We live in an age marked by utilitarianism. If an item, building, or artwork does not serve some use it is easily discarded. It is also an age of secular humanism in which the person is the center of the cosmos, not God. These two philosophical undercurrents have impacted us as Catholics whether we like it or not. There is nothing wrong with a properly ordered humanism, just as there isn’t anything inherently wrong with using items for their utility. I clearly need to use a knife to cut an onion. The problem with utilitarianism is that it has come to dominate Western culture from how we understand the human person to art to religion to architecture. We do not use people, but utilitarianism tells us this is acceptable since the goal of life is my personal happiness. Beauty is of little use in this system. Beauty within itself serves no real purpose. It cannot be formed and re-ordered to my personal end, so I discard it. This is evidenced by the architecture and art of our day. It is largely devoid of transcendence and keeps us firmly, if not stuck, here on earth.
We are not at home here in this Fallen earth. We are called to come to know God and grow in further communion with Him through His Church and through His creation, but our end is not here. Creation is a window to God. It is one of the ways he communicates His beauty, transcendence, humor, creativity, and power to us. The earth is not the fullness of revelation, however, that rests with Christ. We are made for communion with God. In fact, we are made in His image and likeness, so that we could bridge the gap between the material and the immaterial. We were meant to unite the gulf between the spirit and matter. Our vocation before the Fall was to bring creation into communion with God. Through the Fall we failed and Christ had to come to complete that vocation for us. If we look at the architecture and art of the last decades, do we see our call to transcendence or do we see a desire for comfort for the things of here and now? Are we uniting Heaven and earth as Our Lord has done?
I had the great privilege of living in the United Kingdom for 14 months. I actually lived in Lincoln which is located in Lincolnshire county in the middle of the country. I was rather astounded that many Londoners had no idea where Lincoln was located even though it was only 1.5 hours away by train. While I lived there I made a point of visiting Oxford because I am a big C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Inklings fan. It is a beautiful city. These pictures cannot even do it justice, but still enjoy! All images were taken from a Google Images search for “Oxford”. I hope you have a very blessed week-end (as they say in Britain).
I hope all of you have a very blessed Holy Week. I will actually write a post tomorrow on how the Sacred Triduum kept me Catholic and brought me back to the Church after a few years of wandering. I have a final exam tonight, so for today, I will keep up my beauty theme. Since it is Holy Week, I wanted to start with beautiful churches and cathedrals.
This morning I was looking over a fellow blogger’s beautiful website. She has a section on stained glass and it got me thinking about my time in Europe. My first trip to Europe was actually to England for a week long training I was leading for the Navy when I was 22. My friend and I spent the flight drinking mimosas because we could not sleep. I still cannot seem to sleep on international flights that are overnight. We took a cab to King’s Cross to get on a train to Lincolnshire. Even though I was exhausted and had a slight buzz, it was an exciting time. Yes, Catholics enjoy their drink, in moderation (okay a few times for me were not in moderation and that is called gluttony). As we drove through the London streets, I was amazed by the architecture, and the crowds. London makes New York look sparsely populated.
We reached our destination a few hours later: Lincoln, England. I did not know it then, but I would be moving there 9 months later. We made our way through the cobblestone streets to our hotel, which was directly across from Lincoln Cathedral. The cathedral was on top of a hill and stood large over the town. It is the twin of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, just a few centuries older. I was amazed. It was the first place that I wanted to visit. I actually was blessed to see Handel’s Messiah performed there while I lived in Lincoln.
The cathedral is in the gothic design. It has towering arches of stone. The building itself in the shape of a cross. It had a stunning rose window, and the entire building is centered on the altar. The cathedral now belongs to the Anglican Church. I ended up living in a row house two blocks from the cathedral. I could walk to it anytime I wanted. I saw it every single day. It took my breath away repeatedly. I can remember driving home in the summer after a long 12 hour shift. The sun had been up for a couple of hours (England is a lot further north than we are) and there the cathedral shone in the sun. Giving me enough energy to make the rest of the drive home.
