Lately the subject of beauty and our need for it has been looming large in my awareness. I think about children who grow up in homes with drab walls and no books and then spend eight hours of their day in cinder-blocked schoolrooms, or the boy next door, who comes over occasionally and asks me to play music for him off my iPod: classical, Klezmer, Bhangra, and soulful Morna.
Beauty makes the soul soar and is as essential to the spirit as food and water is to the body, yet it is mocked as sentimentality and foolishness. It is wiped out of churches and untaught in school curricula, because who is permitted to define what is beautiful, anymore?
Even art schools brush aside notions of beauty; they favor a modern art that can be empty or profane, but rarely bourgeois "beautiful."
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.
Churches used to be the source for transcendent beauty, the places where ordinary people could experience that overwhelming gasp-inspiring spiritual soaring because they were surrounded by it, immersed in it. Churches used to make the soul sing for God.
Beauty in the Church is essential. I don't want God brought down from the Heavens and made "relatable" to me. I want to be carried up to Christ so I can meet Him there and be awestruck and changed by his beauty, expressed all around.
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.
Indeed, when I was studying art history at Virginia Commonwealth University my own refuge was the Richmond Cathedral. I was fortunate that my dorm was right next door. In a harsh environment, feeling assaulted by the vulgar modern art so lauded by my instructors, I found retreat and renewal at that cathedral.
It started there, my conversion. I had lived completely unchurched, and no argument from another Catholic would have swayed me from my atheism. But in Richmond Cathedral, there was no arguing against the beautiful peacefulness that filled me in that place. There was no refuting the absolute Truth represented in the soul-engaging beauty of this church.
Beauty picks up where words leave off. It breaks my heart every time I step into a bare, artless, whitewashed church, stripped of beauty and feeling cold to love. In a church gilded for God's glory there lives a silent evangelism; it reaches out to every soul, every time one ventures inside. Ugly churches miss that opportunity to evangelize, to preach without words.
This reminds me of an exchange I had with two small children I met in a library. Seeing the beautiful pictures on my computer monitor, they sat with me as I updated my blog and showed them pictures of church altars. They were wide-eyed with interest; they hungered for beauty like a baby hungers for milk. Their mother asked whether they were bothering me and I assured her they were making my day. Because the children recognized some of the saints they were seeing, I asked her if they were Catholic. The mother said their father, who was from Cuba, took them to mass but she did not join them.