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

I must first admit that I didn't read this entire book. I was going to stop after a few dozen pages, but I pressed on hoping for things to pick up and the writing style to change. After about 70 pages I decided my time could be better spent doing something else so I flipped to the last chapter and read the last few pages. When those last pages didn't generate any excitement I retired this one.

The book, at least what I read of it, places more emphasis on religion and preaching than it does on anthropology. There is a complete dearth of pictures and illustrations making it impossible to fully, and frequently even partially, understand what Visser is talking about unless you've been to the church in question. A book like this should have dozens, if not hundreds, of photographs. After the cover, there is a grand total of zero.

The religious talk is very biased and usually unscholarly. Nearly everything related to Catholicism is given a literal and truthful spin and everything related to any other religions or traditions are dubbed "myths." Visser erroneously thinks that everything in the Old Testament lines up perfectly and points to Jesus. And then her assessment of Jesus is selective and contradictory. For instance, on page 43 she claims that Jesus was "utterly committed to nonviolence." On the very next page we read that "in his rage Jesus pushed over the tables, made a whip of cords, and thrashed the money vendors." So which is it? Or did she mean "sometimes" instead of "utterly?" She doesn't mention more horrible verses that would contradict her first statement such as Luke 19:27.

Visser is correct in her "Preamble" that insiders can provide insights that will help everyone understand. But she takes it too far and writes a book that will probably only be of interest to other insiders who have actually visited Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura.

from the publisher:
Margaret Visser has visited many more churches than most people, but like the rest of us, she began to tire of the slew of facts and lack of meaningful information available from guidebooks. The desire to find answers to her own questions -- as a traveler, a believer, and an insatiable anthropologist of the everyday -- led her to undertake this unique and revelatory book.

More than any other kind of edifice, a church is intentionally meaningful in all its aspects, and Visser decided to find out what it was trying to express, in its nuances as well as in its grand gestures. She deliberately chose a relatively simple church just outside the walls of Rome, Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, but she casts a wide net -- taking in history, theology, anthropology, and folklore, among other disciplines -- to illuminate its physical and spiritual architecture. As she guides us through the building, from apse to nave, catacombs to campanile, Visser explores the symbolism of lambs, the Christian fascination with virgins, the meanings of martyrdom, and the history of relics. At the same time, she moves back through the centuries to reveal Christianity in its earliest forms and purposes. The book ends at the church's beginning, with the grave of Agnes, a twelve-year-old girl who was murdered seventeen hundred years ago and whose remains lie buried beneath the altar. By then we have learned how to read any church building, how to interpret what it "does" and "says," whether we are of any faith or none.

Margaret Visser was born in South Africa, studied at the Sorbonne, and received her doctorate in classics from the University of Toronto. She is the author of three previous books: Much Depends on Dinner; Rituals of Dinner, which won the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Literary Food Writing Award and the Jane Grigson Award; and The Way We Are. She divides her time among Toronto, Barcelona, and southwestern France.

"The architecture and iconography of an ordinary Catholic church are a kind of above-ground archaeological site. Everything is in plain view, but it might as well be buried, because no one 'gets' it anymore. Margaret Visser's excavation of what oblivion has buried is quietly fascinating and deeply pleasurable." --Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography

"Before I read The Geometry of Love, it seemed to me that no book could ever do what Margaret Visser does. Her visit to St. Agnes outside the Walls is the experience that all of us tourists dream about and never achieve. She expertly uses the knowledge made available by modern historical methods, but she transfigures it from inside and, in the process, she redeems the apparently unredeemable, tourism itself. She brings it back to its almost completely lost origin, the Christian pilgrimage." --René Girard, author of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

"Margaret Visser's uncanny ability to illuminate the assumptions behind everyday, taken-for-granted objects has never been better displayed than in The Geometry of Love . . . Eye-opening . . . absorbing . . . gracefully written." --Maclean's magazine

"[Visser] has made a book that must in part be a way of answering her own questions, and . . . the questions of the secular skeptic too -- in the only possible way in which those questions can be met: through metaphor and the imagination . . . The Geometry of Love has puzzles and contradictions, but love drives it." --Patrick Watson, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

"[The Geometry of Love] is a course in etymology, Judeo-Christian history, Roman architecture, Medieval crafts, Renaissance art and papal politics. And it's told with an easy grace and clear, declarative language that impel the reader to the next topic . . . The Geometry of Love is wonderful food for the intellect as well as the soul." --John Terauds, The Toronto Star

The following is an excerpt from the book The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church by Margaret Visser.

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-kilometer 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 144B.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 kilometers 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 A.D. 305. 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.

Copyright © 2001 Margaret Visser