What Catholics Lost When They Started Tearing Down Their Great Altars

If the grand altars are at their core outward signs of inward devotion, what does it say about plain altars that more resemble a table than a temple?

Source: What Catholics Lost When They Started Tearing Down Their Great Altars

I am an Anglican, and a member of a fairly “low-church” continuing (traditional) Anglican jurisdiction. But I find a lot to agree with in this essay! Christianity is an Incarnational (and therefore embodied) religion. Therefore, aesthetics – and the incorporation (there’s that body thing again… corpus) of all the senses and the whole physical person, not just the mind, heart, and spirit, into the liturgy – matter.

Get too simplistic, too “Protestant,” and you are beginning to get too close to a form of quasi-Gnostic devaluation of the physical, the material, in favor of the spiritual and intellectual.

And that can lead to a devaluation – however unintentional and subconscious – not only of God’s proclamation that the things He created are good (however marred by human sin), but of the Incarnation itself, in which Jesus the Christ, the Incarnate Word of the Father, indissolubly joined Himself to matter in His own person.

Sure, it’s possible to get too gaudy, and too focused on the external (material) elements of the faith. I am very well aware of that. As in most other areas of life, a balance is called for. But we should never forget the definition of a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Without the outward and visible, are we losing important markers pointing toward the inward and spiritual?

Our Lord Jesus Christ was unique in being fully God and fully Man. But we humans, made in the image of God, comprise a spiritual nature which is nonetheless incarnate (the word means “enfleshed”) in a physical, sensory body, living in a physical, sensory world. We neglect either of these aspects, the physical or the spiritual, at our peril.

The design of churches is one – only one, but an important one – aspect of this. As this essay points out,

The physical design of old churches was meant to dictate several things: ornate artwork on the walls, domes, and arches was meant to pull the eye upward and spark meditation on the divine mysteries, the altarpiece was placed in the apse to orient the congregation properly, and incense was meant to draw together and sanctify the individual properties into one event. That sort of order and hierarchy has been misplaced and is often focused inward, not upward… it is important to remember that how a building is designed is integral to its function.

And the function of a church building is, or should be, to orient the congregation toward God. Not toward itself (or ourselves), not toward the priest: toward God. And the design of the building, including any artistic elaborations – and of course, the liturgy itself – should lead the eyes, the other senses, and through them, the heart, mind, and spirit of the worshipers, God-ward. If that is not happening, something is missing.

And all too often, in today’s churches, it seems that something is indeed missing.

That is not to say that magnificent, ornate altars are guaranteed to focus the attention and lift the spirit of worshipers toward God, or that simple, plain ones cannot do the same. And the same is true of church interiors generally. But generally speaking, we devote time, attention, energy, and yes, money on what is important to us. That is simple human nature.

So, where is our focus? What does the construction of our churches – and of our liturgies – tell us about that focus? I can’t begin to provide a definitive answer to that question; it varies with each church, each congregation, each minister. But it’s something worth thinking about!

Advertisements

Castle Combe: a picturesque medieval village in England and one of the loveliest in the country

Oh boy, do we love medieval villages which look like they’ve been taken out of a fairy tale! … Castle Combe, a civil parish [in the Cotswolds], and a tiny village with a population of about 350, is considered as one the most photographed places in England, and we totally understand why.

Source: Castle Combe: a picturesque medieval village in England and one of the loveliest in the country

An example of what we could lose. Can you imagine this place overrun with third-world immigrants and their descendants…? Europe, defend yourself!

Europe: What Happens to Christians There Will Come Here

“Be careful, be very careful. What has happened here will come to you.” — An elderly priest in Iraq, to Father Benedict Kiely. Last year, more than 90,000 people chose to drop out of the Church of Sweden – almost twice as many as the year before.

Source: Europe: What Happens to Christians There Will Come Here

Second of two timely – and distressing – posts from the Gatestone Institute.

“I fear we are approaching a situation resembling the tragic fate of Christianity in Northern Africa in Islam’s early days”, a Lutheran bishop, Jobst Schoene, warned a few years ago.

In ancient times, Algeria and Tunisia, entirely Christian, gave us great thinkers such as Tertullian and Augustine. Two centuries later, Christianity had disappeared, replaced by Arab-Islamic civilization.

Is Europe now meeting the same fate?

It doesn’t have to happen. But it most certainly could – and likely will, if current trends and practices continue. Do you want to see this turned into a mosque? With a muezzin giving the call to Moslem prayer from the dome cupola? Because that’s what could be coming:

Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Dresden, called in German Katholische Hofkirche or Kathedrale Sanctissimae Trinitatis.

