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Why Beautiful Parish Churches Matter

Clericalism has reared its ugly head once more. Or so says a sensational headline in the National Catholic Reporter, lamenting a return to traditional forms of architecture in parish construction. For some, this is the front line of the liturgy wars, and a recent return to traditional forms has ruptured the important syncretism between suburban modernity and our places of worship. By restoring traditional elements, we’ve adopted forms and structures foreign to our culture, and this deference to the past threatens faith’s assimilation to and acceptance by the prevailing culture.

I never thought I’d read a lament over the loss of “churches in the round,” but there you have it. Most of us engage this battle — readily or reticently — on the grounds of aesthetics: we want our churches to be beautiful because that reflects offering the best to God. Church architecture is not divinely mandated. It is a human tradition reflecting an understanding of our own theological anthropology and epistemology. Our senses want what we grasp and see. Our mind’s eye searches out what is beautiful.

Our Churches Laid Bare

On Holy Thursday evening, Catholic altars were stripped bare following the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. It culminates a number of our Lenten traditions designed to purge us of earthly attachments. Amidst the falling dark of Passiontide, I’ve always enjoyed the simple, choreographed denuding of the sanctuary. Everything is passing. The pomp of the Holy Thursday liturgy — with its red vestments, singing of the Gloria, foot washings, and processions — soon gives way to the mystery of God’s suffering. As I watched altar servers take away candles and remove holy objects, I found a certain beauty in this simple act of cleaning up and stripping bare.

Of course, there is a practical importance as well. I remember when my childhood pastor would bring a pitcher of water and carefully wash the altar. For many years, I assisted my mom as church sacristan. On Holy Saturday, we carefully scraped away the residue of the tape that had built up on the altar. The emptying of the triduum allowed for a moment of reset. We could finally get to cleaning and to polishing all of the trappings and trimmings needed to ensure a prayerful sanctuary.

In the ritual emptying of sacred spaces, we discover an affront to clericalism and iconoclasm. We need things to mediate for us the mystery hidden to our eyes. For a brief moment between the end of Holy Thursday and sunset on Holy Saturday, we are left without these sacramentals and signs of our faith. Even the cross we venerate on Good Friday is simple; yet it is the only sign toward which a priest prostrates himself during a liturgy.

Without intermediaries, we are left without anything to make our senses immediately aware of the mystery of God made man. It can be overwhelming. The uncomfortable reality is that we really “see” very little. God made man remains very hidden to us, despite His incarnation. The Church’s preserving hedge of beauty in the sanctuary through a myriad of human traditions allows us to glimpse from moment-to-moment at the mystery of God. Many of these traditions are simply comforting, but without them, we’d be left cast naked into the cold that is our own unknowing.

Returning to the Cold

We build beautiful churches because without them we are not usually reminded of the unseen mystery of God. Beauty in architecture expresses not only the limits of our senses, which we augment with faith, but also an expression of hope, that what we see and experience here really isn’t all there is.

Churches have to be more than mere marketing gimmicks, meant to harmonize with local surroundings. Fads come and go. But from one generation to the next we pass the constant circumstances of our human condition. We are limited by nature in our understanding and our sight. But we need not be.

 

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