You Are God’s Temple

By Mac Stewart

I’ve long been fascinated by cathedrals. I remember doing a school project on them in the 10th grade, where I learned all about the building process behind them, the architectural principles that make them possible, and the elaborate intricacy of the religious symbolism woven into every nook and cranny of the grand structures. I’ve had the chance, by God’s grace, to see quite a few of them in person: the great Spanish cathedrals along the way of St. James; the gothic masterpiece of Notre Dame in Paris; Westminster Abbey in London; Canterbury Cathedral in Kent; and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Every time I stand before one of them, or step inside their portals, it’s like a whole other world is rising up before and around and above me.

The sheer size of them is utterly staggering, and it boggles the mind all the more when one considers that nearly all of them, at least the ones in Europe, were constructed long before the advent of modern construction equipment. Even in these latter days when Europe’s faith has waned, those old wonders of stone and glass remain immovably steadfast and imposingly fixed at the center of some of the world’s biggest cities, summoning people by a kind of silent sacramental presence to set their minds upon the things that are above, to attend to that world to which their spires were built to point.

Even as their grandeur testifies to the supernatural grace that ultimately made them possible, it also can’t but make us appreciate the work that must have gone into those things. Most took decades if not centuries to build, required the buy-in of a whole community, employed designers and diggers and stonecutters and fundraisers, and demanded the commitment of many people who would not live to see the whole completed, but who expended their labor in the faith that they were contributing a small piece to something bigger than themselves.

If all of this is what’s behind sacred edifices set apart by their consecration from and for the grace and glory of Almighty God, then how unsettling must it have been to the disciples to hear Jesus, standing before the temple, say, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” The temple was everything to this people. Beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth was the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of the great King.

Glorious things of her were spoken, in whom singers and dancers found their fresh springs, and those who dwelt in that house would be forever blessed. True, this was not the old Solomonic temple built in Israel’s days of glory and peace, but rather the replica built under Ezra and Nehemiah after their return from Babylon. But it was still for that very reason a sturdy testament to God’s grace, which mercifully brought his people home again from exile. Israel without the temple would be like a family with no place to go home to.

Now, it is true that there is a historically contextual prophetic critique underneath Jesus’ words in this passage. What I mean by that is that there was something rumbling underneath the political tides in Jesus’ day toward which his apocalyptic prediction is directed. The disciples’ praise of the “wonderful stones” and “wonderful buildings” of the Temple in part reflects the fact that King Herod had just in the previous generation made substantial capital improvements to the temple. But Jesus, well aware of the collusion of the Herodian dynasty with the Roman overlords, warns that superficially pious acts at the expense of real justice for the poor and oppressed will always lead to ruin, as the Jewish people tragically discovered a few decades later in A.D. 70, when the Romans enacted the proximate fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in their destruction of this second Jerusalem temple.

But, of course, that particular historical tragedy was not the only thing Jesus had in mind when he said those words. There’s something a little closer to home that you and I need to hear in this prophecy. Human beings build things. Part of what makes us human is that we can craft long-range plans. We undertake all kinds of different endeavors all throughout our lives, endeavors that require commitment and dedication and perseverance, but the end goal of which is always to look back with satisfaction upon something we have accomplished, something we have built.

This is why people go to school for years to build up expertise in a craft or a discipline, why people get married in order to build a household and a family, why we undertake projects and start small businesses and learn to play the violin and make solemn professions in a religious order. We long to leave behind us some recognizable trace of our existence, some wonderful stones and wonderful buildings by which people can remember us and hold us in high esteem for the contribution we made to the life and vigor and beauty of our communities. It is not wrong that we do these things.

These projects we undertake, these buildings we erect, and our capacity to undertake and erect them are among the many things for which we ought always to give thanks to God. He made each of us with a certain ingenuity, with which he calls us to work for a lasting and stable flourishing in our lives and the lives of those around us. When you’re sitting around your Thanksgiving meal, be sure to give thanks for the good work God has given you to do, the beautiful buildings (literal or metaphorical) he has called you to build.

