From the Catholic Herald:
Catholicism is a visual religion. In Catholicism, you look at things and there is usually plenty to look at. Moreover, Catholicism prepares you for eternal life where you will look at the Beatific Vision forever. So, what you look at here on earth is an encouragement to strive for heaven, and a taste of heaven on earth… the embroidery on a chasuble is the prayer of the person who made it, and its intricacy of design exists to stir up a similar prayer in the heart of the beholder.”
When I was stationed at the US Naval Hospital in Naples, Italy, we had the chance to take tours of churches. Lots of churches. There is a church on every corner, and even the lowliest of them exceeds anything we have here in these United States in terms of beauty and intricacy. I recall the first time I entered one of these places, along with a bunch of other tourists. Standing at the back of the church, and looking forward, my eye was drawn every upwards and forwards: there was just too much to take in. Every nook, cranny, crevice and crack was filled with something: a carving, a painting, a staining; whatever it was, it was something that was the product of all of someone’s skill, patience, undivided attention, time, and, yes, love, love in the truly Catholic sense of willing the best for the other.
Of course, those thousands of unknown someones who produced each of these tens (hundreds?) of thousands of tiny, intricate little, and often not so little, things, not to mention those someones who integrated all those things as parts of a very great whole, did it for pay. Of course they did it for pay. Most of us – me included – do what we do for a buck.
“But in the end,” to paraphrase Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, the defense lawyer in one of my favorite novels, The Caine Mutiny*, “what is it that you do for a buck?”
Well, for a buck, all of these long dead someones built beautiful churches, put all of their time and attention and skill and intellect and heart and soul into the ten thousand little, and not so little, things, and, in so doing, made beautiful things for God. And they did something else, as well. When you stand at the back of one of these churches, and let your gaze be drawn ever upwards and forwards, trying to take is all in, eventually your gaze comes to rest on a tiny figure barely visible in the far distance, up on the massive altar. The figure is always there, in every church you go into. The figure is always more or less the same, no matter how large, ornate or elaborate the altar and surroundings. The little figure is nearly naked, his head hangs down, his body slumps, suspended by his hands nailed to a cross. And it struck me, standing there at the back of the church, that maybe this is what the long dead someones were trying to say.
“This”, they were saying to me, “this is what we think heaven is like. Or at least it’s as close as we can come.”
“And this”, they seemed to be whispering as my eyes were drawn to the tiny, far away figure, “is how we showed our gratitude.”
Not so long ago, I had the occasion to attend Mass at church I don’t normally go to. It was a little white clapboard church, built in the 19th century, but well preserved. Inside, it was clean, to be sure, and in decent shape. But something was different. Outside, it looked much as it had a century ago. Inside, the sanctuary had been gutted. The altar rails were gone, the various statues were gone, leaving empty alcoves and, most importantly, the high altar was gone. The outline was still there, painted bland white; I imagine it only remained because to remove it would have required the destruction and rebuilding of the entire rear wall. But the altar was gone, only the ghost remained. From the old outline one could guess that the altar had been a work of beauty and love, a visual centerpiece of the masses said there. And, along with the altar and, of course, the altar rail, had gone all the accouterments: candle stands, altar cloths, tabernacle veils and frames, communion vessels, patens, the crucifix, all the stuff that had once been so central to this little church. Who knows where it went. All that remained was the lonely tabernacle, devoid of any coverings, sitting naked on a little pedestal. I felt ashamed that my contemporaries had seen fit to destroy and obliterate the work of beauty and love and sacrifice that generations past – people far poorer than we – had worked to build.
In its place is a “memorial table” (this altar with legs is sometimes and in some circles known as a Cranmer table), and some candle stands that can only be described as “cheap”. Don’t misunderstand, everything is clean, and reasonably well cared for. But the past, the tradition and heritage, the visual reminders of those who had gone before us, and sacrificed for those yet to come in their future – us - had been deliberately obliterated. The Mass itself was a sing-along, c.1983, with guitar accompaniment. Everybody held hands as often as possible, and especially during the guitar strumming Our Father, hands held and raised, slightly waiving. Don’t misunderstand, everyone there was quite sincere, and quite enthusiastic about what they were doing. But visually, to the disinterested unchurched observer, it was not really very different from what the Baptists down the street do. In fact, the Baptists are much better at this sort of thing.
The Catholic Church is the visible Church. It is visual, audible, tactile. The Sacraments - as well as sacramentals - are real, physical things. This is because we are not angels, we have bodies, and live in the physical world, are moved by, and understand physical things. The past half century has been a time of experimentation with the obliteration of the most publicly visible aspects of the Church’s physical, tangible patrimony: the form of the church building, and the form of the Mass. How has the experiment worked out? From my worm’s eye view, the data is in and the result is incontrovertible to those who have eyes to see: the experiment has not worked worked out, not worked out at all.
Quid est pulchritudo?
Quid est veritas?
* There are lots of quotables from The Caine Mutiny. One of my favorites: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” Into which of those two groups did I fall? Well, I wasn’t a designer...