Tag Archives: beauty

The Alabaster Church

Should we be building (or restoring) beautiful churches when there is so much poverty in the world? Shouldn’t the Church sell all that it owns and give the money to the poor?

I am a simple man and I do not have a complete answer to that question. But I ask you to consider the story of the feast of Simon the leper, or more appropriately the story of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment. Does this story have a lesson for us that applies to the questions above? I think so.

Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_Pharisee

Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618-1620, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

In the Gospel of Matthew, verses 26:6-13, we read:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, “To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”

In the Gospel of Matthew this woman pours ointment on Christ’s head, in Luke it says she pours it on His feet and wipes them with her hair. I think it is fair to say she did both, and to do so fits with Christ saying she did it for His burial. But here’s the question I think we should ask for ourselves in light of this story: Do we not, very specifically and uniquely, have Christ with us at Mass, truly present? Are not our churches, in fact, both temples and palaces: places for worship and sacrifice on the one hand, and places for monarchal reverence and pomp on the other? Yes, we must help the poor, but our love for our neighbor goes forth from our worship of our creator and our savior. We proceed from Mass into the world, conforming our lives to Christ in our actions. And churches are for all who come, rich and poor alike.

The poor, above all else, need salvation of their souls as does everyone else. Certainly we must not forsake the poor with cheap excuses that our monies are tied up elsewhere. Christ chastised the Pharisees for that as well. But we must not turn away from proper worship in order to, instead, focus on the poor. When we do, we put our souls at risk, and theirs.

[I realize I risk saying all this because I am not poor. My apologies for any thickheadedness and offense.]

I believe the state of the “new Church” today, with its numbers plummeting, its thin gruel of RCIA programs, its horrible music, its new Mass with namby pamby vestments and shallow prayers, and all its staggering and ravaging scandals, is all of a piece with its degraded and ugly churches. To forsake right worship, which includes, if at all possible, beautiful places of worship of sufficient design and beauty to glorify the King, is to lose the forest for the trees. It is, in a sense, to lose Christ.

This is one reason why churches that focus only on helping the poor all too often become churches where soup and blankets becomes their gospel and not the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins, saving us from Hell, and leading us to eternal life. Raising Lazarus was an image of the gospel, but Lazarus was raised to die again. His true salvation came because Christ died on the cross, and then rose from the dead, then ascended to the right hand of the Father, and then Lazarus believing in that truth.

Therefore, I believe that a gospel which says we should do away with fancy churches and instead give that money to the poor is, in fact, a substitute gospel. It has some appeal because it has some important truth (we truly do need to help the needy and lay down our lives for others), but it elevates one truth inappropriately above another. The poor (and the downtrodden, and those in prison, and widows & orphans, and the hungry, and the naked, etc), whom you must love, will always be with you. But if you are to see Christ in the poor you must first see Him in the Eucharist, and bend the knee, and bow your head, and worship Him. Should you sell all you have and give it to the poor? Maybe. Should the princes of the Church live simple lives of poverty? I think they probably should (certainly many today should be brought low). Ought the Church as the body of Christ celebrate Mass in plain sheet-rocked or concrete-tilt-up boxes instead of beautiful, ornate, and more expensive churches? I think not (if at all possible). Give glory as and to whom glory is due.

Does this mean that if we focus once again on building more beautiful churches all our problems with go away? No. But we must not be afraid to build beautiful churches. To do so will feed and inform our souls in surprising ways, and help us become more holy, more fully human, more like Christ. This goes hand in hand with helping the poor. The stunning churches of old, those that are still with us, are memorials to those who built them in a similar way that the story of the woman with the alabaster box is her memorial.

You will meet her if you get to Heaven. And, perhaps, you will bow to her and thank her for showing the way.

Finally: Arvo Pärt, the brilliant minimalist composer from Estonia, set the words from Matthew above to music. Listen to this and read the words as you do. This is, I believe, a stunning example of what setting the words of scripture to music can be.

Introíbo ad altáre dei.

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Tradition Reviled and Recovered: A Study of False Assumptions about Substance and Accident

Peter Kwasniewski

Here is a great lecture by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. I suppose a brief (and poor) summary might be: While the core essence of the Mass is Christ offering Himself on our behalf to the Father, all the other elements of the Mass are also important because it is through the “accidents” of the Mass that we have access to the “substance” of the Mass. This is true not only for the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation, but everything else, the smells and bells, kneeling and genuflecting, chant and prayers, etc.

Having recently finished his excellent book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness
Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages, I look forward to finding anything else he has done. Dr. Kwasniewski is a particularly eloquent spokesperson for the usus antiquior.

