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our lady of the rosary a little holy trinity

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.

church_sunsetAm 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?

st damien movieThe 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.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Churches today reflect modern architectural trends. They do not have the beautiful paintings or stained glass windows of older churches. Carvings and paintings require real artistic talent. No, churches today are often recording studios. Yes, there may be a large cross, but the walls are bare, maybe with acoustic siding. A camera aims at the pulpit, so that DVDs and internet sites can broadcast the pastor’s messages. Some guy sits behind a console with well over 100 knobs. The artwork of yesteryear has been replaced with the high-technology of today.

  2. Bravo! Bravo! Father Longenecker, you have brought back the beauty of the Catholic Church building. This is the earthly home of Jesus in the Eucharist. It should reflect the beauty of Heaven. It should help us to lift our minds and hearts to our true home. God bless you, Father. God bring success to your endeavour on His behalf.

  3. If modern architecture is an expression of the modern mind, should it not hold that a modern church building also reflects a belief in all that is modern, namely the exaltation of the material world and the worship of novelty? There is a disconnect that is felt but not always recognized when one worships in a stale setting. My non-church going father-in-law once remarked that while standing in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he wept. I hope Father’s words can be a rallying cry for the resurrection of our Christian heritage.

  4. Kudos and thank you, Father L! In 1961, I was married in a beautiful church with the most exquisite windows. The congregation grew old, the young left, the church was sold, the windows auctioned off. My most recent church was utilitarian, with contemporary (and very expensive) glasswork. I was so disappointed. To worship in a beautiful building is not only a privilege, but a soul-deep personal event. What a fabulous gift you are able to give not only to your Parish, but the entire city. I live in California, or I would come to your church.

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