Reading Patrick McGovern
This morning’s reading is from A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. It was first published in 1977, and set out to name and describe 253 different types of scenarios that we encounter everyday in the built environments we engage with, so that we can find better solutions to the problems that face us in making the world more fair and more accessible. Some of the patterns include Promenade, Household Mix, High Places, and Child Caves.
In their introduction, they wrote:
No pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that it is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it.
This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.
... patterns are very much alive and evolving. In fact, if you like, each pattern may be looked upon as a hypothesis like one of the hypotheses of science. In this sense, each pattern represents our current best guess as to what arrangement of the physical environment will work to solve the problem presented.
Sermon “A Pattern Seeking People” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Have you ever looked at something, anything, a building, a vase, a photograph, and and had the experience of just knowing that it was beautiful? Deeply, profoundly beautiful?
How did you know?
One of the first things I learned as a student of architecture was that we find things beautiful when they are familiar to us. That’s not to say that we only find beauty in the things we’ve seen them before, it’s to say that things that are completely, 100% percent new to us tend to be threatening in their bizarreness. We like things that remind us of other things that have positive associations.
One of the first things we learned was that proportion is everything, and that the repetition of elements, such columns or windows, provide rhythm in design, and the proportions of repeated elements can create the ultimate sense of beauty.
Take what is known as the golden rectangle. Its longer dimension is 1.6180339887 times its shorter dimension. And if you draw a line through that to make a square, the remaining space is another golden rectangle, but kind of turned 90 degrees. You can then a make a square in that rectangle, and be left with another golden rectangle, and on and on and on ... into infinity.
Then, if you were to use a compass, and draw an arc through each of those squares, one offer the other, so that the end of one arc lines up the the beginning of the next arc, you’d end up with a spiral that goes on forever.
That spiral is found all over nature, most famously in nautilus shells, and the curling buds of ferns known as fiddleheads. But parts of that spiral are also found in things like cauliflower, making something ridiculously bland tasting ... absolutely gorgeous. If you start to look for them, you start seeing the spirals of the golden rectangle, a slight variation of which is called Fibonacci spiral, everywhere.
Early architects knew this. So if you look ancient Roman architecture, you see the golden rectangle everywhere, in the spaces between columns, the shapes of rooms, windows and doors and other elements of buildings. You see it on a grander scale in plazas and other public spaces.
In regular daily life chances are that a big part of the appeal of many of the things you encounter is familiarity of proportion and rhythm, creating patterns that bring you comfort. That’s poetry.
In A Pattern Language, the authors go on to write, “The difference between prose and poetry is not that different languages are used, but that the same language is used, differently. In an ordinary English sentence, each word has one meaning, and the sentence too, has one simple meaning.
In a poem, the meaning is far more dense. Each word carries several meaning; and the sentence as a whole carries enormous density of interlocking meanings, which together illuminate the whole.”
In other words, most of the time we strive to make our message simple, clear, understandable....free of ambiguity. But in poetry, the goal is ambiguity, to leave more up to the imagination of the reader, to connect their own experiences to the poetic imagery, thereby making more of both.
More from A Pattern Language:
“The same is true for pattern languages. It is possible to make buildings by stringing together patterns, in a rather loose way. A building made like this is an assembly of patterns. It is not dense. It is not profound. But it is also possible to put patterns together in such a way that many patterns overlap in the same physical space: the building is very dense; it has many meanings captured in a small space, and through this density, it becomes profound.
In a poem, this kind of density creates illumination, by making identities between words, and meanings whose identity we have not understood before.”
If we think about the spaces in our own building, we see this in action. The narthex isn’t just a lobby. It’s a place where we welcome newcomers and greet one another, have intimate meetings, remember those of us who have gone before us and are interred in the memorial garden, honor those who have given significant amounts of their personal resources to build this place, sign up for classes and events, disseminate information.
