“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.”
– St Augustine, Confessions.
Every person in the world can recall a moment in their life when they looked upon something utterly beautiful, a painting, a landscape, ornate building, thread of cloth, graceful animal or blooming flower. Maybe it was a multi-hued sunset or a sky full of stars that dazzled like diamonds. I’m also sure everyone can recall a song or piece of music that captured the soul. Still in these modern days of drum & base and synthesizers, the emotive strains of Mozart, Palestrina or Bach cause one to pause in amazement. Why do these things affect us so? Because, beauty is a testimony to divinity, it places us in the presence of God.
I have heard a many atheists affirm this. The austerity of an old cathedral, the poetic meter of a sacred text or the lofty tones of Gregorian chant speak to something deep inside of them. Everything beautiful or awesome in this world bespeaks an ultimate Beauty and Awesomeness. We love beauty because God, who is beauty Himself, created it. We crave beauty because we hunger for God.
Lately, I’ve noticed that people have been talking a lot about the beauty, ritual and “pomp” of Catholicism, how much it ought to be peeled back to reveal a more simple Gospel. Truly, extravagance and luxury in the Church can take grievous heights, becoming a worldly sort of splendor and causing scandal to the outside world. We only need to look far as the excesses of the Renaissance popes only 600 years ago. Easily, we can regard the ecclesiastical affluence that fanned the flames of the Protestant Reformation. Even today, a bishop who drives a fancy car and lives in a spacious mansion causes scandal- and rightly so. There is a such thing as improper extravagance, which makes the church appear like an elitist club, which damages the soul. However, allow me to distinguish this from the proper “extravagance” belonging to our faith and due to God.
Read details of the Jewish Temple described in the Old Testament book of Kings. How it was framed in fine wood, gold and bronze, how purest incense burned there night and day. This was regarded as the place of God, where His Holiness dwelled, a place betwixt heaven and earth- and it was adorned so. Now, we all know Christ gave us a Temple of His body, made not with human hands, a real and true presence of God with us. No one would argue against that. Yet, I think few make the connections here between Jewish worship and Christian liturgy. When Jews worshiped in the Temple, they believed they were imitating the goings on in heaven. And when Christians gathered for liturgy, they believed they were participating in heaven! Man would no longer just imitate God; no, he would become part of God, become one flesh with Him in the Eucharist. What was once a dim shadow has been seen in clear light- Christ, who was crucified and resurrected, calling each one of us to be His flesh, to be His body! I don’t know about you, but this calls for some celebration.
Contrary to popular belief, a priest’s ornate vestments aren’t for his own glory. They instead represent putting on Christ, entering into His heavenly glory, a glory in which we are greatly unworthy to participate! But see how much Christ loves us. He dons His prodigal children in robes, welcomes them into new life and gives us the feast of Himself! While we may deem it rather boring to hear monks chanting for hours on end, consider that all the hymns in the world, sung ceaselessly cannot describe the depths of God’s love!
Splendor in liturgy isn’t something that should be condemned. After all, the priest only wears those gilded vestments once a day at most. He doesn’t wear them when greeting his friends or when preaching on the street. He wears them, as is proper, to partake in the wedding feast of the Lamb Most-High. At Mass, the person and personality of a priest disappears, subsumed in the vesture of Christ. Yes, we could go on over and over about how many unworthy priests stand at the altar but such critique misses the point. Consider us all sinful, stained and unworthy who stand at the altar. Our God is a God of forgiveness, second-chances and decadent love. He gives to us out of gratuitous generosity. Should we not render praise to him gratuitously?
Beauty can be simple, it can be poor and mean just like the stable at Bethlehem. No one is required to adorn their church with materials they cannot afford. No one is exempt from relieving the poor. This is why, the Catholic Church, despite its historical glories, is still the world’s leading charitable organization. With beauty comes responsibility. To whom much is given, much is expected. A priest who dons splendid vestments while turning blind eye to the poor and suffering, commits insult against Christ. As he is dressed in Christ, so should he act as Christ. Splendor needs to speak of something higher than ourselves, needs to be an unspoken prayer to God and a token of his gratuitous love for us. It must have meaning. Splendor for splendor’s sake is never good.
I firmly believe in a simpler Church that is also a beautiful Church. Mary, Mother of Christ, in all her poverty, radiated pure, godly beauty. Thus, so should the Church, the Bride of Christ. She should be bedecked as for a wedding-feast, a bride blushing timidly yet fearlessly carrying high the bejeweled cross.
So I say, let her priests wear the spotless, vestments of Christ while at the same time, running to spread His Gospel, to uplift the fallen and impoverished. Let his fluid chant sing a love-song to Christ and His people. Let the vast, stained-glass windows of cathedrals teach a parable, gilded altars declare thanksgiving and clouds of incense herald holy paths. Where there is love, there is an unspoken beauty; ever ancient, ever new but never meaningless.