The first thing everyone says when they see the new church we are building in Greenville, South Carolina is, “It’s beautiful!” This is not the response I hear when they look on the utilitarian, fan-shaped Catholic auditoria that dominate our suburbs. The instantaneous and unsolicited observation that our new church is beautiful should not be remarkable, but it is, for when is the last time you ever heard anyone say of a new church, “It’s beautiful!”?
Why should a Catholic church be beautiful? We might as well ask why we take the trouble to make anything beautiful. There are many reasons why we might do so. We might beautify ourselves out of vanity or an attempt at sex appeal. We might beautify our homes or drive beautiful cars in an attempt to impress others or ourselves. All of these understandable reasons are twisted justifications for beauty. We do not make a church beautiful because we want to show off or because we want to be superior or because we have a taste for finery. We make the church beautiful because beauty is one aspect of a little Holy Trinity.
Beauty is woven with Goodness and Truth as three cords in a rope. The rope is strong for having the three strands woven together. Unravel one and the others come undone. A church, of all our buildings, most needs to be beautiful because the church is not simply a place to hear sermons. It is a sermon. Because it is beautiful it is good, and if it is beautiful and good, then it is also true. Therefore the religion that is practiced in the beautiful church needs also to be good and true, so that the little Holy Trinity reflects the larger Holy Trinity, which is the summit and source of all Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
Am I being a dreamy theological aesthete? Am I being a churchy romantic? Am I impossibly impractical? Should not the finance committee have the final word? Should not utilitarianism and practicality triumph? Stop for a moment and consider what happens to the Christian religion when buildings are bland and utilitarian. What happens is that the religion becomes bland and utilitarian, and the Christians become bland and utilitarian. As some wit has snarked, “Modern Christianity is a case of the bland leading the bland.”
What is the greatest threat to the Christian religion today? The threat is not so much from Satanists, atheists and unbelievers. The threat is that the church will become no more than a religion of doing good and being good. The threat is that the religion that called men to worship in wondrous awe the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the religion that worshipped the crucified and risen Son of God, the religion for which young women and old men went singing to the wild beasts, the religion that contemplated the Lord in Glory with the myriad of heavenly hosts and the multitude of countless angels, will become no more than a collection of sincere middle-class, middle-aged respectable people who gather for a weekly pep rally on how to make the world a better place. It is difficult to know whether the utilitarian egg of a church or the utilitarian chicken of a Christian came first, but they surely are interdependent. Bland, utilitarian churches hatch bland, utilitarian Christians.
It is arguable that a church that is not beautiful is also neither true nor good. Of course those who worship in a dull auditorium can be truthful and morally upright people. That is not in dispute, but such dull virtues can be instilled through a class in good manners and practiced with only a bit of persistence and a box of thank-you notes. Yes, such folk can be honest and morally upright, but if their church is not beautiful can they be good and true through and through, way down deep in the way we see eternity’s truth, beauty, and goodness infused in and radiating from the lives of the holy ones?
The flaw in the argument would seem to be that making a saint does not need a Gothic cathedral. True. But this leads us to analyze what is beautiful. There is a delightful detail in the film version of the life of St. Damien of Molokai. When he arrives at the leper colony the small church building is dilapidated, neglected, and filthy. The furniture is broken, the altar polluted, and the crucifix upended. Before he even speaks to the lepers, the saint first picks up a broom and begins to clean and beautify the house of God. Damien’s church remains humble and poor, but his priority of worship brings beauty to even the humblest of chapels.
Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Three in One and One in Three, and Damien’s example shows it to be so. For if beauty is good and expresses truth, then goodness is also beautiful and true, and truth is beautiful and good, and where one cord of the trinitarian rope really exists, the others cannot be absent.
AUTHOR: Dwight Longenecker
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a graduate of Oxford University. He is the author of sixteen books and contributes to many magazines, papers and journals including Crisis, Integrated Catholic Life, National Catholic Register and Intercollegiate Review. Visit his blog at Standing on My Head, read his latest book The Romance of Religion and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.