In a noble enterprise, the people of my small Catholic parish in the poor part of town are trying to build a beautiful church. The church itself echoes the simple dignity of early Italian Romanesque, monastic architecture. From a closed church in Massachusetts, we have salvaged a complete set of forty-seven stained-glass windows, plus a beautiful rose window—all produced by the famed Wilbur Burnham studios in the 1940s. We have also salvaged the marble font from the same church and a pipe organ from a closed church, and have discovered a six-foot, nineteenth-century crucifix painted in the style of Giotto.
The first thing visitors say when they see the church is, “It’s beautiful.” Yes. From the beginning, I tried to explain to our people that the church would not just be a big functional building that we would then fill with pretty Catholic stuff. Instead, we would aim to build a structure that was beautiful in itself. The proportions, design, and execution would be beautiful. I quoted the anonymous architect of Glastonbury Abbey in England who said, “I want to build a church so beautiful that it will lift even the hardest heart to prayer.”
Which brings us to the larger issue of beauty itself. Dostoevsky famously wrote that “Beauty will save the world.” Yes, but how? Beauty opens the door to the transcendent. When we apprehend beauty, we become aware of all that is bigger, better, and more beautiful than we are. We love the beauty of nature, of a newborn child, of art, music, poetry, and liturgy because the beauty opens the door to the sacred. If life is lowered to the utilitarian, the efficient and the cost-effective, then there is no room for the transcendent. There is no budget for beauty. As a monk friend once exclaimed to me with some anguish, “Oh, the vulnerability of beauty in a world of useful things!”
It is important for our churches, our music, and our liturgy to be beautiful because it is there in the liturgy that we are meant to apprehend not only the beauty, but the sacred life that is behind, in, and through all the physical things that we deem beautiful. In fact, for Christians to maintain the ideal of beauty in a world of useful things may be one of the few points of genuine usefulness and relevance in our technologically-driven utopia. If we do not reverence and restore beauty, then how can the world be saved?
To understand Dostoevsky’s thought more fully, it is useful to contemplate a world without beauty. When everything is reduced to utilitarian purpose, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, then what is lost is not only beauty, but the sacred heart of everything. If a tree, for example, is not revered for its innate beauty and the sacredness of the life of the forest, and if it is merely viewed as an obstacle to a commercial development or as a commodity to be exploited, then we will quite happily, in Saruman-esque fashion, fell the forests. If we extrapolate our attitude about the trees, and apply it to our neighbor we will soon see that if we do not regard each person as sacred and transcendent in his beauty, then we might as well annihilate our neighbor in the same way that we tear down the trees.
If you do not regard a thing as sacred, then you will not mind killing it. The choice, therefore, is between beauty and bloodshed. Consider the twentieth century: Why the genocide of Jews and gypsies, the starvation of millions, the trampling of children, the destruction of the disabled, and the devastation of the environment? Why the destruction of churches and monasteries and the construction of concrete bunkers? Because the murderers and maniacs revered only the five-year plan, the efficiency data, and the imposition of the utilitarian utopia. They did not consider the things they killed to be beautiful, transcendent, and sacred. Because there was nothing eternal, no heaven to win, no hell to fear, no soul that lives, and no beauty that is sacred, then the natural world, civilized society, and the people in it were no better than weeds to be pulled and vermin to be exterminated.
Consequently, the church we are building in Greenville, South Carolina is more than an exercise in ecclesiastical aestheticism. It is more than a showy piece of Catholic nostalgia. It is a small and desperate attempt to keep the lamp of beauty alive in a world of useful things. In a land where churches look like retail warehouses and are even lodged in abandoned supermarkets, our new church is a reminder that beauty is the language of worship, and that a beautiful church and worship might just lift our hearts and minds for an hour a week above the brutal, commercial, utilitarianism of our age.
Our new church is our small attempt to breathe life back into beauty and beauty back into life. It is important to do so, for if beauty dies, we all die.
View this short video, narrated by Father Longenecker, about the building of Our Lady of the Rosary Church.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.