When you step into our Holy Wisdom Temple, you encounter a place of deep peace and intimate beauty generated by the painted icons that surround you, the aromatic residue of many years of incense offered during the services, the beautiful play of light coming through the windows above. If you attend a service, the melodies of both ancient and modern chants enfold you, and the liturgical action of the clergy and the posture and piety of the worshippers all serve to communicate the basic truths of the Christian faith through “right worship” in ways that transcend mere words to act on all the human senses.
As New Skete grew, it soon became necessary to build a larger church to accommodate the monastic communities, the local parishioners, and the growing number of retreatants and visitors.
The new building was designed and built by the monks and a crew of skilled carpenters from Vermont. It was consecrated by Metropolitan Theodosius, assisted by eighteen clergy, on the Feast of the Mid-Pentecost in 1983. This church is dedicated to Christ, the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30). Its light-filled openness and its U-shaped altar screen are inspired by the early churches of Constantinople. Inlaid in the Italian marble floor tiles, at the entrance to the nave, are pieces of mosaic from the basilica called “The great Church” consecrated to Holy Wisdom, built in Constantinople in 576 A.D. by order of the Emperor Justinian.
On the right or east wall of the narthex as you enter the larger church is the Golgotha, a large icon of the crucifixion, where candles burn as memorials for the dead. Icons are placed throughout the church for veneration, and walnut candle stands are used for votive tapers. The eternal lamp in the sanctuary signifies the divine presence. In the center of the nave of the church are the lectern for the holy Scriptures and the celebrant’s seat, carved from basswood and zebrawood. Surrounding the nave are forty-eight choir stalls of ash and zebrawood.
The central focus of the church is the large deisis depicted on the east wall. Here, Christ, the word and wisdom of God, is shown enthroned on the cherubim (Ps. 80:1). In this portrayal, Christ is also known as the Pantocrator, ruler of all, the fulfillment of the messianic vision of Isaiah and Ezechiel. In the halo are the three Greek letters that render the sacred name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. 3:14)—what became the unspoken “Yahweh” is, in English, “I am who is.” This title appears in all icons of Christ to remind us of Christ’s own words, when he said that in Him we see the Father.
St. John, the forerunner and Baptist, stands at Christ’s left, for as “the last and greatest of the prophets,” he bore witness to the Old Law’s fulfillment in Jesus. Mary, the Theotokos, i.e., the mother of God, stands at his right—the place of honor, indicated by David in Psalm 44:9, “the queen stood at your right”—for through her Christ became one of us.
Gathered below these figures are the early church fathers, successors of the apostles whose role in the church is to “teach the word of truth” embodied in sacred scripture and illustrated by the deisis to which they direct their gaze. These bishops represent the ancient major centers of Christendom: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Also included are St. Philip of Moscow and St. Innocent of Alaska, to show the continuity of teaching down to our own time and place.
The entire eastern end of the church is raised three steps above the nave and is thus called the altar. The sacred area of the altar is defined by the three-sided, open altar screen. This icon screen is carved from natural English brown oak and holds twenty-eight icons of prominent saints and angels. Examples of this design can be seen in mosaics in Constantinople and Kiev, in the churches of ancient Georgia. The open screen or templon is also found in early Roman churches.
In the center of the altar stands the Holy Table. At the consecration of the church, the holy table was washed and anointed as a symbol of the body of Christ. On this table are offered the bread and wine that become the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The relics of martyrs are sealed in the holy table as a reminder of the Church’s baptism in blood—the witness of the lives of so many men and women to the good news of Christ. This “good news” is recorded in the sacred scriptures enthroned on the holy table. The holy table and the seven-branched lampstand behind it are carved of red oak. [mentioned in Exodus 25:31-40]
Beyond this, immediately along the east wall, is the stepped platform called the synthronon. In ancient Roman basilicas from pre-Christian times, it was here that officials sat to dispense justice. Since in the church it is the seat of teaching authority, the bishop’s throne is located here, carved of white oak and bearing the image of the Good Shepherd. To either side of the throne are chairs for the assisting priests or presbytery, carved from native ash.
At the northeast corner of the church is a chamber called the prothesis, where the holy gifts are reserved for the communion of the sick, and where bread and wine are prepared for the Eucharistic liturgy. In the southeast chamber, vestments are laid out for liturgy. It is called the daikoniken or deacon’s sacristy.
The north and south walls depict a procession of saints. Holy Wisdom Temple includes not only Biblical figures and saints recognized in Orthodoxy, it also includes icons of contemporary and early Western both officially and not yet recognized saints and holy people. Those persons in the procession include Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope Paul VI, Anglican Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Dorothy Day. The intention is to uphold the sanctity of people who live out the Gospel. This is magnified by the people in the procession of saints leading to Christ—just as they are moving in their pilgrimage to Christ, as are we all. This great variety of examples of love and sacrifice, [two who were killed in the Nazi Holocaust and one in the Soviet era] inspire us to make the Gospel real in our lives.
"Music gives access to the heart's deepest emotions, bringing them to light in a natural flowering that creates a deep sense of unity and peacefulness."