The language of beauty is universal. It transcends all cultures, socio-economic divisions, and educational divides. By being appreciated by everyone, the language of beauty unites everyone…
It has been my privilege to lead our parish in building a beautiful new Catholic church in Greenville, South Carolina. Designed in the Romanesque style, it features salvaged stained glass from a closed church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, as well as salvaged sacred vessels, a font and a hand-painted crucifix in the style of Duccio, which was originally completed in the nineteenth century for a church in England.
As we designed and built the church, I noted that “beauty is the language of worship.” In pondering this further, it seems to me that beauty is not only the language of worship, but it is a language that is important to humanity and to our utilitarian and banal society more than ever before. The language of beauty is vital for three important reasons.
Firstly, the language of beauty is universal. It transcends all cultures, socio-economic divisions, and educational divides. It transcends age, ethnic, racial, and gender categories.
So, for example, someone with a degree in art history who has visited the great churches of Europe may well enter our church and say, “Ahh, I see you have been inspired by the sculptures of Ghiselbertus and the architecture of the Romanesque!” That is true. The liturgist may say, “You have successfully integrated the baldachino and West-facing altar with both the demands of versus populum and ad orientem worship!” Yes. The Biblical scholar will say, “With the mosaic of the Agnus Dei you have echoed St. John’s vision in the Book of Revelation where the Lamb is seated on the Throne.” Correct.
There is nothing wrong with appreciating the historical, liturgical, theological, Biblical, architectural, and artistic precedents. On the other hand, a child, or one who is not so well-educated, may simply gasp in awe at the beauty and say, “This is beautiful!” That response may, in fact, be more appropriate for it is a more basic and visceral response to beauty.
By being appreciated by everyone, the language of beauty unites everyone. All who experience the beauty of worship in a beautiful church are united in their shared humanity and with the apprehension of beauty in a way which takes them beyond and outside of themselves. To enter the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church, therefore, is to enter a sacred space—not simply an auditorium with a good sound system and toilets that work.
The language of beauty is, however, important for a second reason. It not only transcends and unites, but it is sub-linguistic. In other words, it doesn’t use words. Beauty is wordless. It communicates therefore at a level beneath and more deeply than mere words. In a noisy and wordy world, this quality is more important than ever. The sub-linguistic quality of beauty means that communication is going on in the same channel of our mind and heart with which we engage in wordless, contemplative prayer. This is the channel of the heart—not the mind.
This is the channel of the human person that can be in contact with the divine. The final point is that beauty is the language of worship because God himself is not only good and true, but beautiful. He is, in fact, the source and foundation of all that is beautiful, good, and true. Furthermore, when the human heart connects and experiences what is beautiful it connects and experiences also what is true and good. This is because the beautiful, good, and true are one of the “little Trinities” of which the Most Holy Trinity is composed.
This is the theological reason why Catholics (and all Christians as much as they are able) should not only invest in building beautiful churches, but should also take the time, effort, and investment in making their worship beautiful.
Someone has well said, “The gospel is not good news unless it is subversive.” In this utilitarian, barbaric, and cost-effective age, building a beautiful temple for the Almighty is a counter-cultural, prophetic, and subversive thing to do. Anyone can set up chairs and a coffee bar and make a church out of an old supermarket. Anyone can build a theater in the round where people can hear a religious pep talk once a week.
Put simply, the unknown architect of Glastonbury Abbey in England wrote more than a thousand years ago, “I want to build a church so beautiful that even the hardest heart will be moved to prayer.”
I hope we have done the same in our small way in Greenville, South Carolina in 2016.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.