When I did move to England in 2004, I wanted to see as many churches and cathedrals as possible. I stood on top of Roman ruins at Yorkminster in York, England. I visited the chapel in Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland. For some reason I never made it to St. Paul’s in London. I wish I had. I went to St. Patrick’s in Dublin, Ireland. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. The Reformation’s ties to the iconoclastic heresy stripped it of its grandeur. I did stumble on a beautiful church in an alley in downtown Dublin. It was nothing to look at on the outside, but on the inside it was incredible. It was in the baroque style, with marble pillars, beautiful paintings, and gold. Christ is the King of the Universe after all.
I do have to admit that in many of my travels in Europe I was disappointed by the beauty that was destroyed by the Reformation. Remember, I hold a Catholic worldview. The churches of the Netherlands were cold and bare, completely stripped of their former beauty. It was the same in many of England’s churches, except those that were High Church Anglican.
I went to Bruges, Belgium a few days after Blessed John Paul II passed away. It was a time of great sadness for the Church. I went to the cathedral to see Michelangelo’s Madonna. It was stunning. The church itself had high arches, stained glass, artwork, and gold everywhere. It lifted me up. It reminded me of Heaven, which is exactly what beauty is supposed to do. It refreshed me after being so appalled by Amsterdam. The only part of that city I enjoyed, was a sad part, Anne Frank’s house.
My time overseas was cut short, so I did not make it to Rome. My husband lived in Spain for a semester, so he was able to go to Fatima, Portugal and Rome. Two places I would love to visit. Some day we will make it back to Europe and take our daughter.
The trip that amazed me the most was my trip to Paris. I had never had much interest in going to France. I had heard too many horror stories and to be quite honest, I was pretty ignorant of French culture. I decided to go on a weekend trip with one of my co-workers. It ended up being one of the best trips I ever took in Europe. Paris is beautiful. It is unbelievably so. The architecture, the Seine, the people. It is an incredible city. And you know what? I never had any issues. The key is to be humble when you are traveling in someone else’s homeland. I only know a few words of French, but I used them, and it was appreciated.
I am not much of a shopper. I would rather go to art museums and churches, than shop. We went to Notre Dame first. It was very crowded and somewhat chaotic. There was not much room for reverence. They were out of English brochures on the cathedral’s history, so I had to take one in Russian. It is a gothic cathedral so it is very similar to a lot of the cathedrals that I had been to. We heard about another church that was nearby called Sainte Chapelle. We decided to check it out.
When we arrived there was a line. They only allowed a few people in at a time. We decided to wait. It was worth it. When we went in, we walked up a narrow winding staircase. If you have been to Europe, you know what I am talking about. We then entered the sanctuary. It was bare and open, but all around, in 360 degrees, was floor to ceiling stained glass. I was in awe. It is difficult for the senses to even fully discern such glory. This was something to marvel at. This is a defining moment for me in my travels.
Human beings are made to marvel and to worship. If we do not find God, we worship false idols like money, power, sex, etc. When we do not have beauty to admire and marvel at we become empty and bored. That is why so many American cities are just overwhelming, not beautiful. Architecture has lost its connection with its roots. Art and architecture are meant to inspire, to show us what it means to be human, to worship, to create with the Creator.
We see this beauty in nature too, but it is incredible to see what man is capable of when his focus is on Christ. The Catholic Church is the largest protector of the arts in the world. Why? Because we understand how beauty brings about conversion. Marveling at something greater than us, brings us to God’s door. It reminds us that there is something more than what we see daily. We need to get outside of ourselves, and beauty lifts us up to new heights.
You would not know it thanks to modern architecture, but Vatican II affirms the necessity and use of sacred art. Beauty is essential in the worship of Christ. We are stepping into the Heavenly Liturgy at Mass, not a football game. The senses need help being transported. That is one of the purposes of stained glass, statues, candles, incense, gold, paintings, etc. Not to mention that the Old Testament affirms God’s request for us to use beauty. The Ark of the Covenant, was beautiful and included statues, gold, etc., hence the use of gold in our Tabernacles. To lift us up. Mass is a vertical expression, not a horizontal one.
When was the last time you marveled at something? Are you feeling overburdened by the world? Make a point of seeking out beauty. It will leave you refreshed and more focused on Our Lord.