His lecture is perhaps a bit technical, but still easy to follow, and worth the listen. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I myself have been interested in this topic, especially the physicality of worship, for some time. Three years ago, after I had begun to make a more concerted effort to pray in the morning, I wrote on the physicality of faith. And more than four years ago I wrote a piece on reducing faith and worship down to some absolute minimum, which I called an inhuman experiment.

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The People of Summorum Pontificum

Archbishop Alexander K. Sample said: “May the traditional Mass flourish in the Church!”

I agree, and I pray every day both for the TLM to flourish and for the archbishop to continue his good work.

In this light, below is another good video from 2SPetrvs:

While watching this video I was thinking about the nature and function of parades. A lot of people like parades. In this video one see a pilgrimage can be a kind of parade. I have come to believe they have an important role to play in human society. There is something old-fashioned about parades. There is also something very human about them. To parade is to make a declaration. Perhaps more parishes should start parading in their cities.

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Is Music a Civilizing Force?

This short talk by Roger Scruton is worth listening to in its entirety. His thoughts on silence are especially profound.

I have come to realize that rock-n-roll’s purpose, among other things, is to un-civilize the individual. We love rock-n-roll precisely because we want to be un-civilized. I do believe there is some value in occasionally “letting down one’s hair.” I really can’t say it’s all bad. But I also believe it has to be appropriately counterbalanced with beautiful music that leads us to perfection of the soul.

This idea of perfection of the soul is laughed at by moderns. No one believes in perfection anymore, in part because they don’t think it’s possible, but more profoundly because they don’t believe there is an objective standard by which to measure perfection. But they also do not believe in the soul. Why seek to perfect something that does not exist? And why go to the effort if there is no life beyond this one? I would posit, however, that the existence of music, and the phenomena of human experiences of music, are an excellent argument for the existence of the soul, its eternal nature, and its desire for perfection.

Then, when I think of the Mass, I consider its music and what that does to us. I wonder about appropriateness, and form, and the teleological purpose of liturgy. I also think about Scruton’s comment about the soul being prepared to receive good music. Can poor music at Mass harm us in some way? Can the repeated use of poor music at Mass cause the souls present to be temporarily incapable of receiving proper music when presented? How might we fix this?

Why in the world did God make music, and what is the relation between music and the human soul?

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The Hidden Beauty in the Eucharist, Revealing the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity through Sacred Art

The following is a lecture on beauty and sacred art by Jed Gibbons, artist, designer, and vice president of the Catholic Art Guild, which is based out of the beautiful St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.

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Beautiful Catholic Churches, Old & New

An EWTN show called Extraordinary Faith did a couple of episodes on new church designs and old church restorations that reflect the traditional patrimony of the Catholic Church.

The information here is great, and shows something of the rebirth and growth in recognizing the timeless and appropriate architectural and artistic designs of those buildings we instantly recognize as churches. Consequently many parishes and religious groups are wanting such buildings again.

I love the level of exposure to these beautiful churches and those who build & restore them this shows brings. There is a great deal of skill and work involved in any traditional Catholic church building. I also love the passion exhibited here for the traditions of the Church.

[An aside: Of course, and as expected, in the “spirit of EWTN” the production quality is serious, thoughtful, and sometimes (unintentionally) humorously amateurish. I would love to see EWTN level up two or three notches with its productions. Perhaps something like Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series, which would be at least a place to start. I’m not just complaining. I used to be a professional television producer and director, so I know a few things about what it takes to make good television, and it’s mostly not a question of money. EWTN too often is caught somewhere between 1980’s professional television and community access television.]

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Restoring the Church by restoring a church

Here is a great video how one Catholic parish in America has renovated its church building, invigorated its parish life, helped its community, and is contributing to the restoration of the Church at large. The video is from 2010, but its message resonates still. Basic things: repair the building, offer vespers, bring back pomp and reverence, Latin, chant, Corpus Christi procession, altar boys, communion on the tongue while kneeling, incense, mystery, etc., etc. They also employed an architectural and liturgical expert, Denis McNamara, to help lead the restoration.

The church interior was completed in 2014. Here are some stunning images, including before and after photos of the project. What beauty. My parish should do this! I’m sure the first response will be about money, but I really think it comes down to the will to do it — as do most goals of highest value.

If there is any one formula or silver bullet for creating vibrant parishes it seems to be: get back to the roots, restore the old ways, focus on truth, goodness, and beauty in the Mass, and do those things that support these things, like renovating your church building inside and out.

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