The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church

The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church

by Margaret Visser

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504011709
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/23/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 374,734
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Margaret Visser writes on the history, anthropology, and mythology of everyday life. Her most recent book is The Gift of Thanks. Her previous works, Much Depends on DinnerThe Rituals of Dinner, The Way We Are, and The Geometry of Love, have all been bestsellers and have won major international awards, including the 1989 Glenfiddich Award for Food Book of the Year in Britain and the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Literary Food Writing Award and Jane Grigson Award. In 2002, Visser gave the Massey Lectures on CBC Radio, subsequently published as the bestselling book Beyond Fate.
Visser’s works have been translated into French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Italian, and Portuguese. She appears frequently on radio and television and has lectured extensively in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia. She divides her time between Toronto, Paris, and southwest France.

Read an Excerpt

The Geometry of Love

Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church

By Margaret Visser


Copyright © 2000 Margaret Visser
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1170-9




The church stands with its back to the road. It turns away, quietly guarding its secret.

For more than 1,350 years it has stood by the road, and around it once stretched open fields and vineyards. The massive brick walls and towers that encircled the city of Rome were clearly and unforgettably visible, cutting across the landscape to the south.

If you arrive today, say by bus—a two-kilometre ride from Termini Station—you will have to cross the busy road you came on, from the bus stop near a fountain captured in stone. Acqua Marcia is inscribed on it, in memory of Rome's first important aqueduct, constructed in 144 B.C. Within the last hundred years or so, the view from here of the city walls has been blocked as the area became first a suburb and then a fairly central district of modern Rome.

Having reached the pavement opposite the bus stop, you look through an iron gate with a walkway leading to a closed door under a porch. To the left of it stands the brick back of the church and its medieval tower—not by any means a spectacular tower, but a strong and graceful one nonetheless. The building not only conceals what it contains, it also marks the spot.

To find an entrance to the building, you can take a small descending side road on your right to a break in the wall on the left; this gateway is invisible from the main street. Or you must walk along the pavement, as I did the first time I came here, and brave a small porch with an arch on columns and a painting over the door, at number 349 via Nomentana; it lets you into a solid medieval monastery building with yellow ochre walls. Once you have crossed into the precinct, you must traverse a courtyard, then walk through the vaulted space that supports another medieval tower, and enter a door on your right. You find yourself at the top of a broad staircase, forty-five steps in all, descending into the church. You realize, with a shock, that the church floor is deep down; the building is much higher inside than it looks from the street. For almost a millennium, until the year 1600, the church was half buried. Only its upper level rose above ground.

The floor level is the same as one of the levels of the catacomb into which the church has been built. These narrow tunnels, with graves cut one above the other into their earthen sides, snake out underneath all of the area hereabouts. There is another much larger catacomb almost adjoining this one; its entrance is just a street block away. The entrance to a smaller, uninvestigated warren has also been discovered. The thundering main road outside, carrying the bus or car you arrived in, passes over a section of the catacombs. There are thousands of graves—in 1924, 5,753 of them had been counted—and several kilometres of tunneling, not all of which has yet been explored.

A single grave among all the rest gives its name to this catacomb and to the church sunk into it: the grave of Agnes, a twelve-year-old girl who was murdered in 305 A.D. She has never been forgotten; the building remembers her.


The word "remember" comes from the same Indo-European root as "mind." And the English word "mind" is both a noun ("what is in the brain") and a verb ("pay attention to," "care"). When one has forgotten, to remember is to call back into the "attention span," to recall. Attention is thought of here as having a span—an extension in space. Forgetting, on the other hand, is like dropping something off a plate, falling off an edge, not "getting" it, but having to do, instead, without it. Remembering is recapturing something that happened in the past; it is an encounter of now with then—a matter of time. Buildings—constructions in space—may last through time as this church has lasted. Such structures can cause us to remember. Their endurance, as well as their taking up space, may counter time and keep memory alive.

This particular church reminds us of Agnes, who was killed by having her throat cut almost 1,700 years ago. But like any church, it recalls a great deal more. One of a church's main purposes is to call to mind, to make people remember. To begin with, a church sets out to cause self-recollection. Every church does its best (some of them are good at this, others less so, but every church is trying) to help each person recall the mystical experience that he or she has known.

