Commonplace Cathedrals: the Architecture of Hospitality

Commonplace Cathedrals: the Architecture of Hospitality

Photo: Erin Lavigna

A cathedral seems an unlikely classroom for a lesson in hospitality. But it was inside the peaceful confines of the Monastery of San Esteban that I learned about the transformative power of space.

The immense door shut behind me with a gentle thump. Inside, it was cool and dark — welcome relief from the sticky Spanish summer. The interior was an artistic feast. Towering columns lined the nave, culminating in gracefully sculpted fingers that crisscrossed the vaulted ceiling. Light poured in from the dome; dust particles danced in its luminary path. The gleaming golden apse drew my eyes forward, and I studied it, posture enforced, from a straight-backed bench.

The quiet was startling. Worshippers and tourists shuffled across the flagstones, no voices rising above a whisper. Just outside, all of Salamanca brimmed with movement and noise. But once across the threshold, under the watchful gaze of solemn icons inside, normal speaking voices seemed rowdy and irreverent. Pious and skeptic, native and pilgrim, old and young. Everyone responded with the same silence. Not simply because an unsmiling caretaker might hush us otherwise: the space itself commanded respect. It was beautiful, vast, and undeniably present. It spoke of sacred things, transcendent things, disposing the soul to awe, and even worship, by way of the affections. 

In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton’s insightful exploration of the the philosophy and psychology of architecture, he says that “works of design and architecture talk to us about . . . the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them.”1 Spaces speak and dispose our souls to certain ways of being. As embodied creatures, physical environments affect us. Spaces have an uncanny ability to change us in a way that rational arguments cannot. We have all experienced inhospitable spaces and the distraction and distress they cause. Clutter, direct lighting, and eye-catching colors can make concentration or relaxation nearly impossible.

De Botton recalls one visit to a McDonald’s on London’s Victoria Street, cleverly illustrating the psychological torment of hostile spaces:  

“The setting served to render all kinds of ideas absurd: that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere; that life may be worth enduring. . . . The restaurant’s true talent lay in the generation of anxiety. The harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behaviour of the counter staff invited thoughts of loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe.”2

The Monastery of San Esteban spoke of transcendence. The McDonald’s spoke of anxiety. But I wondered, could a space speak of rest, reconciliation, and homecoming? Could there be an architecture of hospitality? “Babette’s Feast,” the classic short story by Isak Dinesen, hints at this possibility.

The story takes place in Berlevaag, a tight-lipped fishing village on the coast of Norway. One day, a mysterious French refugee named Babette finds sanctuary in the home of Martine and Phillipa, two elderly sisters holding together the remnants of their father’s ascetic Lutheran sect. The villagers believe that honoring God means living as humbly as possible, denying oneself even the simplest pleasures. Subsisting on split cod and boiled bread, dwelling in undecorated houses, they seem to allow only one beauty: sacred music. Once a vibrant and hopeful congregation, their souls are now as windswept and unforgiving as the sea.

Transformation does not come by sermon or exhortation but through a sumptuous feast. After thirteen years of faithful service, Babette makes one request of the sisters: to prepare the celebration dinner for the hundredth birthday of their late father, the Dean. Hesitant, the sisters finally consent, concerned about what forbidden delicacies their exiled Parisian housekeeper might prepare. Their worst nightmares come true when cases of wine, a crate of quails, and a live turtle arrive from France.  

The sisters and villagers pledge to endure the meal stone-faced and not allow the sensual pleasures to dishonor the memory of the Dean. But Babette’s feast begins its transforming work before the guests even arrive. As Babette cooks, the sisters, never ones to bother with frills, find themselves adorning their modest home. The effect is irresistible.

“Martine and Phillipa did their best to embellish the domain left to them. . . . They hung a garland of juniper round their father’s portrait on the wall, and placed candlesticks on their mother’s small working table beneath it; they burned juniper twigs to make the room smell nice. . . . Tonight the guests were met on the doorstep with warmth and sweet smell, and they were looking into the face of their beloved Master, wreathed in evergreen. Their hearts like their numb fingers thawed.”3

The transformation accelerates with each exotic course, announced and explained by the astonished General Lowenhielm. Tongues loosen and souls soften. Ancient quarrels resolve and estranged lovers reunite. The songs, the space, the food and drink, all merge into one aesthetic experience that short-circuits their self-imposed joylessness. The villagers of Berlevaag learn that “righteousness and bliss” are not mutually exclusive but may be faithfully exercised and enjoyed at the same time.

Although the physical creation is fallen and corrupted, it is still very, very good. The incarnation of Christ, His coming to earth in human form, speaks volumes about how God views the physical world, even with its sin and frailty. Christ came not as a disembodied spirit or an abstract idea, but as a man. He walked among us, wore our flesh, ate our food, drank our wine, and experienced all the pleasures and pains of physical existence. So incarnational hospitality reflects the goodness of God’s creation and the reality of Christ’s life on earth. It is not about expertly plated meals and perfectly manicured parlors, which can even detract from the experience. (Have you ever encountered a space so pristine that a stray splash of coffee might have constituted a capital offense?) Reducing hospitality to its physical elements is the counterpart extreme to the setting of Babette’s feast. Bliss without righteousness is vacant, just as righteousness without bliss is cruel.

Babette’s feast is not a formula. Extravagant meals are neither possible nor advisable every single day. But there is a way to weave an everyday extravagance into our spaces; it depends not on expensive food and furniture but on sacrificial care. In a culture of perpetual indulgence and breakneck busyness, the less tangible resources, like time spent, convey the most meaning. A loaf of homemade bread. A simple centerpiece cut from local flora. A guest bed with turned-down sheets and freshly washed towels. It may mean remembering that your guest is gluten-free, or that she always forgets her toothbrush. Maybe it requires cleaning up or dressing down, depending on the comfort level of your guest. Perhaps it is even the solitary act of inviting someone into your own home, when everyone else meets at Starbucks.

The architecture of hospitality is a different kind of costly. It requires time, forethought, and attention to the needs of a particular person. But these commonplace cathedrals create space that says, “You are welcome. You are expected. Come and rest.” And it is in that space, when your guest feels safe, that “hearts like numb fingers [thaw].”

1 Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, (New York: Vintage International, 2008), 72.

2 De Botton, 108.

3 Isak Dineson, Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard, (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 42-43.

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