What Makes A Church Beautiful?

When I saw the plans released yesterday for the new Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California, I was put in mind of the so-called “graduation ceremony” in “Star Wars”.  You’ll recall that’s when Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca received medals from Princess Leia for their services to the Rebel Alliance, inside a grand, but colorless ceremonial hall, like the one about to be foisted upon the good people of the Diocese of Orange County.  While seeing this animation of the completed building might make Seymour Skinner give out an award for best diorama, when it comes to ecclesiastical architecture, such an association is not an enviable one.  For it seems that, once again, the Church is not practicing what it preaches, when it comes to encouraging the beautiful in our contemporary society.

The most important question to ask in entering any Catholic church is, “Where’s Jesus?” The answer in this case is, “Somewhere over there.” In this absolutely vast sanctuary, which seats about 2700 people at present, there was apparently no room for the Son of God, at least not in the Real Presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  Instead, the Tabernacle sits like a gilded Tardis, surrounded on four sides by asymmetrical pews, in a side chapel.

There are other curious details, as one might expect given the commentary of the liturgists in the film linked to above. Nearby, one can see what is termed the baptismal “font”, really a pool in the shape of a cross, where I imagine the celebrant will be tossing in the infants and crying, “Swim for it, little pagans!” The narthex of the Cathedral will feature a giant, decapitated head of Jesus, copied from the 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the Hagia Sophia.  Without the symbolism of the original, showing Jesus seated as the judge and ruler of the whole world flanked by His Blessed Mother and St. John the Baptist pleading on our behalf for mercy, the image is thereby stripped of its purpose and theological meaning, to become little more than a massive decorative accessory.  This is not Jesus as Holy Icon, but Jesus as Andy Warhol icon.

It seems that the diocese completely missed the lessons to be learned from the construction of the present Los Angeles Cathedral, a.k.a. the “Taj Mahoney”.  Spending an estimated $52 million on a project which will result in something that looks like an airport concourse rather than a church is a colossal waste of funds.  If buying the former Crystal Cathedral was a mistake to begin with, which I believe it was, then we are about to witness a very expensive attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

What is irritating beyond anything else however, is not really the building itself.  One can hardly blame the late Philip Johnson, himself a former Nazi sympathizer and an atheist of the Nietzschean variety, for not having built a structure designed for Catholic liturgical use, when it was originally commissioned by a Protestant televangelist.  Rather, this entire project is a prime example of the “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy espoused by some in leadership positions of the Church.

We are constantly being told by popes, prelates, theologians, and Catholic commentators that we are supposed to be encouraging “beauty” in the world, because beauty brings people closer in contemplation to the Divine.  Every time we are told this, in books and articles, in television programs, interviews, retreats, and addresses, the people in the pews nod and agree, thinking that at last, things are finally going to get better.  We hear and read their words, and fully expect that those with the authority to make decisions about things such as church buildings will be presenting us with beautiful reminders of the Faith.

Except more often than not, they don’t.

We keep shoving the Blessed Sacrament off to the side, as if we’re embarrassed by it.  We keep commissioning religious art that belongs in a 7th grade religion textbook, if anywhere at all.  We keep printing cheap missalettes full of hymns with theologically unsound lyrics, and Mass settings that sound like themes to Saturday morning cartoon shows.  And it’s all terribly, horribly, ugly.

This artistic ugliness is all of a piece, of course, along with trite homilies about recycling or how our pets will go to Heaven, being told in the confessional that it’s almost impossible for anyone to commit a mortal sin, and nudge-nudge, wink-wink attitudes toward cohabitation and contraception at virtually every Pre-Cana weekend I’ve ever heard of.  For some, unknown reason, when decision-makers are presented with the opportunity to do something beautifully and uniquely Catholic – like building a new cathedral – they fantasize that they are presenting an alternative to the present culture.  When really, as we can all see plain as day, they are just aping the ugly externals of that very culture, albeit in a dreary fashion.

In his book “The Imitation of Christ”, Thomas à Kempis notes the popularity of pilgrimage to the architectural wonders of his time, back when architecture was indeed very beautiful.  Yet even then, he was not deceived by vast spaces or sumptuous materials.  “When visiting such places,” he comments, “men are often moved by curiosity and the urge for sight-seeing, and one seldom hears that any amendment of life results, especially as their conversation is trivial and lacks true contrition. But here, in the Sacrament of the Altar, You are wholly present, my God, the Man Christ Jesus; here we freely partake of the fruit of eternal salvation. as often as we receive You worthily and devoutly.”

That is what makes any church, whether a humble parish or a grand cathedral, truly beautiful.  It isn’t grand designs, or spectacular architecture, or lavish decorations. It is His Presence.  Otherwise, it’s just a building where “stuff” happens, not to use another “s” word.  Perhaps it’s time that those in positions of authority in the Church did a better job of remembering this, when they are presented with the opportunity to practice what they preach concerning what is beautiful about our Catholic Faith.

