Beauty as Spiritual Food

The Crescat’s Katrina Fernandez has long been at war with “ugly” church art and architecture which she insists “makes Baby Jesus cry…”. She has an interesting essay up over at Patheos, where she argues that beauty is part of our spiritual sustenance:

On any given day I am too-little exposed to beauty. I sit in traffic each morning staring at grey asphalt; I ride through treeless streets lined with utilitarian, ugly, ornament-free buildings and spend the remainder of my day in a cube. I imagine this is typical for most people: we go through the day surrounded by the mundane, and not realizing we miss beauty.

In my home though, I surround myself with beauty. I have it hanging on the walls and pouring out of stereo speakers. I visit it in my mind through pages in a book. And I realize that my home has become a sanctuary of beauty, because modern churches are not.
People often justify their ugly little parishes by saying they don’t believe in wasting money for garnishments that insult the poor. Little do they realize that their bleak and barren churches are spiritually depriving the poor by starving their very hearts and souls; hard lives ache for beauty. I often wonder why people think the poor need (or deserve) only the basic-and-bare minimums. A dreary life needs more, not less, uplifting beauty. A church should be a refuge from a harsh and ugly world, a place where deprived senses may swim in beauty. To deny us that refuge or to deny the poor a chance to be awestruck seems an injustice to me.

You’ll want to read the whole thing, and check out the pictures!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Joseph Marshall

    An interesting essay. It would be equally interesting to know what period of time in art history is her specialty. We speak of beauty as if it were singular, uniform, and knowable. I’m afraid it isn’t. There is beauty that sparkles with rich colors like ruby and gold and emerald, and I strongly suspect that this is the beauty to which she is attracted, the beauty that Chesterton saw in the sweetshop window among the jars of hard candy. You can find it as well as in the Book of Kells, a Vermont fall, or the crowns of European kings.

    Then there is the beauty of monastic habit: gray and brown and black and white–a beauty of restraint among those who live so intimately among wood and paper and stone: the Japanese tea house and garden, the fumed white oak of Arts and Crafts furniture; black walnut, butternut, cherry, Kentucky coffee tree, and the dozens of other woods of North America in profusion; and the local sandstone, limestone, marble, potting clay, or granite conglomerate anywhere. When it has touches of color, they are of the secondaries and shades: plum, burgundy, burnt orange, rose pink, dark leaf green or pale spring green.

    Or there is the beauty of the trim of Virgin’s blue, either in it’s near turquoise form or it’s almost lapis shade, painted around windows and doors for protection, and for what it does in hot dry sunlight next to the tan mud of adobe or the gleam of whitewash on the wall. The vivid splashes of poppy red, kelly green, or pure chrome yellow that accents these in terracotta flower pot or new window curtain are of a piece with that Virgin’s blue.

    Then there is beauty of cold, sharp steel, and metal polished, case-hardened, galvanized, or turned near black with decades of oil cooked into iron day in and day out–the brightness of copper and new bronze, or the uneasy green verdegris that they age into, or the richness of fully developed rust of iron in sunlight.

    And many others, from the infinity of combinations in Scotch tartans to the proportions and perspectives of the temples of Greece, denuded as they are of the bright and vivid polychrome that they wore when new.

    I don’t think beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All these beauties have a “family resemblance” to one another, but I always like to know what pictures are on the walls or what music is in the memory of whoever it is that speaks the word “beauty”.

    And, as far as the spiritual sustenance goes, I seem to recall from somewhere the mention of a house with many mansions.

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  • Jane Hartman

    I came back to the faith through the beauty of Chopin. He’s the reason I can believe that God exists and that he loved us so much he gave us Jesus. Through Chopin, go figure.

  • Greta

    I remember walking in the giant redwoods north of San Francisco and thinking that those trees were alive when Christ became man and died on the cross. God built us to be inspired by many things from a song, a painting, a ceiling in Rome, a sunset, or maybe a really big old tree. I have had my closest encounter with Christ in a motel room all alone during a time of crisis in my life. I have met Christ sitting next to my mom as she lay dying in a time of terrible pain. One thing is certain and that is the Church with 2000 years of history has learned that conversion and reconcilliation happens for each of us as we walk into a church, hearing the bells and singing, smelling the incense and burning candles, seeing the statues and Crucifix with our Lord in plain sight in the process of removing our sin, in the beauty of the liturgy with central focus on the Tabernacle where Christ lives signified by the Eucharistic Candle ever burning; the kneeling, standing, and sitting to listen to his word, the bow as He became man by the power of the Holy Spirt, and ever so much more. I cannot imagine living without God present in so many ways and being privledged to be party of the One True Holy and Apostolic Church founded by Christ on the Rock of Peter. I can’t say how blessed I have been to see the succession of Popes in my life with the puff of white smoke signifying we have a new successor to Peter from Pius XII who was Pope when I was born thru Bendict XVI. How can anyone feel so bold as to think for even a single moment that they know more than His Church leadership who He will be with until the end of time? Oh pride how you try to conquer us. Satan how you temp us to dissent to try and make our sin normal and thus no longer sin. As I grow ever closer to my coming end with the time in clear sight, how I gain ever more comfort in all that I have been given for it shows me how He loves me by name, even to knowing the number of hairs on my head. Heaven has to be His Church in all Her glory and wonder and to be able to see His Face and hear His voice.

  • Bill

    I have been to St. Peter’s and Notre Dame, and many other traditional churches with great beauty. I also have been to churches with great beauty that have a modern design. Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois (not Catholic, Frank Lloyd Wright design) and St. Bartholomew in Columbus, Indiana, come to mind, among others. Go sit in a pew and be inspired.

  • Kris, in New England

    Our Church is of the newer variety; very clean lines, sweet country church. There are no pews, no kneelers. Just simple chairs that can be moved around to fit the needs of the community.

    The inside is full of light from the walls of windows that surround the Sanctuary. The stained glass windows are huge and beautiful – they too allow so much light to filter into the Sanctuary. Iconography is at a minimum; the interior is mostly a pale beige with crisp, gleaming woodwork. The Stations of the Cross are understated plaques. The Crucifix is the central focus, hanging above the Altar in all its splendor.

    Some may say it’s austere. I find enormous beauty in its austerity. Nothing to distract your heart & mind from worship and thoughtful prayer. The quality of the light, the open-ness of the design – all conspire to bring peace and tranquility to Mass.

    Beauty doesn’t have to be ornate.

    [That's true, and starkness doesn't have to be ugly. But too often, it is. -admin]

  • Craig

    But what happens when someone is moved to kneel in the presence of the Lord? If the “simple chairs” are set up so as to obstruct doing that, then they become a detriment to worship. Better in that case to have nothing at all, as is the custom in Byzantine churches (and once was in medieval Western churches).

    For those who have no difficulties maintaining a worshipful mindset, austerity may be a welcome lack of distraction. For those others struggling to beat back the grim utilitarian mindset of the world, austerity can be a beachhead of the banal and transactional secular ethic intruding into the realm of worship.

  • MG

    “…there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart.
    from Beauty Will Save the World by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  • Jcdrexel

    Have you watched the beautiful video by Andrea Bocelli?
    Notte Illuminate:A la Madone
    Lots of veils, roses,…