But as I am sure you know well, some projects fail. Some buildings collapse. Even holy and sacred temples, into which we have poured our care and our love and our devotion for years and years if not our whole lives, can come crumbling to the ground, not one stone left upon another. Sometimes the cause lies with us, either from honest mistakes along the way, or from deliberate sins of overambition or pride or avarice or negligence. Sometimes the cause lies in some inscrutable elsewhere, spiritual battles far beyond our comprehension into which we’ve been providentially drawn to test our mettle or to train our virtue.

Think of Job, that blameless and upright God-fearing man who turned away from all evil, who had built a life with seven sons and three daughters, thousands of sheep and hundreds of oxen, lands and servants, houses and feasts, who lost it all in a day when the winds and storms and the hostile invaders turned against him, whose skin was afflicted with boils as he sat in the ashes of the sudden and tragic collapse of everything around him. It is meet and right that we pray God always to preserve us from such heavy trials.

But even if we never have to face such dreadful perils in this life, even if we never have actually to watch the wonderful stones and wonderful buildings come crumbling down, still Jesus’ prophetic words are no less directed at each one of us. “Though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust.” There is nothing to which we set our hands in this world that will not fade away in the end. Even the very mountains and hills on which we build them will be rolled up like a scroll, the heavens above wear out like a garment, and you yourself return to the dust from which you were made. The more we try to grasp at the things we build without, the faster they seem to turn to sand and slip through our fingers.

But that’s why Job is in the Bible. As much as he would go on for many chapters to wrestle with God, to ask why such misfortune had befallen him, to complain and lament and yearn for justice, his first and fundamental response to the collapse of his buildings was not to grasp, but rather to hold open his hands before him and say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Job knew that the building that matters is not what we build without, but what God builds within.

“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds … I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more” (Heb. 10:16-17). God is at work in you. You are his project. He has had his hands on you since the day that he knit you together in your mother’s womb. As you plan and scheme and toil and struggle to build things of wood and hay and stubble, God wants to fashion within you the gold and silver and precious stones that you will never lose: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control. God is writing his law in your heart and your mind, the law that is his Holy Spirit.

You are God’s Temple. And Jesus’ flesh is its curtain. Return through his flesh into your own soul, where God dwells. Seek his face at the hearth of the everlasting home he is building for himself in your heart. Meet him in prayer, in sacrament, in Scripture, in works of mercy, in patient forbearance of all the travails and trials that beset your plans and projects. God may interrupt them, precisely so that you may seek in him a building that will never crumble.

On one of those trips where I got to see the greatest of the great European cathedrals, St. Peter’s in Rome, I also found myself a few days later on a train through the Umbrian countryside, where I happened by God’s marvelous providence to sit down right next to the abbot of a monastery in Norcia, Italy, the birthplace of St. Benedict. I had heard about this monastery, how it has seen a wonderful renewal in the last few decades, with many young vocations and a serious return to some of the basic and original principles of the father of western monasticism. They also make great beer.

Only a month or so before, though, as I had learned from the news, their town and monastery had suffered a terrible earthquake, which brought tumbling to the ground the 600-year-old church where they said their daily prayers. I introduced myself to the abbot, and told him how glad I had been to learn about all God had been doing at their monastery to make it thrive again, and I expressed my deep sympathy for the recent natural disaster that had left their church in ruins.

He said to me, “Yes, you are right that it is God, and not us, who has been doing all that. But God is doing this too” — meaning, the earthquake and its effects. God had interrupted any complacency they might have been inclined to feel over the external trappings of their religious life, the impressive buildings that made them feel like they were leaving a great mark of piety in their town. And instead God called them anew to the simple, humble virtues that would make them truly saints: to work day and night to relieve the material needs of those townspeople who had lost homes and livelihood in the earthquake; to live and pray in a humble, makeshift dormitory and chapel on the obscure margins outside the city; to seek the new building God was constructing within their own souls, to be unveiled in all its splendor only at the last day.

Of course, the monks in Norcia have also, since then, started building again, more permanent buildings that they hope will last for centuries. And when God interrupts our projects, it is not wrong for us eventually to take them up again, or some new project we hadn’t anticipated before. But as we do, we must ever be mindful of the true and everlasting dwelling God is making for us, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, where we may ever dwell in him, and he in us.

The Rev. Mac Stewart, a priest of the Diocese of North Carolina, is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.

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