Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful…

… I really don’t understand all this animosity towards the Church and her liturgy. I feel like saying “don’t hate us because we’re beautiful”. Trite sounding but yet it rings true.

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.

The second most common criticism I hear, after that of ecclesiastical ornamentation being a waste of financial resources [to which I say Matt 26:6-13], is that God doesn’t need it. He doesn’t need our fancy churches, rich vestments, and gold goblets. God is just as pleased with a group of people worshiping Him in a stark utilitarian building as He is with a group of people worshiping Him in the grandest cathedrals. I’m going to be honest here and say, I don’t think so.

When we consider what it is the appropriate amount of effort used to glorify God, I’m not so sure offering the barest minimum is all that pleasing. To say that God doesn’t need beautiful liturgy is one thing; but I ask, do you feel He deserves it? That is essentially what is being implied when one argues that God doesn’t need the gold goblets and fragrant incense. Whether you believe He needs it or not, He most certainly deserves our finest efforts.

And so what if God doesn’t need it. If we only gave gifts that people needed you’d end up with a toilet plunger for Valentine’s Day. True story. No, we give gifts knowing it’s what the recipient wants, not need, just for the simple fact that these extravagences cause them joy. That is why there are towering catherdrals with lavish interiors and rich liturgy. It is not meaningless frivoloity any more than when a man gives his love a shiny bauble. Not only is the ritual of the mass full of scripture and therefore hardly meaningless, it is a an act of love and beauty offered to God because it’s what He so richly deserves.


Image: Fr. Hunwicke celebrating his First Mass in the Old Rite at Brompton Oratory. Click for photo source and more photos. There’s even a picture of Fr. Blake who authors one of my favorite spiritual treats.

Related Links: Why Not Beautiful Churches, and Reviewing The Art of Faith by Judith Couchman.

About Katrina Fernandez

Mackerel Snapping Papist

  • Jeanne Chabot

    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.”

    I know, I know.  I wrote about this very thing myself… (  It started with a photo that was being passed around facebook, (Pope B16 on one side in rich vestments and a starving African kid on the other side – with this caption: “Guess which one made a vow of poverty?”)  

    Well, that just got my hackles up… I liken Catholic riches to those of  a museum.  The Catholic Church PROMOTES art and culture (dang it!) and not only that, it offers it to the world to see and visit (for free no less, have you ever paid an admission fee to enter a Catholic church?) and if the museum director wears a tux to important museum functions and no one cares, then why on earth would the Pope not wear awesome vestments for High Masses?  Hellooo-oooo!  

    • David Le

      Actually, wouldn’t the answer be “neither” since a diocesan priest doesn’t take a vow of poverty?

      • Paula

        The Pope also does not receive a salary, nor, I have heard, do his apartments in the Vatican have air conditioning.

    • drea916

      I took a nutrition class at a local college and the instructor specialized in world childhood poverty. She told us the problem of those children that are starving isn’t solved by throwing more money at them. Those situations are often the result of a terrible dictator or war or natural disaster. It’s not a matter of just selling our goodies and giving it to them. It’s a much bigger problem. Even secular sources, such as my teacher, know this. Even if we go by those ignorant folks’ standard, I’d love to see where they live and what they eat. I know too many people who think socialism is great, as they just finished closing their new two story house.

    • Martin Fox

       The crabby folks who comment over at the National (so-called) Catholic Reporter basically want the treasures of the Church to be destroyed.

      Either that, or their desires are contradictory.

      When this mindset showed up there, recently, I simply asked the question: what, exactly, do you want to happen to the art that the Church has in its churches, shrines and museums? Sold off to private collectors? Melted down? Do you want St. Peter’s Basilica turned into condominiums? Who would buy all these things?

      If you say, get rid of the treasures to feed the poor, that’s what that means.

      • kenneth

        “If you say, get rid of the treasures to feed the poor, that’s what that means…..”
        That was the baseline condition the Jesus of the New Testament laid out for becoming a a disciple.  If today’s gang of art collectors and gold-leaf Liberace wannabes had approached him about building and buying their way to God’s glory (and they did), he’d send them home with a dusty sandal-print on their hindquarters.