Or imagine what Moslems, with their hatred of religious imagery, would do to this church interior:

We need to be vigilant – more than vigilant – to defend our Christian and Western civilization, its heritage, its traditions and values, and yes, its physical artifacts from any and all that would seek to destroy them. Because no one else is going to do it for us!

Beauty Matters

Beauty Matters.png

Indeed it does.

Nor is it limited to the Roman observance, although traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church (and more generally, the liturgical, sacramental Churches, including Eastern Orthodoxy and – when it is being true to itself – the Anglican tradition) are often acutely aware of its importance:

“The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty – and hence truth – is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of Hell.”

Pope Benedict XVI: The Ratzinger Report, p. 129

Beauty, however, is the birthright of all Christians – ours is, after all, a sacramental and incarnational faith, and therefore one which values the created order as an important source of God’s self-revelation to us. The Scriptural warrant for this goes back at least to the Psalmist:

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

Psalm 29:2, 96:9

And of course the classical Christian tradition, at least in the West, has repeatedly cited the “three Transcendentals” (Goodness, Truth, and Beauty) as not only pointing toward God, but being aspects or attributes of God – ones that we should seek to mirror and live out in our own lives:

[The] Three Transcendentals of ancient philosophy (which has so greatly shaped Christian Tradition) [are] the True, the Good and the Beautiful. To destructively compress Plato and the Neoplatonists, all truth points to the transcendent Truth; all good points to the transcendent Good; all beauty points to the transcendent Beauty; and in turn, the transcendent True, Good and Beautiful is the One, the source of all being, which classical theism identifies as God, and is in turn identified with the God of the Bible by orthodox Christianity.

In short: for Christians, “Beauty Matters.” It is not an extrinsic, superficial adornment to our lives and our liturgy; it is an intrinsic, essential element of them.

A New Direction in Church Design – Crisis Magazine

One day fifteen years ago, I happened to be channel surfing past the Eternal Word Television Network when I was greeted by a momentary flash of heavenly beauty across the screen. Quickly flipping back, I realized that it was a Mass being celebrated in an unusually majestic church with an extensively gilded and marbled interior. …

Source: A New Direction in Church Design – Crisis Magazine

As I have noted elsewhere, we are seeing the beginnings of a quiet, subtle, but unmistakable shift back toward traditional, Classical architecture in new church construction and, as this article points out, in the renovations of churches originally built in the classical tradition, but “updated” (often with little concern for either tradition or aesthetics) in the craze for the “contemporary” and for supposed “relevance” which began in the 1960s and continues, in many circles, until this day.

The pendulum is only beginning to swing back: the article notes that, “Lest delusion set in, the ratio of new traditional churches to posh amphitheater spaces still being built is grossly disproportionate.” However the shift, while still small, is real, and appears to be growing:

Nevertheless, after the epic social and liturgical upheavals of the last century, it is a wonder that any sort of traditional resurgence is happening at all, and these projects seem to be only increasing in number and scale with each passing year. Just a decade ago, attempting to write this piece would have proven difficult; twenty years ago, impossible.

This should give cause for optimism to those faithful who yearn for the vitality that flows from firm Catholic identity [in the larger sense of “Mere Christianity” or the “Great Tradition,” not limited to Roman Catholicism] and its enduring visible expression. After all, as the saying attributed to Chesterton puts it, “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.” Such wisdom is surely not lost on the many pastors, parishes, religious communities, architects and others helping to cultivate this budding sacred renaissance in the midst of a disintegrating culture that is too often hostile to faith.

Follow the link for more details on this encouraging trend, and a number of inspiring examples of new churches that have been or are being built along traditional, Classical lines. And for any readers who wonder why this matters, I repeat my invitation to see my separate post on the relationship been architecture, theology, and liturgy.

Here I will only point out that orthodox Christianity is an incarnational, sacramental faith, and it holds an incarnational, sacramental view of the cosmos, and our place in it. It does not accept the popular but heretical gnostic devaluation of that created order which God, its Creator, called “good” and “very good,” to which our Lord Jesus Christ joined himself with indissoluble bonds in His Incarnation, and which He redeemed in His Crucifixion and Resurrection.

God expresses Himself in and through the tangible, material world, not alone in the spiritual and ethereal aspects, nor yet solely in the theoretical and intellectual realm. Therefore architecture, liturgy, and other tangible expressions of the Faith matter: they are among the ways God reveals a Himself to His people. We cannot devalue Creation without devaluing the Creator of Creation, and our human impulse to create things of beauty, majesty, dignity, and reverence in honour of our Creator is a reflection of the fact that we are made in His image.

Traditional, Classical church architecture is one important expression of this truth.

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, let all the Earth tremble before Him.” ~ Psalm 96:9