Everyone has had some such experience. There are moments in life when—to use the language of a building—the door swings open. The door shuts again, sooner rather than later. But we have seen, even if only through a crack, the light behind it. There has been a moment, for example, when every person realizes that one is oneself, and no one else. This is probably a very early memory, this taking a grip on one's own absolutely unique identity, this irrevocable beginning.

I remember myself, walking along a narrow path in the Zambian bush. The grass was brown and stiff, more than waist-high. I was wearing a green-and-white checked dress with buttons down the front. I was alone. I said aloud, stunned, "Tomorrow I'm going to be five! Tomorrow I'm going to be five!" I stopped still with amazement: fiveness was about to be mine! I had already had four. The whole world seemed to point to me in that instant. The world and I looked at each other. It was huge and I was me. I was filled with indescribable delight. I took another step, and the vision was gone. But it's still there, even now, even when I am not recalling it.

This was a mystical experience. As such, one of its characteristics was that in it my mind embraced a vast contradiction: both terms of it at once. I was me and the world contained me, but I was not the world. I was a person, but I wasn't "a person"—I was me. A mystical experience is before all else an experience, and beyond logic. It is concrete, and therefore unique. It is bigger than the person who experiences it; it is something one "enters."

People have always, apparently in all cultures, conceptualized the world as participating in, or expressing, or actually being a tension between a series of opposites: big and small, high and low, same and different, hot and cold, one and many, male and female, and so on. Societies of people can have very idiosyncratic ideas about what is opposite to what: a culture can find squirrels "opposite" to water rats, oblongs "opposite" to squares, bronze vessels "the opposite" of clay ones. Anthropologists dedicate themselves to finding out what such classifications could mean; the answers they give us usually show how social arrangements are reflected outward upon the world, and determine human perceptions of how nature is ordered. One result of a mystical experience, therefore, can be a profound demystification.

For no sooner has a culture organized its system of contradictions, than the mystics arise. They steadfastly, and often in the face of great danger, assure their fellow human beings that they are wrong: what appears to be a contradiction in terms is merely a convention, a point of view, a façon de parler, no matter how self-evident it may appear. These are people who believe and convince others that they have been lifted out of this world and have seen a greater truth: the opposites are, in fact, one. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus can say, "The way up and the way down are the same." Or: "Step into the same river twice, and its waters will be different."

Such mystic realizations (up and down are one, sameness and difference coincide) have to keep occurring, both for the sake of truth, and for the necessity of realizing that neither our senses nor our thinking faculties have access to, or are capable of encompassing, everything. ("The last proceeding of reason," wrote Pascal, "is to recognize that there is an infinity of things beyond it.") For all the outrage and bafflement with which the pronouncements of the mystics are greeted, we remember their words; in time we learn to appreciate and value them. In our own day, physicists have been talking like mystics for some time: expressing physical reality, for example, as conflating space and time, or declaring that waves and particles (lines and dots) can be perceived to be "the same." The rest of us are only beginning to take in what they are saying.

From the point of view of the person experiencing them, privileged moments—those that allow us to see something not normally offered to our understanding—do not last. Regretfully, necessarily, we cannot remain in such an experience. We move on, into the practical, the sensible, the logical and provable, the mundane. But after one such glimpse of possibility, we henceforth know better. We know what it is to experience two or more incompatible, mutually exclusive categories as constituting in fact one whole. We have seen both sides of the coin, at one and the same time. An impossibility—but it has happened. We may bury this experience, deny it, explain it away—but at any moment something could trigger it, raise it up, recall it. Because it has happened, and cannot unhappen.

One of the consequences of having had a mystical experience is a sense of loss. If only it could have gone on and on, and never had to stop; if only the door would open again! One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in life is that we cannot bring about such an experience, any more than we can make it last. Sex can remind us of it because, like a mystical experience, sex is ecstatic, overwhelming, and delightful; it feels bigger than we are. Drugs can also make us feel as if we're "there" again. So people pursue sex and drugs—experiences they can get, they can have. This other thing, this greater and unforgettable thing, this insight, is not anyone's for the asking. It comes (it always comes, to everyone, at different times and in different ways), and there is no telling what it will be or when or where, let alone how. You can't buy it or demand it or keep it. It is not a chemical reaction, and there is nothing automatic about it.

