Why Not Beautiful Churches?

Gesu Church, Roma, Image Elizabeth Scalia

Gesu Church, Roma, Image Elizabeth Scalia

One of my cousins is a Capuchin priest. He has worked very closely with the very poor and disadvantaged for decades, and he bristles when people talk about “frivolous beauty” or “liturgical pomp”, and when they declare that beautiful things should be stripped down and sold for the poor. “You help the poor by being with them, living and working with them; being one with them, because one of the biggest needs of the poor is the reception of a simple message: ‘You’re as important as anyone; you are loved and loveable.’ You don’t send that message by making the world uglier for them.”

Sell everything in a church, strip it down and you buy some temporary assistance; then the people who sold all that sinful, frivolous beauty go back home, feeling pretty good about themselves and all the ‘help’ they gave to ‘the poor.’ But when the money runs out — and my cousin says money running out is one of the few things you can bank on — then for the poor who remain, “it’s back to business as usual, but with nothing beautiful for them, anywhere.”

My cousin is a man with a great deal of common sense and compassion; living where and how he has lived, he needs both; he is by no means anyone’s idea of a “conservative” but he feels strongly that comfortable, wealthy people with generous instincts mostly have no idea what the poor “need” and that the poor have just as much right (and expectation) to enjoy the consolation and spiritual uplift of a beautiful church as anyone else. Moreover, struggling people don’t want everyday things like straw baskets to be used at communion, because they use everyday things, every day. At Mass, Jesus deserves beauty and they want to engage him in beauty.

His point is valid. I don’t know that I really understood the power of beautiful surroundings, created with the intention of praising and glorifying God, until I visited Rome and considered that the beauty making me gasp on every corner was created, painted, tiled, built by people who were very likely what we call “the poor” today — artisans and craftsmen who worked with their hands; day laborers who lifted and pulled and hammered and sawed. I remember standing back from the Chiesa Nuova and Gesu Church — churches built (respectively) by Saint Philip Neri and by Jesuits, both of whom knew something about living with and for the poor — and contemplating the sense of satisfaction and wonder that these ordinary, struggling people must have felt when the buildings were finished: look what we have done; look what we have made to the glory of God; we have a share in this; we worship here; this would not have been made, if not for us.

Mosaic, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Roma/Elizabeth Scalia

Mosaic, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Roma/Elizabeth Scalia

Pride; a sense of purpose; a sense of place and of belonging within a disparate community; something beautiful to gaze at in wonder, or — even better — to watch others gaze at in wonder, enjoying the secret knowledge that you helped assemble the scaffolding that created that staggering trompe l’oeil at Gesu Church; you helped haul in and install the welcoming green-tinted marble that makes Chiesa Nuova feel so intimate; you and your brothers and your sons helped place the mosaic tiles, one-by-one, that adorn and brighten the altar of Santa Maria in Trastervere, and 1400 years later, people will still contemplate them in slack-jawed awe and humility.

And for future generations of common, ordinary people — sometimes very poor people, what do the beautiful churches do for them? What does beauty do for any of us? It gives us pleasure; it helps us to dream; it stirs the imagination; it consoles; it reminds us that of all creatures, human beings are invested with a spark from the Creator; it gets us wondering — all of us, rich or poor, privileged or struggling — what potential conflagration of beauty might yet be lit from from our own small, individual sparks.

Blame Katrina Fernandez, aka The Crescat, for this rant. She inspired it by taking issue with utilitarianism which too often comes at the expense of beauty:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that those who criticize liturgical beauty hate beautiful things; I just think they don’t fully understand how it’s utilized within the Church. The full purpose of liturgical beauty and ritual is to physically manifest the spiritually metaphysical through the use of our senses.

In no other aspect of our lives do we demand a reason for beauty or question its purpose. We accept and appreciate beautiful art, music, or a sunset for what it is and allow it to uplift us. For some reason beauty is not suspect except when found in the Church. Then it becomes a waste of money, gaudy excess, and idolatry. Suddenly we are expected to ban beauty in His own house when He Himself made us with this desire to create and appreciate beauty? How odd.

And this argument against ritual, calling it meaningless pomp and circumstance. Ritual gives order and is rarely meaningless. You can find simple examples of ritual even in the most progressive evangelical home church which may open and close with a prayer each Sunday. And surely Catholics do not have the monopoly of liturgical ritual. Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists all have ritual in their worship practices yet it’s only Catholic liturgy most freely criticized and questioned for its usefulness. Again, how odd. One might suspect the real prejudice is with Catholicism and not general beauty or ritual in liturgy.

Really, Kat, ya think? You might have a point. There isn’t much criticism of our secular rituals — like the peaceful transition of an office; the traditional processes observed at a State of the Union address are not called meaningless. No one has yet suggested that the Capital building, or its Statuary Hall are wasteful excesses.

Read Kat’s whole piece. Beauty feeds the soul. We need it. The poor, Jesus said, we will “always have”. He lived with and for ordinary, struggling people, and kept trying to tell us that all of our solutions are not found in money. We keep missing it, don’t we?

Recently uncovered 6th Century Fresco, Basilica Santa Sabina, Roma/Elizabeth Scalia

Recently uncovered 6th Century Fresco, Basilica Santa Sabina, Roma/Elizabeth Scalia

Of course, sometimes simple can be beautiful too. But there is a difference between simplicity and starkness.

Simple Altar, Long Island/Elizabeth Scalia

Simple Altar, Long Island/Elizabeth Scalia

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