There was a moment, many years ago, where I made a turn into a Melbourne arcade cafe. It was one of those arcades reminiscent of 1950s, but done up at the edges to update the more worn and tired aspects of the walls. The floors kept the colourful pieces of granite laid down at the building’s erection, while the walls retained some features of the art-deco, but covered up by the seemingly respectable trinkets of an office cafe.
As I made the turn to the arcade cafe made me flash back to a happy moment that took place at the cafe, one that I had long forgotten. It was as if the very stones in the floor and the lines of the art-deco walls of the arcade had taken hold of my person and catapulted me back into history. Whilst transporting me through time, the exterior space of the arcade had also interfaced with the interior space of my heart, my imagination, my desires, pulling them out of the dark recesses of my memory to the bright light of my mind’s eye.
What that experience taught me was that our environs – and for a growing number of people, that means our urban environs – are not detached from us. The French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, created a neologism, “intervolve”, to describe the extent to which our subjectivity is inextricably intertwined, almost fused, with the world around us. Going further, in Book II of his Republic, Plato spoke of the analogy that exists between the city and the soul. The use of the word analogy is significant here, for it infers a real metaphysical connect and not the imagined counterpart borne of the descriptor of “metaphor”. Between these two thoughts on the body and the soul lies the connective tissue of Thomas’ de Veritate (XIX.I.I), who wrote that the “operations of the soul depend upon the different dispositions of their bodies”
As my body moves within the city, so is my soul moulded and shaped through my desires that are stoked, blocked or directed by the infrastructure. Moreover, the city could pull out what is hidden in some dark recess of the soul, making what was once hidden visible to the mind’s eye. We could say, with Plato, that the city could function as a spatial outworking of the interior life.
The analogy drawn between the city and the interior life also means that, as the city is likened to a human person, the interior life of the human person is also spoken of as an urban landscape. The seeds of the trope were sown in the Scriptures, where Jesus spoke of the necessity of closing the door of my “inner room” when I pray (Matt 6:6) – the slippage from the literal to the analogical inner room is as easy to make as it is easy to overlook.
The mutual indwelling of both the city and the interior life has also been taken up in hymnody and spiritual writing. of has also prompted writings and hymns that speak of the the interior life as a city. The 13th-century Icelandic hymn, Heyr Himna Smidur (Hear, Smith of Heaven), implored the divine smith to “drive out every human sorrow from the city of the heart”, to search the heart of the pray-er as if walking through a street or an alley. A couple of centuries later the Doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila, penned a spiritual classic – The Mansions – that would cement the link between soulcraft and urban architecture, describing the interior life as entering through the many wings of an “interior mansion”.
This understanding of the soul as landscrape ought to correct a tendency within many Christian circles of overspiritualising the faith, and in so doing also better orient the Christian towards seeing the vital links between the living through our exterior cities and the traversing through the dark alleys and footpaths of the interior life. We could say, in a manner similar to but also distinct from James KA Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series, that every step in our cityscapes is a liturgical move, gradually unveiling our exterior and interior universes.