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.



Sacred Art for New Saints

The Church has of 20th century saints something incredibly new and interesting: photographs.  Until the resurrection of the body, we won’t know what St. Agnes or St. Paul or St. Augustine exactly looked like, but now our holy cards can feature a picture taken with a camera instead of just a painting!  While this innovation might bring closer to home the realization that these saints were “real people,” the prominence of photographs has caused the area of sacred art for these saints to be largely unexplored.  If you google “artwork of Saint John Paul 2,” you will find mostly paintings and drawings that are merely copies of already existing photographs.

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) makes an interesting claim about this subject.  He says that “the image of Christ and the images of the saints are not photographs.  Their whole point is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible in the visible.”  True sacred art acts sacramentally, using the stuff of the earth to not only move our hearts by beauty but our very souls to understand salvation in Christ lived out by the saints.  To understand why sacred images should have this quality, we first need to understand why sacred art and images are used in worship and the liturgy in the first place.

Sacred images have both a scriptural and historical basis in Judaism and early Christianity.  The most obvious use of sacred images from the Old Testament which Ratzinger points out are the two cherubim that adorn the ark of the covenant.  From the time of transition from the old covenant to the new, we have discovered ancient synagogues with biblical art and catacombs with early depictions of Christ.  Because the Jews and Christians contemporary to Christ and the apostles incorporated sacred art and images in worship, we see that even during these early days, the commandment from the Decalogue that “you shall not make a graven image” did not include this sort of sacramental use.

But the most important proof for the legitimacy of sacred images comes from the fact that God himself has allowed human eyes to look upon his Image in the flesh.  I still remember very distinctly from my very first theology class at the University of St. Thomas Professor Harmon teaching us, “The ultimate affirmation of the use of images is the Incarnation.”  I wouldn’t be surprised if he got that directly from Ratzinger, for he writes this in The Spirit of the Liturgy:

The Incarnation is aimed at man’s transformation through the Cross and to the new corporeality of the Resurrection.  God seeks us where we are, not so that we may stay there, but so that we may come to be where he is, so that we may get beyond ourselves…The Incarnation is rightly understood only when it is seen within  the broad context of creation, history, and the new world.  Only then does it become clear that the senses belong to faith, that the new seeing does not abolish them, but leads them to their original purpose.

The Resurrection

Through the Incarnation, our eyes are retrained to see meaning again in our world, and to see our salvation through the cross and resurrection of the Image of God.  Our own sacred images and icons enter into the same method of teaching with images that God uses.  They move our hearts and minds to see more clearly the transcendental properties of truth, goodness, and beauty.  In a fascinating reflection on the use of icons, Ratzinger says that a icon “delivers a man from that closure of the senses which perceives only the externals, the material surface of things, and is blind to the transparency of the spirit, the transparency of the Logos.”  Rather, “it leads the man who contemplates it to the point, where, through the interior vision that the icon embodies, he beholds in the sensible that which, though above the sensible, has entered into the sphere of the senses.”  As Christ appeared and showed us the Father through his body, sacred art shows us the mystery of redemption through the material gifts of this world.

How is saint artwork incorporated into this theology?  Ratzinger says that artwork of saints is also included as a sacramental reality by the very fact that the saints are incorporated into the Body of Christ.  They also can show through their lives the salvation of the cross and resurrection, and therefore images of the saints can also help us to develop our eyes for the supernatural.

The incredible saints of the 20th century haven’t gotten this sort of attention from the world of Catholic art.  It would be fascinating to see beautifully symbolic images of Blessed Giorgio Frassati or Saint John Paul the Great.  I did find as an example from the Salt and Light website an icon of St. Gianna Molla written by Ted Harasti:


Let’s not forget that that although the saints were “real people,” they do have a capacity to show us the glory of the Resurrection.  Consider this a call to Catholic artists to prayerfully consider a representation of our newer saints in a form of sacred art.


P.S. If you want to learn more about sacred images, check out The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger.  I got most of my information from the chapter called “The Question of Images.”