In Defense of Ugly Churches

I love beautiful churches.  We definitely need more of them.  Beautiful churches raise the heart and mind to God, the Source of all beauty.  They remind us that we are not made for the mediocrity of the rat race, but for the excellence of heavenly virtues.  Beautiful churches give glory and honor to God, and provide a holy and reverent atmosphere for the Mass, the source and summit of our Christian lives.

And then there are those churches.

Call them minimalist, modern, or whatever, they are stripped bare of all the grandeur that teach reverence and right worship.  We could try to ignore their existence, but there will always be ugly churches around.  Rather than calling for them to be torn down and replaced, I propose that these poor ugly churches can teach us valuable lessons, (for God in his providence can pull good out of anything).  Here are a couple of things on which you can reflect when you walk into an ugly church.

First of all, always remember that Christ Himself is present in every Catholic church.  Wouldn’t He rather you look at the tabernacle and converse with Him than for you to look at the tabernacle and mentally critique its funky design?  Even the most modern church is still made holy and sacred by the presence of Our Lord.  It is for that reason our hearts can always sing “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord, God of Hosts.”  Art is important, but it is only a shadow of True Beauty Himself, Who resides in every single church.

Remember too, when worshiping, that the beauty or grandeur of a mass is not determined by the beauty of the church surrounding it.  Every mass is of infinite worth, and draws its participants into the very heart of redemption.  The words “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” should be enough for us to be frozen in wonder and awe, more than even St. Peter’s Basilica.  When there is nothing external around to help you concentrate, take it as an invitation to be drawn further into the very heart of the mass, rather than its surroundings.  I have seen many beautiful and respectful masses celebrated in ugly worship spaces.

Though sacred images are stepping stones to contemplation, they are just that – stepping stones.  Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) explains in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “The sacredness of the image consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior vision and thus leads us to such an interior vision.  It must be a fruit of contemplation, of an encounter in faith with the new reality of the Christ, and so it leads us in turn into an interior gazing, an encounter in prayer with the Lord.”  If an image is not designed to accomplish this purpose, then it is not really a sacred image.  Notice, then, the intrinsic nature of images as a help and aid, and the language of “leading” that Ratzinger uses.  It is because of our spiritual weakness that we need images to be drawn into relationship into God.  This is not a bad thing; if it was, then the Incarnation would be evil.  However, the spiritually mature realize that relationship with the Lord is much more than what can be seen by the eyes.  I find this section of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters to be especially enlightening on how easily we can forget the true purposes of images.  Written from the viewpoint of a devil, here is a description of the temptations that can spring from this error:

If you examine the object to which [a person in prayer] is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients.  There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer – perhaps quite savage and puerile – images associated with the other two Persons…But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him.  You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer.  For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if he ever consciously directs his prayers “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be,” our situation is, for the moment, desperate.  Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside, or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it – why, then it is that the incalculable may occur.

Like all the schemes of devils, this temptation twists of the real value of images, but it does highlight very important point: it is God to Whom we direct our prayers, a God Whom we cannot ever know fully.  Sacred images do their best to lead us there, but at a certain point, we must acknowledge their inadequacy and seek a deeper contemplation of the God of all Beauty.

This does not mean we should purposefully build ugly, plain, and minimalist churches.  Churches are an appropriate place for the grandeur and guidance of beauty.  But the deeper meaning of the use of beauty allows us to find lessons in these plain spaces, and to be redirected to the reason we have beautiful churches in the first place.  The next time you go to mass in an ugly church, praise God that He is the only Beauty you will ever need.

Sarah

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