Venice, by most modern standards, has a surfeit of churches. Most have ornate, even grandiose, marble facades. The other three sides are often brick and very plain. Inside, most of the churches are dimly lit and dirty but contain valuable paintings, frescoes, or statuary. None appears to have a sizable attendance, although a couple of the churches show evidence of loving care from devout if small congregations. Some Venetian churches charge tourists admission, some solicit donations, some are closed to the public, and some are wide open. All appear in worse disrepair than much of the city.
I wonder how many people in bygone centuries, gazing at the façade of a Venetian church, contemplated life and wondered about the nature of God, inspired by the beauty to reflect on a power that transcended human existence. Conversely, how many Venetians took pride in the building’s façade as a sign of the congregation’s wealth and prestige?
Religious communities and individuals are not immune from a human tendency to erect facades – false fronts – in an effort to shape how others perceive them. To the extent that the façade represents a goal or ideal into which the community or individual strives to live, this can provide healthy motivation and challenge. But if the façade masks an ugly interior with which the community or individual is content to live, then the façade constitutes unhealthy hypocrisy.
The relative emptiness of the churches and their disrepair speak volumes about Christianity’s failure in Venice (and many other places) to adapt to changing times and cultures. Buildings and art that once hopefully evoked, at least for many people, an awareness of the transcendent are now historical artifacts, a valuable heritage but largely devoid of spiritual power.
None of the churches that I have visited in Venice, unlike buildings that house religious communities elsewhere, has been for me – and that personal caveat is essential – a thin place in which I have felt drawn toward the transcendent. In a city with few public places in which to experience natural beauty as a thin place, art – paintings, sculpture, architecture, etc. – becomes more important for people seeking thin places. I have found more thin places among Venice’s art in its museums than in its churches, perhaps partially because the art in the museums seems more valued and better displayed than the art in churches. Of course, not knowing Italian prevents me from seeking and finding thin places among the people of Venice and their community relationships.
Musing about Venetian churches has also prompted me to wonder to what extent people reflect on spiritual questions about the meaning of life, relationship with a power greater than self, the nature of the truly abundant life (eudemonia), etc. I wonder how many people and with what frequency ponder those questions. Do I think about them because of my vocation in the Church or do I think about them because of an underlying attraction that lures me toward a transcendent power?
One advantage of participating in a healthy faith community is that the community will encourage and assist its members in reflecting on spiritual questions. Living with and into the questions characterizes the spiritual life; answers are elusive approximations. Perhaps part of why Venetian churches struggle is that Venetians have discovered that definitive doctrinal claims are no more substantial than their city, built on pilings, and sinking into the mire. Vibrant faith communities journey together rather than pretending to believe common theological propositions.