The liturgy properly offered in a suitable building offers a harmonization of the arts and culture as no other human experience can do…
On Advent Sunday last year, we dedicated the new church in our small parish in South Carolina. The impact of worshipping in a beautiful temple rather than a fan-shaped suburban auditorium is still registering in our lives.
One of the major impressions is that the beautiful building has helped us to understand how liturgy is the ultimate harmonization of the arts in culture. When we worship in our new church, all the best strands of Christian history and culture are woven together in a single tapestry, and this tapestry is not simply being admired as one might admire a painting or sculpture in a museum. Instead, it is being lived and worshipped day-by-day and week-by-week.
First, there is the architecture. Our new church is inspired by the beautifully simple Romanesque monastery of Sant’Antimo in Tuscany. The ceiling soars and the arches and apse enclose the sanctuary in a calm embrace. The stately baldacchino shelters the altar while the choir and organ are in their place behind and above. The architecture preaches the power of beauty. Indeed, the first thing everyone says when they enter the church (no matter what their age or background) is, “It’s beautiful!”
But the beauty of the architecture is amplified and complemented by the rest of the artwork and craftsmanship. There are forty-seven vintage stained-glass windows by the famed Wilbur Burnham, salvaged from a church in Massachusetts. The marble font was rescued from the same church. Carved and cast statues provide classic sculpture while the tympanum over the doors is a new commission by ceramic artist Jim Craft. Young Notre Dame graduate Matthew Alderman designed the altar, ambo, baldacchino, and other furniture and fittings, while antique stations of the cross were restored, and new sculptures and paintings were provided by church artist Anja Zunkeler.
Why mention all the art? Because it provides not only the environmental context for the liturgy, but it also provides a living participation in the artistic traditions of Western culture for our parishioners and schoolchildren. In this barren and banal age in which we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, an investment in art is a witness to our belief in higher, better, and more beautiful things. The worship that goes on in this building then adds another layer of harmonization of the arts.
The liturgy is comprised of the words of worship and the language of Sacred Scripture. As the words are read and recited, the congregation participates in another aspect of culture: literature and language. The language of the liturgy is elevated, and the words of Scripture connect the congregation with five thousand years of religious tradition, morality, and belief. Here are the sonorous and exciting ideas of St. Paul, the ancient and anguished psalms of David, the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, and the precious parables and passions of the Son of God. The poetry, prophecy, and prose, the sagas and stories resonate in worship to the hearts and minds of people normally satiated with the banalities of television and vulgarities of movies.
Added to this is the glory of music. Halfway through construction, we were brave enough to ask for more money in order to buy a pipe organ. It was one of the best decisions of all. The stupendous sounds and simple beauty of traditional church music fill the beautiful building and lift hearts as only music can do.
What art form is missing? Dance. There is no trendy liturgical dance, but the interaction of well-trained servers and the clergy and ministers provide a kind of dance. People move. Words move. Music moves. Heads bow. Knees bend. Hands fold, and the overall impact is one of dignity and grace of movement not foreign to the dignified movement of all things natural and true.
The liturgy properly offered in a suitable building, therefore, offers a harmonization of the arts and culture as no other human experience can do. Added to this is the realization that ordinary Americans in the early twenty-first century are connecting their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and their disappointments with those of two thousand years’ worth of their brothers and sisters and with those of all their countless siblings in faith around the world today. When you add to this harmonization the reality that ordinary people are not simply viewing the liturgy as an audience in a theater or as visitors to an art gallery, the realization is stunning. Here, ordinary folks step from their ordinary world to participate in an act of worship that connects them with all of the things so beautiful, good, and true.
All the more pity that so much of modern Christian worship has been reduced to the music of the soft-rock band or the schmaltzy Broadway tune. The liturgies are as flat as the buildings in which they are offered. The preaching is too often the utilitarian gospel of moralistic, therapeutic Deism, and what artwork there is is cheap, mass-produced, sentimental, and modernistic kitsch.
It doesn’t have to be so. Our little parish in the poor part of town has shown that a beautiful building and worthy worship are not only possible, but life-changing. What is the result after one year? The children love their new church. Altar boys rush in to serve. We can’t fit them all in. Girls sing in a renewed choir. Organists are lined up to play. The people sing better. They behave better and the power of beauty in their lives is almost visible.
And that is the final lesson: That beauty, truth, and goodness are a dynamic little Trinity. Where there is beauty, truth and goodness follow, and where there is goodness and truth, beauty will not be far away.
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