Each of those overlapping functions make the space so much more meaningful than it would be if it were used solely as a place to walk through on the way to the sanctuary, religious education classes or restrooms. The Narthex gives us a chance to see our faith community and its members, ourselves, differently, with more meaning, more nuance. More poetry. There’s beauty there. And comfort. Created by bringing together a lot of different patterns we are all familiar with.
A Pattern Language, which helps designers plan for things like the movement of natural light throughout the day, and for the arrival of guests on cold nights, has been so influential on design that it has printed hundreds of thousands of copies, which is huge for an 1100 page design manual, and influenced countless other fields of study, not the least of which is the creation of the very first wiki, the precursor to Wikipedia.
That actually makes sense when you consider how much humans loves to understand patterns in our lives. they help us understand the world and ourselves better. They help us find comfort during times of chaos or struggle. They give us structure when the world seems to be falling apart. So we look for patterns everywhere.
I’ve never been a big fan of astrology. It’s kind of vague, and having your whole personality determined by the location of earth and other planets at the moment of your birth feels really arbitrary to me. But other personality assessment systems make more sense.
They start with the assumption that our personalities are fluid, constantly changing, and determined by a lot of different personal and social factors from family history, to birth order, to social location, sexual identity and economics.
The thing they all agree on is that is particular personality types behave in certain predictable ways.
Many of you have probably heard of or worked with the Myers-Briggs 16 personality type system. In that system, an ISTP person is described as quiet, flexible and tolerant. And if you know that person, you know that when difficult situations arise, they tend to listen way more than they talk, assessesing everything, quietly gathering information, then spring into action and get stuff done. And if you’ve observed anything about human beings and our interactions with one another, you know that as good as that sounds, there are repercussions to acting TOO quickly.
The Ennegram is an ancient system, around since about the twelfth century, and used by the Sufi mystics who were the contemporaries of the great poet Rumi. It describes nine very complex types, each with dozens of subcategories related to one another.
In that system, an 8 is a leader, outgoing and dependable. when things get tough, they can respond one of two ways. If they are feel confident and secure, they become incredibly helpful, but if they’re lacking confidence, they retreat into themselves, and can get caught up in mining for data, stuck in a loop of believing that more information will solve all the problems.
They’re less helpful. If you’re a third party observer, say a co-worker of an 8, and you see one of these extreme reactions,
it’s a really good indicator of where that person is, and how you can help. Not that you can ever change anyone else’s behavior.
Neither Myers-Briggs nor the Enneagram will reveal exactly how anyone will behave. They only suggest the type of behavior that is likely to occur. They’re just tools for understanding other people.
Another pattern that we’ve been talking about over the last couple of years is generational groupings.
If you’ve been part of any of these conversations, like the one that will be happening at Breckenridge Village on Friday, you know that they get a lot of pushback.
Nobody likes to be pigeon-holed. Nobody likes to feel as if other people think they know them based on the year they were born. In some ways, it feels like the zodiac, only groupings are in giant swaths of 15 to 18 years instead of one month.
But generational theory starts with the assumption that our personalities are fluid, constantly changing, and determined by a lot of different personal and social factors from family history, to birth order, to social location, sexual identity and economics. And it understands that we are profoundly shaped by the people around us, and the global experiences that we share.
If you were a young adult in the 60’s, with its assassinations and race riots, the moon landing, Woodstock and Stonewall,
you will have a lot more in common — in terms of your worldview — than people who were young adults during the 80’s, the Reagan era when greed was good, and drugs and sex would land you in prison or the morgue. Those are all things that profoundly affect how a whole generation sees the world and their role in it.
Within any generation there are still huge variants in personalities. And understanding the shared experiences of a generation isn’t going to help understand at all what any individual within that generation might do in any given circumstance. But it sure helps understand why one generation may love something — like, say, a drumming circle before worship — while another generation just wants it to disappear.