A mystical experience is something perceived, and it calls forth a response. But you are free to turn away from the vision, to behave as though it never happened; you are free not to respond. (This is something I have had to learn: when I was almost five there was no question of not responding.) The invitation cannot be made to anyone else but you—and not even to you at any moment in your life other than the one in which it is made. I shall never be five again, so no other mystical experience I have will ever again be that one. I shall never again wear that green-and-white checked dress; it is very likely that the path through the brown grass has disappeared. What I have left is the enormous memory, and the fact that it has enlarged all of my experience ever since.

Now a church (or a temple or a synagogue or a mosque—any religious building) knows perfectly well that it cannot induce in anyone a mystical experience. What it does is acknowledge such experience as any of its visitors has had, as explicitly as it can. A church is a recognition, in stone and wood and brick, of spiritual awakenings. It nods, to each individual person. If the building has been created within a cultural and religious tradition, it constitutes a collective memory of spiritual insights, of thousands of mystical moments. A church reminds us of what we have known. And it tells us that the possibility of the door swinging open again remains.


Memory, in a church, is not only individual, but also collective: the building is a meeting house for a group of people who agree with each other in certain important respects. They come together to express solidarity, and they do this by participating in an intensely meaningful performance known as a ritual.

The closest relative of a church is a theatre, where people also come together to witness a scripted performance. There is a stage in a church, and seats for the audience; in both theatre and church, people come in order to live together through a trajectory of the soul. They come to be led by the performance to achieve contact with transcendence, to experience delight or recognition, to understand something they never understood before, to feel relief, to stare in amazement, or to cry. They want something that shakes them up—or gives them peace. Successful drama, like a well-performed ritual, can provoke an experience of transcendence: through feeling, for example, two contradictory emotions at once. Aristotle spoke of katharsis—purification—as the aim of tragedy. Catharsis, he said, is achieved by undergoing two opposing movements of the soul—pity (feeling for, and therefore drawing close) and fear (longing to move out of the danger's range)—at the same time.

In a theatre the audience is the receiver of a play, and essential to a play. At an ancient Greek drama the audience was indeed part of the spectacle. The form of the theatre, a huge horseshoe shape, ensured that this was so. The Greek theatres that survive today allow us to imagine what it must have been like, sitting in a vast crowd of fellow citizens with everyone spread out in full view, in broad daylight, fanning out to embrace the round dancing-floor below them. Actors say that an audience can draw out of them their best performances, just through the quality of its attention, its intentness.

A theatre is like a church—not the other way round. "Church" or "temple" is the main category, and "theatre" 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. ("Theatre" comes from Greek theatron, 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 theatre; 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 theatre 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 theatre.


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. Meaning is intentional: this building has been made in order to communicate with the people in it. A church is no place to practise aesthetic distance, to erase content and simply appreciate form. The building is trying to speak; not listening to what it has to say is a form of barbarous inattention, like admiring a musical instrument while caring nothing for music.

The building "refers" to things beyond itself, and it deliberately intends to be a setting where spiritual knowledge receives explicit recognition and focal attention. Sometimes the meanings are highly specific and complex; for the sake of clarity they may even be explained in inscriptions. Other meanings are more general: the nave is "like a ship" (which is what "nave" means), or windows let in light (a symbol of God). But these meanings also engage in intricate play among themselves, arouse further associations, and end up offering some of the most complex meanings of all. And always—silently, intently—the building points at once both to the individual's own inner being and to the things commonly done in the company of other people in the church: the place where "the Word" is read, for example, and the site of baptism, or Christian initiation. The altar table is usually given centre stage, for at the heart of Christianity is a shared meal, together with everything meant by sharing a meal.


Excerpted from The Geometry of Love by Margaret Visser. Copyright © 2000 Margaret Visser. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 The Door Swings Open: Threshold,
2 Space and Time: Narthex and Ground Plan,
3 Trajectory: Nave,
4 Alpha and Omega: Altar,
5 World Without End: Apse,
6 Living Stones: Chapels, Left Side,
7 One Body: Chapels, Right Side,
8 Eternal Rest: Outside,
9 Finer Than Gold: Road, Crypt, and Tower,
10 Virgin Martyr: Tomb,
Select Bibliography,
About the Author,

What People are Saying About This

Rene Girard

. . . Visser . . . redeems the apparently unredeemable, tourism itself. She brings it back to its almost completely lost origin, the Christian pilgrimage.
— (Rene Girard, author of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)

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