         Back in my Catholic school days, I read the Gospels quite thoroughly. Nowhere was Christ quoted as commanding his followers to build some “bomb-a**” architecture or to “go forth and curate.” His whole gang lived almost as close to the ground as the poor they served. If opulence had anything to do with his message, he would have displayed some of it.

         If you believe he was the son of God, he could easily have arranged for some material displays of wealth. Hell, he could have had Caesar working as his pool boy.

         I get wanting to have a decent church building, and as a pagan, I’m all about a good ritual, but does anyone honestly expect me to believe that the Crystal Cathedral has ANY plausible connection to the life of Jesus of Nazareth? Seriously folks, that thing looks like something Scientology would have built at “Gold Base”. 

        • Katrina Fernandez

          The Crystal cathedral is anathema in discussions of church beauty! Raze that monstrosity and salt the ground where it stood.  

          • kenneth

            At $57 million and change, that would be an expensive do-over. With that money, they could have provided liveable ie above poverty wage jobs or assistance for something over 2,400 families of four or the equivalent thereof. Fortunately Orange County folk know the last thing Jesus would have wanted was to waste that kind of scratch on poor people. 

          • Mark Abeln

            Much of that $57 million will go to workers, who would otherwise be poor without a job.

          • kenneth

            None of that money will go to workers. This was the price tag for the real estate. 

          • Martin Fox

             The $57 million will enable the folks who sold the building pay their debts. Without knowing who they owe, it seems almost certain that somewhere along the line ordinary working folks will benefit.

            On the other hand, if they couldn’t sell the property, and had to write down their debts, hard to see how a lot of regular folks wouldn’t be hurt.

          • kenneth

            The only regular folks I see in the equation are possibly the groundskeepers etc., assuming the archdiocese retained any of them. The Schuller family became bazillionaires using the place to sell salvation to the masses. I suppose that ministry’s creditors will get some relief through the sale. I still see nothing whatsoever in a crystal palace that pertains in any way to the example of Jesus’ life or ministry. 

          • Martin Fox

            It’s certainly possible all the creditors due millions of unpaid bills are bazillionaires, or mere millionaires, but I’d bet against it. If you care to make it worth my while (a bet), I’ll do the research. Let me know.

          • kenneth

            I don’t doubt that some creditors are regular folk. Probably a lot of mom and pop service contractor as well. My point isn’t that no good came of the transaction. My point is that I see no reasonable connection between a $57 million palace and a religion which purports to model itself on Jesus’ ministry. 

        • Mark Abeln

          Who is Christ? God commanded His people to build Him a Temple, a magnificent edifice. Catholics say that Christ is also God, and God does not contradict Himself. Christ, let us not forget, often taught in the Temple, and His disciples worshiped there, as well as in the many Synagogues, which as we now know, were quite elaborate, like traditional Catholic churches. 

        • Sacredcrocheter

          I have to agree-the Crystal Cathedral is a hideous display of materialism without any soul.

        • Martin Fox

           An argument from silence (Jesus didn’t say or do such-and-such) is a weak one, generally. As others noted, on the premise that Jesus is God incarnate, then there is quite a lot he said or did, in this regard, on other occasions. And if he is not God, I care very little about what he said or did.

          In any case, let us follow the reasoning out. Everyone gets rid of treasures; to sell something, there must be a buyer. But if everyone is supposed to divest himself of treasures, there is no buyer. No buyer means the objects lose (saleable) value; in effect, they become worthless.

          In such a world, there is no artistry; no one will buy it.

          In such a world, those with such talents are either beggars (where they might otherwise have been employed), or else they cannot make a living with the gifts God gave them. They create beautiful art, perhaps–but no one will pay anything for it.

          As I said, it means, ultimately, the demise of art.

          What a weird world!

          Now, if you argue that is what God wants, then let us see the proof for that assertion. I simply deny it.

          When our Lord advocated a rich young man divest himself of his wealth, it is not reasonable to say that he meant for everyone to do this. That’s not what he said.

          To argue our Lord lived simply…well, actually take a closer look.

          There is evidence of that; but also evidence he was quite willing to accept good things from others. He was called a “wine bibber” and a “glutton”–he must have been willing to eat well. Not he, but Judas, protested the extravagant use of spikenard to anoint him.

          As to his overall financial condition, we simply don’t know. Not all Jews of Palestine were poor. And even if his family was, that doesn’t mean  Joseph and Mary didn’t try to rise above it; nor that our Lord found fault with them doing so.

