After the Exodus, as Israel sojourned in the desert, God gave Moses “the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture” (Exodus 25:9). And so Moses commanded the construction of this portable sanctuary of God’s presence among his chosen people. Centuries later, in Jerusalem, God gave David “the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat” (1 Chronicles 28:11). God gave Israel’s kings the right to call that Temple “the house of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:20–21).

The early Christians saw both the tabernacle and temple as biblical “types” foreshadowing the Christian Church. They were earthly sanctuaries that would find their fulfillment in the worship of heaven and earth that we find detailed in the New Testament books of Hebrews and Revelation (see Hebrews 8–10 and Revelations 11:19). The Church at worship included what Catholics traditionally call the Church Militant, the Church Triumphant, and the Church Suffering — the great cloud of witnesses — the communion of the Church on earth, in heaven, and in purgatory.

Most of this was invisible to the eye. It was made known, however, through the preaching of the Fathers, especially those we know as “mystagogues”: Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Maximus.

Mystagogy is guidance in the “mysteries,” in things hidden since the foundation of the world. The mystagogue guided his congregation, especially new converts, through the external, material appearances to grasp the unseen reality that is interior, spiritual, hidden, and divine. Thus he could demonstrate that the liturgical and sacramental signs have been foreshadowed in both the Old and New Testaments. He could trace their development from shadow (in the Old) to image (in the New) to reality (in heaven).

Ancient mystagogy was intensely concerned not only with rite and gesture, but with architecture as well. The Apostolic Constitutions (fourth century) include a lovely symbolic interpretation of the church building as a ship sailing heavenward. It instructs the bishop: “You call an assembly of the Church as one who is commander of a great ship. Appoint the assemblies to be made with all possible skill, charging the deacons as mariners to prepare places for the brethren as for passengers, with all due care and decency. And first, let the building be long, with its head to the east, with its vestries on both sides at the east end, and so it will be like a ship. In the middle let the bishop’s throne be placed, and on each side of him let the priests sit down; and let the deacons stand near at hand … for they are like the mariners and managers of the ship. 

You see, there’s a divine sense to the layout of a Catholic Church. But somehow such ideas got lost in the shuffle of the ages — so utterly lost that, in our own age, the popes have issued urgent calls for their recovery. Pope Benedict XVI pleaded for a “mystagogical catechesis … concerned with presenting the meaning of the signs.” 

To understand a church requires a cultivated interior life. What do you know about the way your parish church is built? What are you doing to learn more?