A theater is like a church—not the other way round. “Church” or “temple is the main category, and ‘theater” a division of it. Historically, drama grew out of religious performance (and never entirely left it) in a process wherein the play gradually separated itself from the crowd watching. The distance between watcher and watched is essential to theatrical experience. (“Theater comes from Greek thearron, a place for viewing.) People come together in a church, however, not to view but to take part. The word “church” comes from Greek kyriakon, “house of the Lord”; it is a place of encounter between people and God. It is perfectly possible to be moved at a spiritual level at the theater; one can open oneself and be brought to mystical insight, as Aristotle showed us, through attentive watching. (Such experiences, however, can occur anywhere, at any time—indeed, they seem to prefer arriving when we are least expecting them, at times and places we would be least inclined to call “appropriate?) But a performance in a church is permitted to involve people to an extent that the theater traditionally avoids. People come to participate in it, to join in, and then allow the realization to enter them and work upon them. The whole point of the proceedings is to help them change the orientation of their souls, even though they are also confirming the foundation of their beliefs. They have come to meet, to make the ceremony, and to respond, at a level that may include but goes well beyond the aesthetic. But a church can go on “working” even when there is no performance and no crowd. A person can come into a silent church in order to respond to the building and its meaning. This can produce an experience as profoundly moving as that of attending a performance. The same thing cannot be said of visiting an empty theater.
—Margaret Visser, The Geometry of Love, Space,Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church
Exploring the history and politics, theology, anthropology, art history and technology, iconography, hagiography, and folklore of a particular church, the seventh century, Saint Agnes Outside the Walls, in Rome, Margaret Visser set about to discover what the building itself was trying to say. Her experience may be applied as a kind of primer on not only on how to “read” a church building but also on the redemptive work of creating form, any kind of form, to carry meaning. She concludes: “A church like Sant’ Agnese fuori le Mura (Saint Agnes Outside the Walls) vibrates with intentionality. It is meaningful—absolutely nothing in it is without significance. Even if something is inadvertently included that has no meaning to start with, a meaning for it will be found, inevitably. A church stands in total opposition to the narrowing and flattening of human experience, the deviation into the trivial, that follow from antipathy towards meaning, and especially meaning held in common.”