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One aspect of our chapel renovation that has drawn a lot of comment is the new sanctuary rail. Its threefold purpose can best be explained by looking at the historical development of this important part of church architecture.
Veiling the Holy: A Sanctuary Rail
The Jerusalem Temple, the only church designed by God Himself, had hierarchically arranged courts and the veiled Holy of Holies enshrining the Ark of the Covenant, leading mind and heart to awe in God’s holy presence. Christian architecture from the earliest days of the Church has followed this model, taking the worshiper on a pilgrimage from the loggia or outer porch, through the transition of the narthex or vestibule, into the nave or body of the church with its devotional shrines and seating for the laity, and from there viewing the apse or sanctuary with the altar and seating for the priest and sacred ministers. Even as late as the 16th century, this sanctuary was often veiled, especially during the more sacred parts of the Mass, by means of fabric or wood screens. Current liturgical norms state that the sanctuary should be appropriately marked off from the body of the church while maintaining the unity of the People of God, and that the nature and beauty of the place should visually express the holiness of the mysteries celebrated there. (Roman Missal, #294)
In the Eastern Church today, the sanctuary is still veiled from view by a wall called the iconostasis. In the West, sanctuary veils changed into altar rails for a practical purpose: to provide a convenient place for the laity to kneel for the reception of Holy Communion, while still protecting the Blessed Sacrament from irreverent access or abuse. Often ornate in design and frequently made of marble or wood, Communion rails traditionally have a small central gate; the sanctuary is a figure of heaven, into which entry is not guaranteed.
Monastic enclosure: Choir Screens
In medieval times, abbey churches also provided seating for the monks (and in cathedrals for the canons) in the sanctuary for chanting the Divine Office. To preserve their proper separation from the world, the veil developed into the choir screen. Sometimes called rood screens because of the Cross prominently displayed on them, these wooden structures were ornamented with devotional images and had an opening through which the laity could observe the Mass or at least the Elevation. Our chapel’s columns and triangular tympana, as well as the altar rail, evoke a choir screen. Papal enclosure, as detailed in our Carmelite Constitutions, requires that the nuns shall neither see nor be seen by the laity who attend our Masses.
Reverent Posture: Communion Rails
The general norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America with the recognitio of the Holy See is that Holy Communion is to be received standing. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, however, has consistently held that the recognitio was granted with the understanding that “The faithful should not be imposed upon nor accused of disobedience and of acting illicitly when they kneel to receive Holy Communion.”
The nuns are grateful to the Holy See for these clarifications and note that the Bishop of Gaylord has repeatedly insisted that the choice of those who choose to kneel out of reverence for the Holy Eucharist should be respected. Following ancient Carmelite custom, we have always knelt to receive Our Lord, and are glad that the right of the laity to do so has also been honored. The presence of a rail in our chapel still leaves it entirely up to the communicant whether to stand or kneel, or to receive in the hand or on the tongue. A hierarchy of bodily reverences exists, from a simple bow of the head at the Name of Jesus, up to the prostration used at priestly ordination. Those who receive the Eucharist standing should make a profound bow first; those who receive kneeling should make no other sign of reverence first, because kneeling is in itself higher than bowing.
“Some people think that liturgical renewal means the knocking down of altar rails. The Church has never said any such thing. The shape of the church building has its importance. Some questions can be of help. Does this church building help to raise people’s minds to God, to the transcendent? Within the church, is the sanctuary clearly distinguished from the rest of the church? Why were the beautiful altar rails that have been there for one or two centuries removed against the wishes of many of the parishioners?”
—Francis Cardinal Arinze, former prefect of the Congregation for Worship, Keynote Address to the National Convention of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions in San Antonio, 2003.
Our new statues were crafted by Studio Ida Vinotti of Walloon Lake of hand-carved wood painted using an Old-World polychrome method. Several layers of finely ground stone are applied to the wood to create a surface ready to receive paint, and then many layers of color, beginning with red and green, are built up to create the depth and realistic color variation which make our statues truly works of living art. To learn more about Studio Ida Vinotti, please contact the nuns.