Powerless In The Face Of Ugliness
For Christians like me, who are especially sensitive to beauty as a manifestation of God’s nature, being in ugly churches, and listening to ugly church music, is a real struggle. I’m not talking about rich churches. My own parish is a rural mission, and we’re poor. But we have given all that we have to make a beautiful space to worship in. Our ancient liturgy is beautiful. My wife, the choir director, along with the priest’s wife, who sings with her in the choir, push themselves hard to learn the complexities of Orthodox chant, all to make something beautiful for God, and to help the rest of us experience His presence in worship. I do not mean to sound triumphalist, because I don’t feel at all triumphalist, but I must tell you that one of the best things about being Orthodox is no longer having to struggle with the ugliness in contemporary American Catholic churches and liturgies. The anger within me was at times too much to bear, especially because I knew that it didn’t have to be that way! In its long history, the Roman Catholic Church and the cultures it has informed has produced the world’s greatest art, all for the glory of God. In most (but not all) churches I would attend as a Catholic, I felt like I was eating off paper plates with plastic forks, while the host kept stacks and stacks of fine china and silver stacked in a closet. It’s unreasonable to expect Palestrina at every mass, but the message so many American parishes convey to the faithful is that beauty does not matter.
To be clear, beauty is not an end in itself for the Christian. If the beauty does not point one toward God, and make it easier to experience His saving presence, then it is not being received in the right way. Besides, I affirm that beauty does not compensate for the abandonment of truth. If Catholicism’s claims are true, then one is bound to remain a Catholic, and to endure St. Louis Jesuit hymnody and the like for the sake of the truth. But one does not have to like it, and one can lament the inability of the institutional Church to understand the connection between beauty and truth, and to grasp that the Church has always believed that art in some sense mediates divine truth. I was talking about this the other day with an Orthodox Christian, who pointed out that it was the beauty of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and the grandeur of the liturgical worship there, that led to the conversion of Russia to Orthodox Christianity in 988 rather than Roman Catholic Christianity. Vladimir’s ambassadors visited German Catholics, observed their rituals, and found them dour. But when they visited Constantinople, it was different:
“And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.”
In our country, we tend to think of beauty as a luxury, as superfluous, as something ancillary to the real work of the Church, and of anything else. This is why arts classes are always the first to go in education cutbacks. We don’t believe beauty is important to what it means to live a good life, a meaningful life. This is not just a Catholic problem, but the corporate loss of a love of beauty among American Catholics is a particular tragedy, because the Catholic theological, liturgical, and artistic tradition ought to have given US Catholics a lot more ground to stand on to resist the uglification of their churches and liturgies. Didn’t happen.
I bring this up as a friend of the Catholic screenwriter and teacher Barbara Nicolosi, whose Facebook feed lately has been filled with lamentation about the loss of beauty in her own Los Angeles Archdiocese parishes — lamentations that strike a very, very familiar chord within my own heart. Today, she writes on FB:
Powerful reaction last night to my presentation on the liturgy and beauty. At a certain point, I felt like I was living that scene in the Old Testament when the people are stung to the heart and cry out to the prophet, “What must we do?!” That was how the people were last night. There were several people who were almost crying out, “How can we fix this? Where do we start?” It occurred to me that one of the ironies of the post-Conciliar Church is that even amidst the relentless call for full participation, our laity have never felt so completely helpless in the face of the entrenched attitudes in the parish and diocesan bureaucracies.
The photo at the top of this page is what our little church looked like when we started in late 2012. The room was a workshop of the previous tenant. But our tiny congregation and its priest worked hard, and we dug deep in our pockets, and good Christian people both in our community and far away donated generously to us, and now, here is what God has given to us and to all who come pray with us:
I don’t hold this out to boast, but rather, to show what a tiny, poor congregation can do when beauty matters to them. And on this space, you can’t even hear the excellence of our two-person choir, or smell the incense and the beeswax! A holy temple for our God is this former workshop. This wasn’t something anybody else paid for, or brought into being. It’s something the laity, and our priest, made happen, because our tradition expects the faithful to do everything they can within their means to make the Lord’s temple beautiful. If we, as small and as poor as we are, can bring this off, how much more can wealthier parishes do if they are inspired and unleashed to make their churches something beautiful for God?