Play, Symbol and Festival in Worship Design

Beauty as a transcendental quality of being invites one to enter the world of contemplation. In The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, Hans-Georg Gadamer argues, “The experience of the beautiful in art is a form of knowing.”[i] To illustrate his point, he examines three basic concepts: Play, Symbol, and Festival. I would also argue that sacred spaces are capable of moving and transforming us because of their particular language of beauty and that by designing churches with these concepts in mind, we can help a congregation experience transcendental beauty. In this article, I apply Gadamer’s concepts to liturgical celebration in the spaces of three Christian communities and then consider implications for liturgical architecture.

According to Gadamer, play, symbol, and festival are interconnected: when playfulness occurs, it invites participation at a different level of communication. The invitation is presented symbolically within the framework of festival.

Gadamer acknowledges that playful components can be found in all aspects of religious rituals. He describes the experience of play as an activity without purpose., i.e without worldly purpose, requiring spaces that re-create spiritual worlds where the soul can rest from purposeful activity.[ii]  The Reconciliation chapel at the Taizé community in France, for example, is a place without worldly purpose, where worship is experienced without anxiety.

Play also requires rules. In the same way, liturgy uses language, gestures, colours, garments, and instruments only fully understood by those who take worship seriously, including the designer.[iii] And just as our deepest experience happens when we play with someone else,[iv] so worship spaces must allow participation and interaction. Rows of pews may have been appropriate for the Tridentine Mass where the participation of the assembly was not a concern, but today, freer seating layout allows a wide range of celebrations. The Domus Galilaeae chapel of the Neo-Catechumenal community in Israel arranges its chairs around the altar, enhancing the idea of banquet.

Domus Galilaeae Chapel. Israel.

When it is time to play, Gadamer says, all living beings express themselves with a degree of excess, a phenomenon found in liturgies such as Orthodox, Coptic, andChaldean. In their worship celebrations, the Episcopalian community of St Gregory of Nyssa in California uses unlimited resources, enriching their liturgy with components of different traditional liturgies and space: icons of dancing saints circle above the altar, and candles, crosses, and colorful umbrellas dress the space. Ministers wear rich vestments which evoke unity with Christians of past ages.

St Gregory of Nyssa. California.

Places of worship should be vital expressions of the meaning of liturgical play and the “purposeless” found in the liturgy. I am convinced that a sacred space constantly invites us to discover, uncover, and reveal its mystery through liturgical symbols that direct us toward a holy order of things.[v] Our work is discovering how to imprint them in the liturgical space. This means, in Gadamer’s words, learning how to listen to what liturgy has to say through the space. The Taizé chapel with its apparently chaotic setting, lighting, and textures is transfigured with the presence of symbols, becoming in itself a symbol of the Mystery.

The two concepts of play and symbol have a communicative dimension: the festival, which includes the space and the time of communal participation.[vi] Gadamer says,  ”celebrating is an art that we have lost;” I believe that we have lost the art of designing spaces that invite celebration.[vii] For Gadamer, celebration means, first of all, not allowing separation between one person and another,[viii] designing a church as a welcoming space. St Gregory of Nyssa allows no separation between one person and another. Christians gather together in the name of God to enact liturgically a “festival address” that sometimes requires a profound silence from the listeners.[ix] The Reconciliation chapel at Taizé constantly invites worshipers to contemplation and participation in an environment of sacred silence.

Reconciliation Chapel. Taizé. France

The last aspect to consider is time. Gadamer says, “The temporal structure of the performance is quite different from the time that simply stands at our disposal.”[x] Liturgy imposes its own time upon us; it invites us to linger in its rituals, and our task is to discover how to imprint autonomous time on the forms of architecture. “The essence of temporal experience of art is in learning to tarry in this way.”[xi] Liturgical architecture is perhaps one way to grant us the experience of eternity. 


Gadamer’s work makes us aware of our relationship with the world and how we might retain what threatens to disappear.[xii] Through its rites, the liturgy provides a new form of permanence to the temporary. The sacred spaces illustrated here connect the present with eternity within their different liturgies: the Neo-Catechumenal Community celebrating an everlasting banquet; the Taizé community providing the experience of contemplation, and Episcopalians inviting us to sing, to dance, and to become God’s friends.

Gadamer has sought an anthropological foundation in the phenomenon of play as the highest expression of freedom. Freedom is also found in communities that worship together. The Taizé, Neo-Catechumenal and St. Gregory communities worship with a deep sense of belonging, regardless of age, race and social class. They have designed their churches based on the language of their liturgies, and the liturgical spaces are built around strong symbols— a large altar-table; the grand tent in the desert; a circle of saints dancing above the altar. Their particular forms of play and their symbols help them perceive the eternal in the temporal. As well, the concept of festival, with its communal values, challenges our individualistic contemporary culture and frees us from individualism.

The experience of the liturgy is at its best when one is surprised by the intricacy and integration of the assembly, the priest, the choir and the space itself. The liturgical celebration, with its internal coherence and sense of sacred work, can enable the worshipper to reach Eternity now.


[i] Hans Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[ii] Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997),61-72.

[iii] A baptism fountain located close to the assembly allows congregation to go there for some ritual actions during some feasts, in favour of “freeimpulse.” A long distance between the altar and the ambo gives a sense of procession of the Book of the Gospel.

[iv] Gadamer calls this aspect “participation.” Gadamer, 23.

[v] Louis Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2001), 11.

[vi] Alejandro García-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful: a Theological Aesthetics (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Pr, 1999), 131-135.

[vii] Gadamer, 40.

[viii] Ibid., 39.

[ix] It is the aspect of “speechandquietness.” Ibid., 40.

[x] It is the aspect of “temporal structure.” Ibid., 41.

[xi] Ibid., 45.

[xii] Ibid., 46.

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