The City of God

And one of the seven angels. . . came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I shall show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper. It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are those of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel.

There were three gates on the east and three gates on the north and three gates on the south and three gates on the west. And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.And the one who spoke with me had a gold measuring rod to measure the city, and its gates and its wall. And the city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards, according to human measurements, which are also angelic measurements. And the material of the wall was jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone.

And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. And the nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it. And in the daytime (for there shall be no night there) its gates shall never be closed; and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:9-27, NASB).

I think it is just as important for us to ask ourselves, “Where are you living life?” as it is to ask ourselves, “What life are you living?” I think this is true whether we consider our individual dwellings, or whether we consider the neighborhoods, towns, and cities in which we live. What is our community like? Do we even have one? Is it human? Is it soul-liberating and soul-nourishing, or is it impersonal, oppressive, a place that drives a person to more unconsciousness?

A Pattern Language

Written by architect Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language is about human ways of building structures, towns, and cities that appeal to the person rather than driving us to the impersonal. Alexander lays out 253 different patterns of creating and using living spaces that make absolute psychological sense. They make sense, he writes, because “many of the patterns here are archetypal–so deep, so deeply rooted in the nature of things, that it seems likely that they will be a part of human nature, and human action, as much in five hundred years as they are today” (xvii).

I’ll write first about the archetypal patterns that mean “home” for us in a large sense, such as in cities and towns; and then next I’ll write about personal spaces such as homes or even individual rooms.

The Symbolic City

As I’ve mentioned before, the circle is a symbol of the self that is encountered everywhere that we manifest our need for psychic orientation, whether in art, such as in the Eastern forms of the mandala or yantra, or in Western icons where halos surround the saints or where rose windows adorn our cathedrals. Where we go, symbols of wholeness go; this is evident in the very cities in which we live.

One of the most interesting classes I took during pursuit of my master’s degree in literature was called “The City in History,” no doubt titled after the book of the same name by Lewis Mumford. A daunting, 657-page book that is profusely illustrated, the book is not for the faint of heart. It did, though, teach me to see with new eyes the cities I visit, the town in which I live, and the patterns of the structures built by human beings. I learned that they either do or do not live up to the stature of the human being; I also learned that many (if not most) of the greatest cities in the world have been built in a circle or square pattern, or as an attempt to square a circle. They are mandalas, symbols of wholeness.

The Mandala

The mandala forms the ground plan of “both secular and sacred buildings in nearly all civilizations; it enters into classical, medieval, and even modern town planning” according to Jung (269). Plutarch wrote about the foundation of Rome in the form of a circle (or a squared circle) built around a pit into which symbolic, earthy offerings were cast. By giving it a mandala form, Rome was elevated above the merely mundane level. The mundus center established the city’s relationship to the realm of the ancestral spirits, for the offerings that filled the central pit were comprised of handfuls of the home country’s earth tossed in by the original inhabitants of the new Rome. This pit was covered by a great stone, called the “soul stone,” which was removed on certain days, after which the spirits of the dead were said to rise from the shaft. Surely no Westerner could miss the symbolic relation between the great stone covering the tomb of Christ, and the great stone covering the Roman mundus.

Other cities having a circular or mandala form include Paris and Washington, D.C. Like many medieval cities, they serve as architectural reminders of man’s call to wholeness, and of the ultimate city, the New Jerusalem. Lewis Mumford writes that this most ancient form of the city has an archetypal nature, for it existed “even on the other side of the world, among the Mayas, the Peruvians, and the Aztecs,” where we find “similar institutions and habits of life, embodied in similar structures, associated with similar myths, ideologies, scientific observations, ceremonies, customs, even similar psychological stresses and torments” (90).

The Development of Suburbs

Suburbs are not a modern-day development. In fact, they developed as Rome declined, when the notion of “leaving behind the complexities of civilization had become attractive” to that city’s populace (Mumford 482). Living in the ‘burbs–or outside the city walls–became popular again during the 18th century, when the countryside came to be viewed less as the domain of the country bumpkin and farmer than that of the landed gentry. In England, the 18th century peasant and the country squire had the highest life expectancy due to the positive effects of country living.

