December 9, 2020

What is a temple? Etymologically, the word is linked with measurement, a member of a family that includes temperature, temperament, tempo. A templum is a measured area.

As David Steindl-Rast puts it (Gratefulness), originally the "measured area was not even on the ground but in the sky." Over time, templum came to refer to a sacred building or area, but always one "corresponding to the one in the sky."

This wasn't a loose correspondence. Steindl-Rast refers to the Stonehenge, which is arranged to be both a "sundial" and a "moondile." It "translates the cycles of sun and moon into architecture, movement into design, time into space."

More simply, Stonehenge, like most ancient temples, was a "small part of earth . . . patterned on the heavens."

What attracted the attention of pagan priests and diviners wasn't so much the earthly templum as the heavenly one. Priests examined the sky to decide what to do. The earthly temple was important only insofar as it gave them access to heaven.

All this fits very neatly with the biblical notion of the tabnit, the heavenly pattern that guided Moses and Solomon in building earthly sanctuaries. But there seem to be differences.

Pagan sacred architects designed earthly temples by looking at the firmament heavens. Moses and David, Ezekiel and John, were given a glimpse of a heavenly sanctuary beyond the firmament. Biblical templa are designed according to the pattern of the highest heavens.

But it might be worth considering biblical sanctuaries as mirrors of the firmament. The logic might go something like this:

  1. Yahweh told Abraham to measure the templum of the heavens, and told him his descendants will be like that. They will be an earthly people in an earthly space corresponding to the temple of the heavenly lights. They will be a temple people, beyond measure.
  2. Moses and David, Ezekiel and John, got a glimpse beyond the firmament, but what they saw is the pattern of a people. The earthly sanctuaries were heaven-on-earth; they also architecturally represented the people of Yahweh.
  3. Thus, we have three layers: The original measured-space in the highest heavens is reflected in the firmament heavens, and both are represented in the earthly measured-space of sacred buildings.

Steindl-Rast's discussion of templum is part of a consideration of contemplation, which includes the same root. Moses, he argues, is a contemplative precisely in his reception of the pattern of the tabernacle:

Moses "goes up to the mountain to the higher realm; he exposes himself to the transforming vision. . . . and he brings down to the people not only the law, but the building plan for the temple. Again and again the Bible emphasizes that Moses built the tabernacle precisely according to the pattern that had been shown to him on the mountain. And the law must be understood as a kind of plan according to which the people are to be built up into a temple of the living God. They become living stones rising to measure up to the vision of a divine order that must in the end shatter all measure" (65).

This understanding of contemplation breaches the traditional division between active and contemplative life. Contemplation of the heavenly pattern only proves genuine when the temple is built.

In short, "Contemplation joins vision and action. It puts the vision into action." When we contemplate the measured-space of heaven, we're inspired to replicated it on earth.

The more deeply we contemplate, the more intoxicated we become by the beauty of the heavenly city, the more dissatisfied we become with the earthly city and the more we're filled with the Spirit's passion to see heaven on earth.

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.