Creativity, and the path to holiness,
begins with a distribution of power.
In 1000AD the world population was around 275,000,000, and fairly
stable. By 2000AD the world population was around 6,000,000,000 and
rising rapidly. In broad terms you could say that there are now
twenty-two times the number of people who were alive during the
mediaeval period. As a wild approximation we might expect to now find
the equivalent of twenty-two Chartres cathedrals or twenty-two Le
For all the talk of “economic recovery” anyone taking a long, hard look
at New Zealand, or the rest of Western Civilisation for that matter,
would be forced to conclude that in comparison with the mediaeval
period our “human creativity” is a basket-case. Something has gone
seriously wrong. Most tourists wandering around Europe are overwhelmed
by so much mediaeval built-environment excellence that it becomes
almost boring, and they need to take a break in any one of the superb
mediaeval hill-towns. A tourist wandering around New Zealand needs a
guide book to find any built-environment excellence, and even then the
urban context is dismal.
Why is our human creativity at such a low ebb, and what might we do
about it? Instead of throwing around the fashionable clichés about how
much better our drains are, to justify our failure, it is worth asking
what we might learn from how things were done in mediaeval times.
In a sweeping overview of history we could think of 600-800AD as the
golden age for Ireland. Most of what we know about Greek or Roman
civilisation was rescued for us by the Irish monasteries. They saved
the books, and they copied them, so that eventually they were passed
down to us. The Roman Empire had never taken over Ireland. The Irish
were Celtic, nomadic, tribal and fiercely independent.
As the monasteries became more powerful they were able to challenge the
bishops. The monasteries were autonomous, independent, and rural. The
Irish monasteries followed the tradition of the first monasteries,
which began when individuals went out into the desert to search for
God. These individuals wanted to be alone, but others sought them out
to learn from their holiness. Even today a monastery creates an
environment within which an individual can seek out God.
The bishops in contrast had picked up on Roman ideas. Power was focused
in cities like Carthage or Ephesus. Paul kept his finger on the pulse.
Today we follow this same concept of hierarchy. A concentration of
power rather than a distribution of power.
The Irish monks set out to convert Europe. My theory is that they found
a ready acceptance among the nomadic people who had moved into Europe
as the Roman Empire crumbled. They talked the same language and had the
same values. This was not unlike Pompallier in the Hokianga. He took Te
Reo for granted 150 years before Rome thought it might be a good idea.
At the heart of the mediaeval distribution of power was the concept
that searching for God was a personal spiritual journey. Others could
guide you or make suggestions, but finally you had to work it out for
There has always been a close link between power and architecture.
Urban design is a direct reflection to attitudes to power. In the
mediaeval rural countryside a complex network of villages offered an
infinite array of possibilities. In the Cotswalds, for example, you can
still set out on your bicycle and move comfortably from village to
village until you finally return home by a different route. The next
day you can follow a completely different pathway.
A Roman road, in contrast, got the army to where it was needed. Our
motorways take us to nowhere in particular because we miss out on
making a journey when everything in-between is a nuisance rather than
something to be discovered. Life is a journey not a conclusion.
In mediaeval times every building was a journey rather than a
conclusion. There was no rush to get anywhere. If a building took 400
years that was not a problem, because it was the personal spiritual
journey of everyone who worked on the building which was important.
Love made the difference. Through the process of building individuals
found not only themselves but also their way to God. Mediaeval
buildings are quirky and eccentric, just like the people who built them.
In a monastery you grew your own cabbages. You fell in love with your
place and began to understand it. You learnt how to hew stone. By the
time you got to the serious part of building you were lost in love.
Architects who imagine they can “design” a monastery miss the point.
When seen like this it is no wonder that our economy-driven society is
a creativity basket-case. A materialistic society sees buildings as
objects and people as “human resources”. Individuals are reduced to
boredom and frustration. Grafitti is not the problem. Our built
environment is the problem. It is a direct reflection of how we go
about building. No one is going anywhere. Individuals are only
supporting a power-structure which makes it possible for the super-rich
to indulge in even more useless activity.
Personal creativity is the foundation on which the creativity of a
society is built. A distribution of power is an essential first move to
make this possible. Only when every individual is on a journey will it
be possible for our whole society to be going somewhere.
Along the way war, conflict, inequality and all those other results of
concentrations of power could be left behind. Everyone would be too
busy getting on with life. Individuals would suddenly have the
opportunity to do something which needed to be done.
As a beginning perhaps everyone could build their own house. Not so
that they will end up with an object, but rather so that they will
discover themselves and God along the way.
First published in Tui Motu August 2010