Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Beauty of a Church

Stepping into a church for the first time, the non-believer is immediately drawn--and perhaps overwhelmed-- by the alien environment to which he has entered. Drawn by curiosity and impelled by some nameless fascination, he wanders his way inside, trailing his eyes at some of the most exquisite works of art he has ever seen. The soaring ceiling, majestic in its height, points heavenward, to remind the congregation of the dwelling place of God. There are countless statues of men and women, ancient and venerable, before whom burn countless candles, the faint light illuminating the intensite of their features.

As he contemplates his surroundings, he cannot help but look ahead of him. It is the sanctuary-- the holy of holies, thurible of sanctity, fortress of divine grace, the sweet home of God on earth. He marvels at the majestic altar screen, heavily covered in gold, and furnished with only the finest of materials. He is awed, and perhaps even repulsed, by such grandeur. With eyes enraptured, he moves forward, and finding the nearest pew, does the unthinkable, and kneels before a foreign and strange God.

What is a church? Common sense tells us that it is the house of God, and for Roman Catholics, this is the literal truth. The Eucharist, that most triumphalist and glorious of the Church's doctrines, is the root and center of a Catholic's life. His formative years will undoubtedly be centered around his first communion, when he receives the Body and Blood of the Lord under the guise of bread and wine. Indeed, most of his early years will be spent in church, especially when your mother is an hermana; the fate of many young boys, it seems, will have to be decided at the foot of the altar, and for some, the experience is a life-altering one (though for the better or worse, it depends).

A church is itself a microcosm of the Universal Church. It is the local and immediate 'version' of the worldwide and pan-national community of believers that make up th Mystical Body of the Lord. In a church, saints and sinners alike worship God, and if old stories are to be believed, there are more devils than there are angels during Mass. A church also has the unenviable task of instructing the faithful, often poorly catechized, about what the Faith teaches. Thus, a church is decorated with a plenitude of decorations-- paintings, stained glass, statuary, which all serve a didactic purpose, aside from being merely aesthetically pleasing.

But a church is not a church without one very important detail, and that is its ability to tell the story of creation, salvation and redemption. A church is not a church if it cannot impart wonder; wonder, that makes man long for the beauty of God, wonder that brings back the innocence of childhood and purges our arrogance and humbles our pride. There is something hollow and cold and distant about a church when it cannot show God to mortal man. A church is the meeting point of the Ineffable with the passing, the intersection of the Divine and the numinous with the physical and mundane reality of our world. It is a conduit that feeds our feeble minds with the transcendent and the glorious. But it is worthless if it cannot manage to provide what it should.

Perhaps that is why there is so little faith today. Our churches have become nothing more than a glorification of vain works, instead of an exaltation of what the works themselves signify. But there is always hope. As Scripture reminds us, Our Lord promised that He would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days; in many ways, the crisis in the Church mirrors this promise. Before there can be Triumphalism, there needs to be a conflict first. And perhaps, this conflict is given to us by God in order to make the sun shine all the clearer.

The true beauty of a church then lies not so much in the externals, but in its ability to instill the presence of God to even the most secular and the most non-religious person. It is the ability to quietly tell us, in the stillness and quiet of our hearts, the immortal words of the Psalmist: 'Be still and know that I am God'.

So, have you been to any churches lately?


Andrew said...

I like your descriptive style of writing. When countries and peoples become more and more 'educated' their capacity to retain awe is diminished. People become cynical instead.

As literacy increases, the didactic nature of a Church loses its purpose and functionality becomes the new ideal. Beauty gives way to functionality, and the mundane replaces the awe-inspiring.

From the most majestic of Gothic Cathedrals to the humblest parish Church, God is present, in the Blessed Sacrament. But the externals serve to manifest this Presence, His presence, and incarnate it to our senses, as it were. Beauty draws men, lifts up their gaze towards God.

Hopefully, this craziness, this infatuation with the insipid will pass and the transcendent will once again be the norm of Catholic architecture that men will know a Church from afar and those who step into a Church may indeed confess it to be the domus Dei et porta caeli, the house of God and Gate of Heaven.

Archistrategos said...

Progress and modernity in themselves are not necessarily bad; certainly, the advent of the toilet is an especially welcome thing. Education, the way I see it, should be an aid to understanding the divine and the numinous, and not arrogantly assert itself over traditions. Certaily, I'm grateful for the fact that more and more people are becoming literate-- the problem, however, is, and has always been pride.

As regards architecture, I agree completel with what you said. I am also hoping however that a new renaissance in Catholic architecture would not be so rigid as to hold Classical principles in highest esteem. There are other architectural styles out there that can also convey the transcendent-- just imagine a church furnished along Hindu temple guidelines! Perhaps I'm just dreaming here, but I've always thought India had some really cool temples. Hehe. /Off day dreaming :D