I have a love/hate relationship with symmetry. At services last Friday, as my eyes wandered across the intricate, intertwined Moorish landscape spanning the wall behind our Ark, I realized that for every gilt vine hugging a marble column on the left, its mirror image was curled equally upwards on the right. It's a loud space, a symphony of colors and shapes--but also perfectly balanced, as are most of the places of worship I could think of, back to the days of traditional church architecture in the shape of a cross. I think we like to pray in spaces created in our own image, in bilateral symmetry just like an arrangement of limbs and facial features. We're wired to equate symmetry with perfection and beauty, so it seems natural to seek God where these qualities are most obvious. Just as we wrap ourselves in a tallit before reciting the Shema, grabbing its four opposite corners to unite us with the ends of the earth at the moment we speak most urgently to God, we also wrap ourselves in order, wanting to believe that every action has its opposite and the world works according to a plan we can see as clearly as those four corners. I wish it really were so, but I think perfect balance is reserved for God alone.
The recent paintings I worked on reminded me how often I reject symmetry in what I design, although I love it in the places where I pray. I never gravitated to folk art, for example, or anything with a pattern. It seemed too easy. (I know it's not; I was a snob.) But among my favorite works of art are the cave paintings at Lascaux, those first attempts to represent life as an abstract visual image. They crawl randomly up and down uneven walls, yet their placement and relationship to each other makes complete sense. Like Bach, to whom I listen when I need to be calm, the paintings are right and balanced in their space without being equal on all sides, and achieve the best kind of imperfect order that humans can reach. I'm now learning to chant part of Parashat Terumah, the "parts list" of the Mishkan, which I guess is the prototype for all symmetrical houses of worship. God resides at its equal and even center, representing what we will always seek, but never find.
Update: After yesterday's depressed post, I found out that I'll be helping lead services in a few weeks. I am OK with being asked to do this rarely instead of frequently--as long as I'm asked sometimes. I feel better.