Monday, January 31, 2011

on beauty...

...I've been thinking much about beauty lately. I think about children who grow up in homes with drab walls and no books and then spend eight hours of their day in cinder blocked school houses. Or the neighbor kid who comes over occasionally and asks me to play music for him off my iPod. Classical, Klezmer, Bhangra and soulful Morna.

Beauty makes the soul soar and it's as essential to the spirit as food and water is to the body. Yet it's mocked as sentimentality. Foolishness. It's wiped out of churches and removed from school curriculums. Even art school's favor is with modern art and beauty is turned into profanity.

On any given day I am not overly exposed to beauty. I sit in traffic each morning staring at grey asphalt, then I ride through treeless streets lined with ugly buildings and spend the remainder of my day in a cube. I imagine most people go through these typical mundanities daily and my day is not unlike the majority.

My home though, is where I surround myself with beauty. I have it hanging on the walls and dripping out of stereo speakers. I visit it in my mind through pages in a book. My home is my sanctuary... because today's churches are not.

It used to be churches were where regular people could experience that overwhelming awe inspiring spiritual soaring. Churches used to make the soul sing for God. Beauty in the Church is essential. I don't want God brought down from the Heavens and made "relatable" to me. I want to carried up to Christ so I can meet Him there and be in awe surrounded by beauty.

People often justify their ugly little parishes by saying they don't believe in wasting money for garnishments, money that could serve the poor. Little do they realize that their bleak and barren churches are spiritually depriving the poor, starving their very souls. I often wonder why people think the poor only deserve the basic most bare minimums. It's an injustice to deny them of the one place where their senses should swim in beauty and be a refuge from the ugly harsh world. The Church.

Indeed, when I was studying art history at Virginia Commonwealth University my refuge was the Richmond cathedral. I was fortunate my dorm, Johnson Hall, was right next door. In the harsh environment of vulgar modern art lauded by my instructors, my only retreat was at this cathedral. It started there, my conversion. I was completely unchurched and, being an atheist, no argument from another Catholic could have swayed me otherwise. But here, here there was no arguing against the beautiful peacefulness that filled me in this place. There was no refuting the absolute Truth represented in the beauty of this church.

Beauty picks up where words leave off. It breaks my hurt every time I step into a white washed church devoid of beauty and love. There's an unspoken evangelistic opportunity that happens to a soul every time it steps foot into a church gilded for God's glory. Ugly churches miss that opportunity.

I am also reminded of an interaction between two small children I met in a library several years ago. They hungered for beauty like a baby hungers for milk. This is our instinct. God intended us to enjoy beauty, that is why He gave us the ability to create. To deny beauty is to deny God. Even the smallest of children understand this and can sense the longing. You needn't be a scholar or theologian to recognize the longings were placed in our heart by God.

Those two small children, several years ago, came by a computer I was working on at a local library. They sat with me while I updated my blog and showed them various photos of beautiful church altars. Their mom wanted to know if they were bothering me and I assured her they were making my day. I asked her if they were Catholic because the children recognized some of the saints and she said their father was Cuban and took them to mass but she did not join them. When I left, the children were sitting at the computer showing their mother the images often featured here. I still sometimes wonder if her curiosity was peaked enough for her to finally join her family at mass.

Anthony Esolen writes, "When a lost soul wanders into the silence of one of our churches, it should not feel to him as if he had walked into a doctor's waiting room, or the department of motor vehicles, but into a new world, mysterious and true." [source]



St. Agnes in St. Paul MN

26 comments:

Adoro said...

I think this is one of your best posts. EVER.

Amen.

Saint Michael Come To Our Defense said...

"...On any given day I am not overly exposed to beauty. I sit in traffic each morning staring at grey asphalt, then I ride through treeless streets lined with ugly buildings and spend the remainder of my day in a cube. I imagine most people go through these typical mundanities daily and my day is not unlike the majority..."

You are the beauty the Lord sends to those you come into contact with.

You are His rose that blooms during the day, and collects herself together during the night.

*

Mark said...

Excellent post! Over here in the UK there are far too many Catholic churches in which the bland, the banal, and even the ugly are presented as ideals to be embraced.

By the way, on the basis your recommendation in an earlier post, I bought myself a copy of Evagrius's "Talking Back". Wonderful stuff! Thanks for the tip.

J2 said...

Beauty occurs at the intersection of three things...wholeness, harmony and light!

St. Thomas Aquinas

Stephanie said...

Loved this. Including it on my shared items on my blog.

Riley said...

As a recent convert who worshiped in a rec hall furnished to be a pretend church I am overwhelmed to worship in my Catholic Church. The former pastor said our church was "just a building." How sad.

I do see your point and can appreciate it. As another said our Christan beauty is within ourselves.

Owen said...

Not sure where my comment went - will try again.

Of all the posts of yours I read over some time, this, for me, is your finest. There are three, no four, pull quotes that stand out.

It strikes keenly at where I am at as a Catholic convert (whose had to face the reality of what it is to be a North American convert), as a blogger who has stepped back to consider what my place is in light of the penetrating talk given by our Holy Father on the 45th World Communications Day, and as an artist.

I'm all the more happy to know that a print of my Rosary Madonna painting is residing somewhere in your sanctuary.

Cruise the Groove. said...

Kat,
What a very true and honest post.
Though not as beautiful as St Pauls,
I do know that there are at least three Catholic churches in Charlotte that have at least some modicum of external beauty, you probably know them, they are St Ann's, The Cathedral and St Anthony of Padua in Mt Holly.
Then of course there is Sacred Heart in Salisbury which is outside of Charlotte.