"Christ Pantocrator" by Unknown Artist (XIIIth Century) Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

“Christ Pantocrator” by Unknown Artist (13th Century)
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Holy Thursday: Eating in Silence

Over on the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage (FLPH) site today we have another terrific guest post in aid of the hermitage, this time from Matthew Leonard, author, speaker, and Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies, on the sacredness of silence.  I hope you’ll take the time to drop by and read his really thoughtful post, on how it’s not just enough to be quiet or place ourselves in quiet surroundings to pray: we also have to quiet ourselves down on the inside, as well.  If you’re enjoying these guest posts from Catholic writers over on FLPH, please be sure to share them, and also please prayerfully consider a donation to help us establish a permanent Franciscan hermitage. We’re happy and grateful for any donations!

Tonight many of us will be going to church to commemorate Holy Thursday, celebrating the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  For those who have never attended a Catholic Holy Thursday Mass, it is an evening full of symbolism, from ringing of bells to washing of feet, stripping bare of the altars to the procession with the Eucharist to the altar of repose, where it will remain until the Easter Vigil.  At my parish of St. Stephen’s, during the procession around the church the altar boy holding the censer is in the lead, but interestingly he walks BACKWARDS in front of the priest holding the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament, so that he is constantly censing the Eucharist.

One of the points Matt Leonard raises in his piece for FLPH is that “the sights and sounds we take in are food for the imagination.”  This is something the Church has always understood.  It’s why we have particular, traditional rituals occur on Holy Thursday which do not occur at other times of year.  It’s also why for centuries the Church commissioned beautiful art and beautiful buildings, to put us into a frame of  mind where we can focus more on heavenly things rather than earthly concerns.

However it’s also why when we take in the Food of God Himself, we do so quietly, rather than boisterously. When we receive Communion, we go back to our seats and remain in silence, rather than standing around chit-chatting like one would do at a normal meal.  We are sharing in a different kind of meal together, which though communal, simultaneously each of us is experiencing in a very personal, intimate way, differing from person to person in its impact.

At the conclusion of Holy Thursday Mass tonight, all will depart in silence. There will be no music, no bells, and indeed no Mass again until the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, when the Church erupts in song and the ringing of bells to mark the Resurrection.  So for those of you able to make it to church this evening, consider how that exterior silence, as you receive Communion and as you leave to go home, is something you can keep with you over the Triduum, to allow God to speak to your quieted self in a way that perhaps is impossible for Him to do in your busy, everyday life.

Detail of "The Last Supper" by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896) Private Collection

Detail of “The Last Supper” by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896)
Private Collection

 

 

 

 

Adoration: No, We Don’t Just Sit There

There’s nothing quite like shutting your gob for an hour to recharge your batteries, but we all know that finding time to be quiet can be a real challenge.  It’s a struggle I deal with regularly, and not always successfully, even when I’m at home and no one is making any immediate demands on my time.  I tend to find all kinds of things to work on, or fret over, instead of being still.

A wonderful respite from this can be found in making what we Catholics call a “Holy Hour”, and there are many ways to go about having one.  The basics are that you take one hour out of your day, be quiet, and listen to what God is trying to say to you, with no distractions.  Perhaps you pray silently, or do some spiritual  reading, or study the Bible – and no, not just the fun bits, like when Saul goes to visit a witch, or Jezebel gets thrown out of a window by a group of eunuchs.

For me, the best kind of Holy Hour is during “Eucharistic Adoration”, or just “Adoration” for short.  In my neighborhood, Epiphany Parish has Adoration every Wednesday from 5:30-6:30pm, and I try to make it over there on my way home whenever I can.  If you’ve ever stopped by a Catholic church and seen people kneeling or sitting around quietly praying, while a large, gilded object – called a “monstrance” – sits out on the altar, you’ve probably wandered into Adoration.

Because Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, for us Adoration isn’t just stopping to pray, it’s also a form of worship.  As you can read in this brief presentation on Adoration from an historic Polish-American church in Chicago, it’s like getting to pay homage to Jesus, and then sit down with Him and hear what He wants to say to you.  Some parishes, such as the aforementioned Chicago parish, are fortunate to have places set aside for “Perpetual Adoration”, where one can go to pray 24/7.

Why go to Adoration at all?  Human beings are not pure spirit, any more than we are pure matter: we are both.  This is why our spirits can be uplifted by listening to beautiful music for example, or by admiring a spectacular sunset, even though that spiritual uplift is obviously taking place through physical means.  It’s also why Catholics and other credal Christians express their belief in the eventual physical resurrection of the body, not just in the survival of the spirit alone after death.

When I head over to Adoration, I’m physically removing myself from secular, mundane things that might otherwise distract me from focusing on my spiritual relationship with God – the phone, the computer, The Cat whining to be let out, etc.  Freed from such distractions, and before the Blessed Sacrament, I find myself in the physical presence of Christ, a reality that is difficult to describe in mere words.  You simply become aware, on a very deep level, that He is there, at that moment, with you and with everyone else there.

If it’s been awhile since you last went to Adoration, Lent might be a good time to pick up that practice once again.  If you’ve never been to Adoration, or even if you’re not Catholic, why not give it a try? Spending an hour in quiet contemplation is probably going to do you more physical and spiritual good than you realize.  You may not walk out of there with the answers to all of the problems that have been bugging you, but you will walk out of there feeling more refreshed in body and soul than when you went in.

Pope Francis at Adoration in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

Pope Francis at Adoration in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome