Monday, July 02, 2012

Beauty, Worship, and the Brick Wall Parish

This has been such a long day. But I don't want to lose track of something that happened this morning.

I'm visiting my hometown, where I never lived while I was a Catholic. That being the case, I don't have any sense of a "home" parish here. This morning my husband and I went to Mass just down the road, at what I am now going to start calling The Brick Wall Parish. The poor thing was built in 1968, which was not such a bad year for people, but for Catholic churches, well, forget it. It is boxlike, and the prominent thing you look at when seated in the church is a brick wall. The second prominent thing you see is a large heating apparatus, running the length of the brick wall, in  a pleasing similar shade as the bricks. There is also a large crucifix on the wall, flanked by two banners, which happened to be solid green right now for ordinary time. Then there is the altar, done in faux-prehistoric style, which looks to be sitting on three gigantic black djembe drums. The furniture looks like it was purchased from Office Max.

I commented to my husband on the way home that essentially everything possible about the look of the church was reduced to utilitarian purpose. Sadly, the liturgy was the same way. It hurts to even give too much detail by way of example. Every last thing that could be omitted was omitted, like pausing for a second or two between words. There was no sense of grandeur to anything. This Mass was not rushed because folks were headed off to work; besides the two of us, I counted one, perhaps two others who were not of retirement age, as that is the make-up of the parish.

I contrast this to another parish we frequent when we can. It is far older, and gorgeous. The liturgy, reverent.

It strikes me that properly worshipping God seems to demand a lot of superfluous beauty. God is not about utilitarianism. Fr. Robert Barron said in the DVD series "Catholicism" something like this: worship at Mass is the absolutely highest thing a human being can do exactly because it has no utilitarian purpose at all. God seems to love us to waste our time on Him, and to lavish worshipping Him with as much beauty we can muster, even if it is gone as the note fades, or the flowers die, or the building crumbles. The existence of beauty doesn't even really make sense apart from the fact that it is the cry of creation itself back to its Creator. A church, a liturgy, the worship of God, the life of the human person (all so closely related one to another) should be oozing with this completely non-functional, strictly-speaking-unnecessary beauty.

When worship is reduced to functionality, it destroys hope in the soul. It squelches the sense of mystery, of wonder, of the sense that our souls are designed exactly for the kind of grandeur we see. When I look at bricks I think about surviving concentration camps. When I look at marble and fine metals and carved statues, I contemplate surrendering my life to Christ in love. We have our senses for a purpose, and that purpose is not to make us desolate.

A favorite quote of mine, one I wish church architects had been familiar with in 1968:  "A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life." 

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