When you know even a tiny bit about the shared experiences of generations, it makes you understand why things change so slowly in the social settings where they co-exist. Especially places like this. It’s so complicated, one generation finds comfort in the word church, while it makes another generation bristle.
So, we take comfort in the patterns of behavior that we share. The rituals of our communal life.
Let me start by saying we all have rituals. If you get up in the morning and pour yourself a coffee first thing, if you always read the Sunday Times, if you listen to the same radio station on your morning drive.... you have rituals.
And this congregation, as low-church as it may be, has its rituals.
We may not spiritually cleanse the space with incense, or partake of a weekly Eucharist, or publicly as one another for forgiveness in spoken prayer, but we have our rituals.
We give the choir time to finish rehearsing before coming into this space. We open doors and ring bells to encourage everyone to enter. We center ourselves with the singing bowl. We are welcomed by a leader, we light a chalice, we place stones on the altar. We chat over coffee. We bring water back from summer travels. We light candles at Christmas. We show up when one of us dies, usually with cookies or brownies to share.
These are all rituals. Each one profoundly meaningful. And anyone who mindlessly tampers with any of those rituals, a dozens of others I haven’t mentioned, lives with the consequences.
The beauty of these rituals, these shared patterns of behavior, is that we seek them out specifically because they bring predictability, stability and comfort to our lives. And when the world feels like it’s spinning out of control, it’s good to know that we al can come back here, and know exactly what to expect.
If you’ve been to any of the many, many memorial services I’ve done here for our friends and family, you know that I always start each service exactly the same way: “The victorian novelist Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name George Eliot, once said that the dead are never really dead until we have forgotten them. And so we gather to remember.”
It’s not that I’m a huge George Eliot fan. It’s not like I even think her statement is all that profound. It’s really obvious, actually. But I start off with that saying every single time because in a service that is all about celebrating one individual, I want to create a predictable ritual that we all can share, a way of saying to our members, among all those guests “It’s okay. We’re here now. Together.” And my hope is whenever someone dies outside of our congregation, maybe a friend or family member, we can be apart from one another and at some point think “the dead are never really dead, until we have forgotten them. And so we gather to remember.”
The repetitive pattern of behavior helps us make meaning of our lives, and the lives of the people we love. It helps build compassion and understanding, a framework to build a life on. It helps us know what to expect of ourselves and each other.
That’s really the goal of religion, isn’t it? Telling us what to expect of ourselves and each other.
You know, Jews have the Ten Commandments. Roman Catholics have the Apostles Creed and Holy Communion. Islam has the Five Pillars. Buddhism has the Four Noble Truths. Our association has the Seven Principles.
While our principles may be great for giving us guidance as a congregation to hold individual worth and dignity in tension with the interconnected web of all existence, it doesn’t really help us establish the patterns of behavior that give structure and comfort to any of us. I know in times grief, I don’t find comfort in a copy of the seven principles.
What I do find comfort in, and what I hope yo find comfort in, is the things we do for and with each other, out of expectation:
Gathering on Sunday mornings,
Collecting food on the first Sunday of the month,
Having dinner together on the first Wednesday night,
Taking hands for our bond of union, and living out our mission to love, revere, discover, and connect, symbolized by four little pictograms.
The heart, tree, spiral and flaming chalice are reminders to me, and I hope to each of you, that we expect each other to do a few things:
To attend worship regularly
To take responsibility for cultivating our own spiritual formation, our own personal understanding of what it is that gives our lives meaning ... and hope
To serve the needs of the community that we live in, not just where we live, but here in Kirtland, as part of the fabric of the town
And to support each other, here in this congregation, in any way we can.
I know it may be silly, but I find poetry in those four little symbols. The poetry is that we can each take them and use them, arrange them patterns, giving them their own rhythm and proportion, almost like the golden rectangle.
We combine them in countless, unique ways to make our congregation, our community and the world more whole and more beautiful.
May it be so.