          So I stand by my argument for moderation. In a world in which we have gourmet pet food, I think churches made beautiful over centuries, largely by voluntary gifts, labor and talents of ordinary people, is moderate.

          • Sacredcrocheter

            Jesus owned nothing but the clothes on his back. He came to teach us with his words and actions. He did not make a show of wealth( Kenneth noted), as He very well could have, because the wealth he came to give us was His eternal love and life everlasting. He did make a show of miracles and gave us a treasure of Parables so that we would understand and believe in Him. The gifts were given to us-that’s the point-Jesus gives US everything.
            But in return, he wants our steadfast Love and Adoration. No, He doesn’t need it but He wants it. 
            In John 12:1-10,Upon seeing that Mary had annointed Jesus feet with costly perfume, Judas Iscariot says “why was this ointment not sold and the money given to the poor?”
            Right after that John explains that Judas said this NOT because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief who helped himself to the common fund.
            Jesus reply is very important to understand: He says “Leave her alone; let her save it for the day of my burial. You have the poor with you always, you will not always have me.” 
            Not all churches are beautiful, but many Catholic churches are.  The beauty comes from Adoration. In a beautiful Catholic church, every detail of the art and architecture points us towards God. Every aspect of the artwork, the vestments and especially the Mass, is filled with symbolism meant to raise our minds and hearts towards Him.
            A Catholic Church is no simple thing-it comes with thousands of years of rich and beautiful meaning. Remember, the Infant Jesus did not send the wisemen away-he accepted their costly, precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

      • Mark Abeln

        So the Church should sell off its riches of art and give the money to the poor.  What about the people who buy the art?  Shouldn’t they then sell of that art too, and give the money to the poor? If the government buys the art, then shouldn’t it also sell it to give money to the poor?  Where does it stop?

        Yes, perhaps destruction is what these people actually want.

      • Sacredcrocheteer

        The treasures of the Church DO feed the poor. Spiritually.  I live in a poor community and am a member of a mission church. Two years ago we were allowed by the Diocese to keep the profits from our yearly fiesta to restore our church-it was old, dark and very unattractive. The community pitched in to use their talents to do faux painting, carve wood, etc.  I cannot tell you the looks of pride and love that were on the faces of our parishoners when they finally entered our beautiful new church; some were crying. It lifted everyone up and attendance has been much higher. For myself, I spend much more time in Adoration now because I do feel closer to God in his Heaven, 

  • Father Kyle Schnippel

    Also, god may not Need beautiful worship, but perhaps WE DO!

  • David

    OK, I apologize. I have’t finished reading your article, but I just read the first few lines and realized something.

    People DO hate liturgy because it’s beautiful. 

    The reason, unsurprisingly, is Gnosticism. Beauty is physical. The beauty of the Liturgy is created with beautiful churches, beautiful vestments, beautiful croziers, beautiful crosses, beautiful chalices, beautiful processions, postures, etc., etc.  Even a stripped down secret Mass in a catacomb will have some variety of this beauty. And it’s physical.

    And Gnosticism hates the physical. 

    And most non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Christian communions are shot-through with Gnosticism. As a non-Catholic Christian, I hate to admit this. But it’s true. 

    Christianity is about God reconciling Himself to His creation through the blood of Jesus Christ. Hello! God has RECONCILED Himself to His creation. The physical is not unreal. It is not evil. It is an object of redemption.It is the theater of redemption.  It is not to be worshipped, but like all gifts of God, it is to be appreciated. The denial of the physical is heresy. Many Saints denied themselves comfort and embraced suffering, but they did not deny that their wounds were real.

    So don’t be a heretic. Love the Liturgy. It is heaven on earth.

  • Martin Fox

    I have often said that it is quite true “God doesn’t need it.” God needs *nothing.* He doesn’t need our obedience to the moral law, he doesn’t need our baptism, our making holy communion, he doesn’t need any of it. So why do they exist?

    They exist because *we* need them; and the same for the liturgy, and for beauty in general.

    I suppose people might well get along with houses that were warm and dry, but lacked all beauty; same with clothes, same with food; same with the neighborhood they live in, and the natural world. But who really believes this is so? Who lives this way?