Joseph M said...

This beautiful post brought to mind something that happened in college 30+ years ago: someone was beating up the Church for spending the money on beautiful churches down in Mexico when the people were so poor, and a fellow student, a non-Catholic ex-Marine who'd spent time in Mexico, spoke up to say that the churches in Mexico belonged to the people, and were loved by them, and it was right for the Church to spend money on them - that that's what the people would want.

Seraphic said...

A very good point about the poor. The great cathedrals and churches of Europe are open to anyone and everyone to pray in, whereas if you sit too long in a temple to commerce--the mall--you will be moved on.

I am glad to say that in Scotland some art galleries are open to everyone, free of charge.

Donna said...

Absolutely great, Kat. I agree, completely.

Melanie said...

Completely agree with you! I definitely feel beauty points me the God. Whether it is an incredible church or a stunning scene in nature, I always thank God for that glimpse of Him. Our parish misses the mark but I always enjoy visiting churches when we travel and have come across some beauties!

3puddytats said...

I, on the other hand, prefer the plain, simple, uncluttered look, like in monasteries. Our local Trappist monastery has one stained glass window, and simple furnishings, reflections of their vow of poverty, as we must reflect on our poverty of spirit....and the small mission churches....with maybe a single single crucifix and a statue of the Blessed Mother...quiet, peaceful, easy to quiet the mind, easy to pray and "be still and know that I am God." wonderful places for Adoration.

Beauty is all around us...my friends used to marvel at me as I found beauty is the starkness of the Saudi desert... the intricate swirls in the sand created by whisper gusts of wind, the gentle slopes of dunes, the salwart palm tree beside a salty oasis...

Beauty is all around us...a ripple in a pond, a cloud pattern acros the sunset, the laugh of a coworker over a silly joke, a child's finger painting...

Beauty is much, much more than classical art and music...

Sara

Stitchwort said...

Outstanding post!

Thank you for putting it into words so well.

The Crescat said...

Sara, I agree. Beauty is everywhere. Its in the dash of colour of a flitting cardinal on a grey winter day. Please don't take me to mean I am being elitist in suggesting beauty is only classical art.

I only mean that *churches* should be an oasis from daily mundanity. They should be an escape from the vulgar and profane we are typically surrounded with.

Of course nature is beautiful. It's the purest form of beauty in existence... that which is created by Christ Himself.

I'm referring to man made aesthetics.

jeffwalker said...

As a first time reader to your site I can only say "Bravo!" I've written about and defended the concept of beauty often to friends and readers, and enjoy discussing the topic in person or via email with a good friend and priest. I will definitely be forwarding Fr. H. your article. Well said indeed.

PS: Esolen is one of my favorite writers, too.

Piotrek said...

Beauty can make prayer both easier and more difficult. For example, the beautiful rendition of "On Eagle's Wings" at this morning's mass caused me to raise my soul to God in search of relief. It was all anger and dryness after that.

Geometricus said...

Thank you for this post. It brought into focus thoughts I often think. Beautiful!

The Ironic Catholic said...

Excellent. Forget being a nurse or nun--you're a theologian.

Lynne said...

Beautiful post! Regarding the bit about people's justification for their austere surroundings, etc...a quote from Dorothy Day, "Why is it that we think we only need give to the poor the basics when the poor also need beauty?"

Brian Edward Miles said...

Phenomenal reflection! Loved how you turned the "But we help the poor" gripe on its ear. Very Chestertonian of you, miss!

I wrote this to a friend just yesterday:

I once attended a beautiful 100-year-old parish with marble floors, Gothic portals, beautiful stained glass, and a fantastic organ. The sanctuary however was remarkably bare, and I'll never forget how horrified I was when I saw (in some old photographs) the exquisite French high altar that had been torn out and demolished. It literally made me sick to my stomach because the thought of doing such a thing was so transparently diabolical that I shudder to think what the justification must have been. It is astonishing what an accurate barometer of cultural health art is, and sadly what we find in many churches today is a tragic testimony to the current state of affairs—or at least those of the recent past.

Also, to Sara: Great points! I agree with everything you said. But preferences and opnions aside beauty is still and objective reality. Some things are beautiful and some are not. People who do not understand this just don't "see beauty differently"; instead, they are simply mistaken. They have distorted views on what true beauty is thanks to the fall.

G.M. Hopkins has a great essay on the objective reality of beauty (somewhere).

Denita said...

Very good post. I agree. BTW, I found a website with the most HORRENDUS Jesus pictures known to man, but I can't think of what it's called. Suffice to say, there are many pictures of Jesus in jeans, etc. If I can find it again, I'll let you know.

Anthony S. "Tony" Layne said...

Much of the beauty of the great European churches comes from the direct contributions of the people they served, not out of church funds. It wasn't just the priests and bishops that wanted the churches to be glorious, the people wanted them to be glorious as well.

The parish church I grew up in, St. James in Omaha, started in the ground floor of a two-story extension of the school plant, underneath the gymnasium-cum-cafeteria-cum-meeting space. It took almost forty years from the day the parish was founded for the church proper to be built ... but the wait was well worth it, as I re-discovered on a trip up north last summer.

Thank you for this wonderful reflection, Cat.

C. Dominica said...

This was a lovely post. I love attending Russian Orthodox Christian Churches because they make them so much like the beautiful ancient historical Christian churches. The beauty is truly heavenly. I never appreciated "why" this appealed to me, but your post stated it beautifully.

Rosemary said...

One of your very best!

Lawrence Klimecki, deacon said...

Wonderful, I still hear this argument against spending money to beautify the church. Thank you.
Linking to you now.