I became a Catholic with two strikes against me. I was raised in a military family whose Depression-era dad didn’t go in for a lot of fancy-pants artsy stuff. Not that my dad or I had no interest in beauty. We could both be deeply moved by it. He most certainly loved as much as any man did the sight of the sun rising over the Skagit River on the many fishing expeditions we went on in my boyhood. So did I.
Beauty moved him as much as any man, but the hardscrabble life of a Depression-era youth and a manhood tempered by World War II did not dispose him to the arts as anything more than a hobby for the ladies or laziness for dilettantes. So art appreciation was not high on the list of Esteemed Things in my family.
In addition to this upbringing, my conversion to faith in Jesus in an evangelical church likewise created more obstacles to the notion of artistic beauty or gorgeousness in worship, because evangelicalism tended to confer a sort of divine blessing on the notion of practicality and functionalism and to regard too much beauty as somehow complicated and wasteful: The simplicity of the Gospel being superseded by “religion.”
I had a picture of the early Church as men in simple dirty robes who deliberately rejected the pomp and circumstance of the Old Testament — as though all the commands God gave for the glory and beauty of the Aaronic priesthood, the Tabernacle and the Temple were all the result of people forgetting about simple worship (presumably with guitars and projectors showing praise music lyrics on the wall) and going in for elaborate encrustations of ritual and stained glass. The Gospel, I assumed, was intended to get rid of all that. But a careful reading of the Old Testament and of the early Church’s worship made it clear that this was not so.
For, in fact, the manner of Old Testament worship was indeed prescribed — quite carefully — by God. All those boring parts of the Old Testament we never read — the ones where God lays out in fine-tuned detail how the Tabernacle was to be made — were read and followed carefully, precisely because the worship God deserved called for the finest we could give him. And this was fulfilled, not abolished, in the worship the New Testament Church offered. So books like Hebrews and Revelation are stuffed with imagery from Jewish liturgical worship and make it clear that such ornate and beautiful forms were carried over into the Church. That’s why Catholic churches mark off the altar from the area where the congregation gathers: because the Tabernacle and Temple distinguished between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Catholic liturgical worship celebrates, not rejects, the beauty of creation because the Word became flesh. Its sights, smells and bells, its art, splendor and sumptuousness, are a fitting offering to God.
Realizing this has begun to cure me of my former habits of mind. No man on his deathbed will murmur, “If only I’d spent more time at the office.” For in the end, our lives are about the joy and beauty who is God.
Mark Shea writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/.