  • Martin Fox

    As far as the cost…

    Well, there’s a valid point there; it’s all a matter of proportion.

    Remember that many of the most splendid churches did not become so instantly, but over many generations. And true beauty need not be terribly expensive. Lots of beautiful churches were made so, not with stone or carved wood, but with paint, mimicking stone and wood.

    Also, remember that when one pays for a church to be decorated, one is paying another human being to use the gift God gave him. Do these folks deny that painting, sculpting, designing, adorning are true gifts? From God? Yet if these critics had their way, these gifts would never be used to glorify God, but only for the benefit of those who cared not for God’s glory! Does this make any sense?

    Would these folks be happier if all of Michelangelo’s works had been commissioned by worldly princes, and not found in God’s house?

  • Diane Korzeniewski

    Awesome piece, Kat.

  • Lee Gilbert

    “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. . . ” Exodus 28:2

  • Erika Salazar-Drain

    We are beautiful!  <3  Hating truth comes from one source…. :(

  • Greg Garrett

    I really like your description of worship as an act of love and beauty we offer to God. And while liturgy and ritual is my own beauty, I know folks for whom other worship offerings seem more authentic to who they are. I guess the key is not to dismiss the beautiful worship of our brothers and sisters–whether it’s our particular scene or not.

  • Mila

    Not only don’t Catholics have a monopoly on ritual, other religions don’t either! Has anyone watched a state funeral for a former president (or for the actual president, as in JFK’s)? Talk about ritual! But as you say, it’s only bad when it’s Catholic ritual. Great post, Kat.

  • Lee Gilbert

    The Biblical witness to liturgical beauty:

    “How glorious he [Simon the high priest] was when the people gathered around him as he came out of the inner sanctuary!  Like the morning star among the clouds, like the moon when it is full; like the sun shining upon the temple of the most high, and like the rainbow gleaming in the glorious clouds; like roses in the days of first fruits, like lilies by a spring of water, like a green shoot on Lebanon on a summer day; like fire and incense in the censer, like a vessel of hammered gold adorned with all kinds of precious stones; like an olive tree putting for its fruit, and like a cypress towering in the clouds.  When he put on his glorious robe and clothed himself with superb perfection and went up to the holy altar, he made the court of the sanctuary glorious”  (Sirach 50: 5-11).

    Even if our Evangelical friends do not accept Sirach as Biblical, nevertheless the passage is a valid witness that the purpose of the Lord clearly indicated in Exodus 28 (quoted above) was achieved in the liturgical life of Israel.  That passage is worth reading in its context.  All the care for the vesture of the priests was for “glory and beauty.”  

  • Robert King

    Just from the title of the post, I was hoping for a return of Fillion Fridays….

    But this post was okay too, I guess. I mean, worshiping God is at least as good as idolizing Nathan Fillion, right? ;-)

  • Barb

    Some people like frippery, some are minimalists.  I don’t think that makes one right and one wrong.  I have always disliked the “showiness” of some worship; to me it is a distraction. 

    • James H, London

      Have to agree. I’m a Norman at heart, I think Baroque is just overdone. It began when men wore massive curly wigs and women powdered their faces white, and Bach was writing his monumental fugues.

      I appreciate the effort that went into it, but it just seems too much.

      I’ve been to the Brompton Oratory, and while it’s certainly impressive, I think less would do.

    • Katrina Fernandez

      Yes, everyone has their own personal taste and Baroque may need to be everyone’s aesthetic liking. The difference is that you, hopefully at least, don’t hold it as a reason to loathe the Church. You realize it does serve a purpose, no? 

      It’s one thing for it not to be your preference, it’s quite another to think it serves no purpose therefore should be completely done away with.    

      • Barb

        Of course I don’t think it is a reason to loathe the Church and I understand that you are referring to people such as Evangelicals who attack the Catholic Church over what they perceive as materialistic pomp.  That said, I sometimes get the feeling that some Catholics get caught up in the trimmings and forget about what it really means to be a Catholic follower of Christ.  The presence of Christ is what makes the Catholic Church beautiful.

  • Dennis D.

     A co-worker and her husband–both Church of Christ–took a trip to Savannah, Georgia. They stopped in at the Cathedral of St. John. She’d never been in a Catholic Church before. Her response: “I thought I was in Heaven!”