“All through history,” Mumford writes, “those who owned or rented land outside the city’s walls valued having a place in the country, even if they did not actively perform agricultural labor: a cabin, a cottage, a vine-shaded shelter, built for temporary retreat if not for permanent occupancy” (483).  In medieval times, monasteries were commonly situated outside the city until the city, by its further growth, surrounded it. The development of the suburbs, Mumford says, has always been according to an open pattern, with gardens, orchards, and shaded walks accompanying buildings.

People seem to seek the life-maintaining activities of gardening, farming, recreation, relaxation, and retreat from the everlasting excitements and entertainments of the city–as well as the never-ending pollution, noise, and over-crowding of the city. The suburb, very nearly from the beginning of its development in ancient times, “might almost be described as the collective urban form of the country house–the house in a park–as the suburban way of life is so largely a derivative of the relaxed, playful, goods-consuming aristocratic life that developed out of the rough, bellicose, strenuous existence of the feudal stronghold” (Mumford 484).

On the darker side, the persistent move from cities to suburbs is also a type of “heresy of the private individual’s seeking to take over within the limits of a private family the functions of a whole community” (Mumford 485). In town, one is obliged to modify his behavior out of respect for the neighbors on the other side of the wall, or upstairs, or downstairs; whereas in the suburbs, the neighbor is beyond the fence or even down the road, and the homeowner the unaccountable lord of his own manor. Mumford comments that the man separated from his neighbors can live “a self-centered life, in which private fantasy and caprice would have license to express themselves openly, in short, to withdraw like a monk and live like a prince” (486).

This utopia proved to be, up to a point, a realizable one: so enchanting that those who contrived it failed to see the fatal penalty attached to it–the penalty of popularity, the fatal inundation of a mass movement whose very numbers would wipe out the goods each individual sought for his own domestic circle, and, worse, replace them with a life that was not even a cheap counterfeit, but rather the grim antithesis.

In the mass movement into suburban areas a new kind of community was produced, which caricatured both the historic city and the archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing teh same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis.

Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible. What has happened to the suburban exodus in the United States now threatens, through the same mechanical instrumentalities, to take place, at an equally accelerating rate, everywhere else–unless the most vigorous countermeasures are taken (486).

Squaring the Circle

After three months of following this blogospheric meandering path of individuation and wholeness, surely we now must begin to see a pattern of archetypal significance in everything human, a pattern that is horizontal and speaks to relatedness among human beings, as well as vertical, speaking to relatedness between the person and God, God and the person, and the person and himself. Do you see it? I do!

I see it when I drive by or through neighborhoods that either make me sigh with contentment or cringe with disappointment. What makes the great cities so great? Isn’t it the patterns that Alexander identifies, such as a mosaic of subcultures (Chinatown, anyone?), scattered work–the piercing salon owner who lives over her shop–the magic of the city, local transportation, neighborhood boundaries of some sort? It is webs of shopping, places of learning, neither too much nor too little parking; it is access to water and sacred sites, men and women, a promenade, night life, and activity nodes.

In the vibrant, alive city there is a household mix, there are degrees of publicness, row houses, housing hills, and old people everywhere, not simply shuttled off to retirement homes. In the best towns, there’s a work community–lawyers hurrying down the sidewalk to the court house, Starbucks coffees in hand; bankers with brief cases, an industrial ribbon where the contractors go for their supplies; a local and recognizable town hall, the sort of place where the old timers actually have a place to sit under shade trees and jaw about the weather, the crops, or politics until their wives drag them home.

There are places of learning. There are markets, with many shops (have you ever been to Seoul, S. Korea and shopped?), a health center with easy access to the hospital. There are houses in between so that in no place is there only one sort of building or enterprise. Ideally, the work of parents is not so far removed from the location of the home that children have no idea where Dad or Mom work, and are so isolated from the work world that they think money must magically appear.

There are gateways, and road crossings, raised walks and sidewalks, bike paths and racks and children everywhere. In the United States, especially where we spread out in the Midwest, we are terrible about bike paths and jogging paths, and we need to do something about this, and demand that developers be willing to spend the extra money to put in sidewalks.

Fun cities and communities have places for fun and dancing (even outside), cafes and places for hanging about in, small public squares, quiet backs and accessible green places, and water. And holy places. There is common land, and connected play, there are grave sites and local sports; there are animals and there is still water.

