fire.
This is the text of one of my favourite songs by Sam Smith. This is another:
As I wander down the avenue, so confused Guess I'll try and force a smile Pink lemonade sippin' on a Sunday Couples holding hands on a runway They're all posing in a picture frame Whilst my world's crashing down Solo shadow on a sidewalk Just want somebody to die for Sunshine livin' on a perfect day While my world's crashing down I just want somebody to die for.
Compared to the refinement of poetry and to the sophistication of classical motets we are fortunate to hear at St Paul’s, the ways pop songs express love, longing, heartbreak, might sometimes sound facile – and often are. A lot depends on the singer’s personality, talent, and sincerity. I am intensely moved by Sam Smith’s vocals, by his honesty, vulnerability, and gravitas. Sometimes religious themes pop up unexpectedly in his texts – as in his song “Pray” which he wrote in the aftermath of an eye-opening journey to Iraq
I lift up my head and the world is on fire There's dread in my heart and fear in my bones And I just don't know what to say Maybe I'll pray I have never believed in you, no But I'm gonna pray You won't find me in church (no) reading the Bible (no) I am still here and I'm still your disciple I'm down on my knees, I'm beggin' you, please I'm broken, alone, and afraid I'm not a saint, I'm more of a sinner I don't wanna lose, but I fear for the winners When I tried to explain, the words ran away That's why I am stood here today.
People sing in unison with the singer’s voice, resonate with his or her emotions – there is a real sense in which it is the singer’s physical body which then becomes a temple, a space of release, maybe of truth, sometimes of growth.
Now, it took 46 years to build Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, one of the most magnificent architectural feats the world had ever known, where Jesus and his contemporaries had to endure the commodification sadly characteristic of any heavily institutionalised and powerful religion. All too often temples are hijacked by human greed, become purely political or economic symbols. The temple in Jerusalem was the object of great pride for the Jewish people of that time. It provided a sense of identity, belonging, and unity to a Jewish nation humiliated by the Roman invader and deprived of its political autonomy.
In this way though temples can lose their cathartic power – which is the only thing that in the end makes them real ‘temples’: instead of elevating the human soul, mind and heart they become like one of our shopping malls - which interestingly often parody churches and cathedrals even architecturally.
The National History Museum, Wimbledon, Wembley, the Royal Albert Hall – our own St Paul’s Knightsbridge - become temples only during the few hours in which we can be gathered by, or rather into someone’s body – a sportsman’s, a singer’s, a performer’s– or Christ’s body. I hope you will not find the comparison irreverent. I am not saying that the way St Paul’s and the Royal Albert Hall function as temples is the same – but their undeniable similarities help us to understand how this happens there and here.
Everyone who crosses the threshold of this church marvels at its soothing elegance, as it happened to me the first lucky day when I came here some four years ago. Even when this church is empty, it speaks to the soul. It only becomes a temple though when a divine singer, Christ himself, gathers us here and makes us a body, a community, in which we welcome each other, sing together – in which our prayer rises with the burning of incense and the voices of our choir, ancient texts come alive, speak to us now, and we are told that we
“are joined together into a holy temple […] we are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God,” and we are assured that we “are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints, members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2.19-22).
Nothing characterises us as human beings more than our need to belong. The way we belong, the places we belong to, truly make us who we are. Temples are spaces or rather events that shape our feelings, our thoughts, and our lives in a certain way – and this is why we must choose carefully to which of them we entrust our bodies and our souls.
Nothing wrong about Harrods of course – but please, not as a temple.
Let’s rather cherish the buildings which do have a vocation to be temples – our museums, our concert halls, our debating chambers, our libraries, our sport venues - and our churches. Let’s never take them for granted. They will not turn us into flourishing persons, healthy bodies, harmonious communities, societies, or nations – unless we put them at the core of our lives, and watch jealously, nay passionately over them, to make sure that they remain temples.
This was Jesus’ own passion and somehow explains the shocking scene in today’s Gospel. It is the only time Jesus behaves violently:
Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’
Such fierceness on the part of someone whom the Gospels consistently present as “gentle and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29) and radically opposed to retaliation of any sort is surprising, to say the least. Something crucial must be at stake here – something we cannot afford to ignore.
What is it? By now the answer -I hope- should have dawned on us.
We cannot change the world individually – we change the world only if we are united as bodies. And the main incubators for this process are out temples. We must keep them alive, thriving, truly inspirational. Everyone’s individual contribution is irreplaceable here. I must never think: someone else will do it – because then I will be the first to lose. Only to the extent that like Jesus I remain passionate in preserving the vocation of these bodies, I save my own heart, my mind, and my life.