    • John Webber

      That’s my home Parish!  There is a reason why it is a frequent stop of tourists who visit Savannah.  The trolleys don’t stop at places of worship that look like high school auditoriums. 

  • Gooley

    Most Las Vegas casinos are more beautiful than most post-1960 Catholic churches… and many older churches have been gutted and ruined. Casino operators understand the need for beauty and have the money, I guess.

  • Jane Hartman

    Beauty, specifically musical beauty, brought me from atheism back to the church. We desperately need beauty in this sinful and messed up world. God deserves the best we can give and these glorious churches give us a foretaste of our heavenly home.

  • A.R.

    Judas was pretty ticked off that Mary the sister of Lazarus annointed Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume instead of using the money to give to the poor, but it was pleasing and honoring to the Lord. (John 12:1-10)

  • The Catholic Science Geek

    I’m sure the world would STILL  find SOMETHING to complain about even if our churches looked like bivouac shelters and our priests wore sackcloth…

  • Lydiamcgrew

    Another thought, to second yours: Doesn’t ugly church art cost money too? Aren’t ugly church buildings expensive in their own right? I bet the avant garde architects and artists don’t do it for nothing.

  • Sagrav

    I think you’ve set up a straw man argument here.  I don’t recall any atheist, agnostics, whatever complaining that Catholicism is too beautiful.  Cathedrals are ornate works of art, and I like the sound of organ music.  We often dislike the actual church services because they are dull, repetitive, and used to spread a world view that we disagree with.  But the cathedrals themselves?  Nah, they’re good looking.

    Maybe you were directing this criticism more at the protestant tradition?  I know that some of their beliefs hold that excessive church beauty and ornamentation is unnecessary and bordering on idolatry.  Just look at some Quaker meeting houses; those are some plain facilities.  

    Even then, there’s really not much animosity towards art in your church.  Of all of the many things one can criticize about the Catholic church, that’s darn near the bottom of the list.

  • Qualis Rex

    Excellent post, but what makes the topic even sadder is that many of those who hate the beauty of the ritual & liturgy are within the church itself.  How many beautiful ad orientem church altars have we seen ripped out and replaced with a kitchen-table?  Instead of Gregorian chant or Catholic hymns, how many times do we hear hand-clapping/tambourine swinging “new” (see: 1970′s) music? Instead of the solemnity and revernence one should expect of our priests, how many times to they try to make mass “fun” by using puppets, dancing, and inclusiveness?

    The haters are indeed deep within the church.

  • Cjdull

    In regard to the liturgy as everything else, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I once attended a LCMS liturgical service that I thought was extremely well done.  On another occasion I attended an Orthodox Greek wedding (2.5 hours in a church that was not air-conditioned in July) that had the entire service in both Greek and English, which  did not particularly strike me as anything but unending.   Some of the phrases must have been repeated 50 times or more.

    I think the main objection to the liturgy is that all the replies are scripted.  They rarely represent–except perhaps on the part of Ambrose or John Chrysostom–a heartfelt individual reply.  Some may find that inspiring, others merely repetitive.  “David” needs also to read up a little more on Gnosticism, which shares the characteristic (as do ancient pagan sacrifices) of requiring in some versions  a particular phrase or “password” be repeated exactly to return to the supreme God.    Many of the items that supposedly appeal to all 5 senses–bells, censors, etc.–actually derive from the accoutrements  of the law courts in the late Roman Empire (Constantine and later emperors often used bishops as judges) as even most histories of the liturgy will point out. 

    In short, the liturgy can be beautiful or at least beautifully performed, but that is certainly not the obvious reaction some of us would have.

    C J Dull

  • Mr. Bultitude

    Very good post. It reminds me of a couple of quotes. First, from CS Lewis’ “Preface to Paradise Lost”: …the very fact that ‘pompous’ is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity.’ To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the alter, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast-all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.”

    The second is from Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “Glory of the Lord, vol 1; Seeing the Form”: “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admit it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

  • Mr. Bultitude

    Sorry, forgot to add that anyone who thinks beauty is unnecessary when worshiping God has obviously not read their Bibles. The original tabernacle, designed by God Himself, was a thing of great beauty, as was the temple that eventually followed it. We do not rob God of anything by removing beauty from worship; we rob ourselves.