The Original Problem
I used to have a problem with ornate churches. I used to think the money would have been better spent elsewhere. I verged, at times, on offended.
Then, I realized, I’ve worshipped in very expensive buildings that weren’t so aesthetically pleasing. Yes, Cathedrals cost a lot more than the average mega-church, but they are both expensive. I’ve also worshipped in some churches that probably weren’t as expensive. I’ve worshipped outside, which is as cost-efficient as you can get. This article isn’t an attempt to argue that worship can’t occur in a variety of settings. It’s an explanation of how I’ve come to love beautiful churches, and to understand the value they hold for the practice of my faith.
The Real Presence
But why is there value in beautiful churches? As Catholics, we believe Jesus himself is present in a very real way in the Eucharist. That’s a good place to start.
During my conversion, I read a book called Jesus Shock by philosopher and Catholic convert Peter Kreeft. He argued that only belief in the True Presence could have built such beautiful churches. Only belief in the fact that those churches would be housing the presence of God himself resulted in the aesthetic beauty and astounding architecture of the Basilicas and Cathedrals of the world.
I believe it was Peter Kreeft who also wrote about beautiful churches, and how they help make up for the scandal of the manger. I had never before thought of the manger as scandalous, but our Savior, the God of all things was born into the most humble of places, amidst animal dung and slop. How scandalous indeed. Beautiful churches that house the presence of our living God in the bread and wine provide a much more fitting place for God to reside in the form of the Eucharist. It provides a contrast to the humble state in which Jesus entered the world as man.
At our current parish, there are a number of amazing stained glass windows that let in the light. At certain Masses at certain times of day, the sun shines its light directly through some of them. It is awe inspiring. I find myself often at Mass, throughout the liturgy, looking up.
I think that’s part of the point. Beautiful churches draw our thoughts and minds heavenward. To help us physically and tangibly connect with the heaven-earth intersection that occurs during the Mass. The incense, the music, the vestments, the tabernacle. They all are helpful in this regard, too. We are a body/soul composite. And all those physical components, including the architecture of the church, help frame and focus our minds on the things of God.
My husband and I visited Paris briefly several years back. We toured Notre Dame Cathedral, with the eyes of tourists. Interested in the architecture and history. I never once thought about the Eucharist that entire trip. I hope to be able to go back someday with the eyes of a Catholic. I think I will appreciate it in a way I wasn’t able to before.
Because before, when I walked into a Cathedral I saw interesting architecture but was concerned of the financial waste. I walk in now and see love. Love of God and his True Presence in the bread and the wine.
I don’t need to be in a Cathedral to worship, but I appreciate beautiful churches now.