For many years in the United States, suburban neighborhoods proliferated and there was not one single park in neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood. They had no sidewalks; they had cookie-cutter houses. They had stockade fences protecting the residents from their own neighbors. The fences were too tall for talking over, and nobody talked any more.

Today, in my area, some of the modern homes being built are horrible and ugly. They no longer have front porches, much less yards. The three-car garage dominates the entire footprint of the house, signifying that the vehicles are the most important occupants of the home. There are no good trees, and no sidewalks leading to the neighbor’s house. All the houses have “mother-in-law plans,” which separate the huge master bedroom and bath from the tiny second and third bedrooms and where a mother-in-law will never live because the people building these houses do not come from a culture in which more than one generation of the same family spend much time together, much less live together.

The problems we have as a society stem, I think, from our increasing fragmentation and isolation from ourselves and from other people. I don’t see any easy solutions. We are by now so separated from our spiritual selves that we cannot even turn to God to save us, for God has been dead for several generations and is no longer allowed to go to school with our children. We don’t have Christmas, we have Winter Break; we cannot pray for people, but must merely keep them “in our thoughts.” Most people do not know the neighbors who surround them, what they do for a living, how many children (if any) they have, and have never eaten dinner with them. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that even church people, who may pride themselves on believing in a “personal relationship with God” have never had their pastor and his family over for dinner, or invited their kids’ Sunday School teacher over for dessert, or have helped their rabbi paint his house (although, judging from the Messianic Christian community my daughter and son-in-law worshiped with, I’d guess that communities with Jewish roots are probably more closely knit than their Christian counterparts).

I know my neighbors by name, and I know what they do for a living; but I have lived in my house for four years now and have never broken bread with even one of my neighbors. I hear from my children that half the Christians in the neighborhood to our north are trying to force another part of the neighborhood out because their fences and patio covers are ugly and these nice, Christian folks don’t want their expensive, gated community corrupted by the pagans with Bad Taste. I think about this and I remember that, everywhere I go, I am a living icon of Christianity and of the pursuit of wholeness, and I ask myself whether I am representing God or myself or the Third Eve very well, or am I as hypocritical as my neighbors to the north?

I probably am, sometimes, but I’ll tell you: I keep trying to live by the pattern that establishes a city with glittering walls made of precious stones, a city built and inhabited by God Himself. I don’t know if I’ll ever sparkle with that kind of glory in this life, but “this one thing I do . . . I press on.”

For Exploration

References

Alexander, Christopher. A Pattern Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1961.

5 responses

  1. Thanks for your comments, RG, Tiv and Alida. Tiv, I’ll bet I crack you up sometimes, huh?

    I was thinking about my unveiled judgmental comments about neighbors. ;o)

  2. I grew up in the suburbs, and for most of that time in a master-planned community. Which meant that while the city was beautiful in many ways — wide, curving streets with many trees, bike paths along greenbelts, power lines buried underground, and public spaces with fountains and artwork — it also came at the cost of freedom and natural beauty.

    My father’s house is one of those “one of ten house plans”. He knows his neighbors only slightly; this has improved in recent years due to my midwestern stepmother’s natural friendliness and hospitality. In that town there is a list of colors you can paint your house; you can be fined by the town for not mowing your grass.

    The pattern of that town is clearly not laid out in any sacred pattern, except the Holy Developer’s Creed of fitting the highest number of units into a prescribed space (though the yards are spacious in order to accommodate all the swimming pools). And of course the only people you see walking are those doing so for exercise; walking anywhere for a practical purpose is rendered impractical by the strict separation of residential and commercial areas.

    Right now I live in a semi-rural suburb. There are still large areas of “ten house plans” alongside remnants of the old farming community, but the major distinctive feature is the nearby Hasidic Jewish community. Recently our local election was focused on growth control, which in reality was a thinly veiled attempt to halt any further Hasidic developments. True, they do get many tax exemptions that many people think are unfair. But to me it was just another symptom of NIMBYism at its worst.

    You might also be interested in these books by Christopher Day: Places of the Soul
    Spirit and Place

  3. You are always giving me things to think about, thanks. I look around at where I live and it’s so easy to see why I fell in love with our place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: