Beauty: Herald of the Divine

A magnificent column over at Patheos crossed my Twitter feed the other day courtesy of Elizabeth Scalia (@TheAnchoress).

Magnificent, because just reading the column made my heart swell with the remembrance of beautiful places and sounds.

Katrina R. Fernandez wrote of the power and indispensability of beauty for the soul, the heart, the mind.

“Beauty makes the soul soar,” she notes, continuing:

[Beauty] is as essential to the spirit as food and water is to the body, yet it is mocked as sentimentality and foolishness. It is wiped out of churches and untaught in school curricula, because who is permitted to define what is beautiful, anymore?

Church of The Gesu in Rome

The Gesu, Rome. Click on the above picture to view more photos I've taken of objectively, transcendently beautiful churches.

But beauty is not something to be defined: it is to be experienced; entered into; realized. I recall the first time I walked into La Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal in Montreal, Quebec. I had seen pictures of it, but entering into the space itself took my breath away. My friend, who had never even seen pictures of it, gasped. The sheer magnificence of that sacred space lifted my heart. The artistry danced. The massive members were light in true gothic style. And the blue which came behind everything transported the entire scene beyond the walls of the basilica into the ethereal. I had never been so affected by a sacred space, and for the first time a sacred space made me feel terribly sorry for my sins—how could I possibly choose to do anything against the God who inspired such beauty?

I didn’t define the beauty of that space, but I could not escape it.

The late Father Thomas Dubay, S.M., wrote a book called The Evidential Power of Beauty. In it, he does not propose to tell people what they should and should not consider “beautiful,” rather he shows that beauty is objective in the thing considered according to its comeliness, proportion, harmony, unity, wholeness, and how well it radiates its inherent form. He explains that recognizing and experiencing the beauty in a thing requires a level of maturity. But “maturity” does not equal “education.” Indeed, as both Father Dubay and Fernandez note, it is frequently the educated who set aside the spontaneous recognition of beauty for the sake of some other perceived good.

Fernandez notes, “even art schools brush aside notions of beauty; they favor a modern art that can be empty or profane, but rarely bourgeois ‘beautiful.'” She continues: (Click “Continue Reading” not “Read Entire Post”)

Indeed, when I was studying art history at Virginia Commonwealth University my own refuge was the Richmond Cathedral. I was fortunate that my dorm was right next door. In a harsh environment, feeling assaulted by the vulgar modern art so lauded by my instructors, I found retreat and renewal at that cathedral.

It started there, my conversion. I had lived completely unchurched, and no argument from another Catholic would have swayed me from my atheism. But in Richmond Cathedral, there was no arguing against the beautiful peacefulness that filled me in that place. There was no refuting the absolute Truth represented in the soul-engaging beauty of this church.

And then she really hammers home the matter with regard to church edifices, artwork, and music (bolding mine).

Churches used to be the source for transcendent beauty, the places where ordinary people could experience that overwhelming gasp-inspiring spiritual soaring because they were surrounded by it, immersed in it. Churches used to make the soul sing for God.

Beauty in the Church is essential. I don’t want God brought down from the Heavens and made “relatable” to me. I want to be carried up to Christ so I can meet Him there and be awestruck and changed by his beauty, expressed all around.

People often justify their ugly little parishes by saying they don’t believe in wasting money for garnishments that insult the poor. Little do they realize that their bleak and barren churches are spiritually depriving the poor by starving their very hearts and souls; hard lives ache for beauty. I often wonder why people think the poor need (or deserve) only the basic-and-bare minimums. A dreary life needs more, not less, uplifting beauty. A church should be a refuge from a harsh and ugly world, a place where deprived senses may swim in beauty. To deny us that refuge or to deny the poor a chance to be awestruck seems an injustice to me.

Indeed. St. John Vianney, who slept on a board, who ate little more than a potato, whose cassocks were routinely threadbare, had beautiful vestments and chalices. He lived his life sparing no expense for the worship of God, while sparing every expense for self.

A tour of Catholic churches in New York or any other major city will show the many expressions of faith and devotion the poor immigrant laborers poured into their houses of worship after the several waves of immigration. They were usually built by the laborers who had finished a day’s work already, but who needed that spiritual home to refresh their tired spirits. They frequently donated their time and talent. And the results are consistently beautiful churches with spires, columns, wonderful art, beautiful high altars, inspiring statues, and an unambiguous purpose.


A rarely seen angle of Michelangelo's Pietá. I took this picture at St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoody, New York, where they have a full-size reproduction of the masterpiece.

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me,” Christ said when Judas objected to Mary, sister of Lazarus, anointing Christ with expensive oil. Judas argued that the money ought to have been saved and spent on the poor. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Something else which has remained the same in spite of change is Christ’s presence amongst us. Christ is not with us as He was with the Twelve, but He is with us sacramentally in the Eucharist, and we meet him especially in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The beauty of the church, the sculpture, artwork, vestments, music, and chalices do not, of course, add one iota to the glory of God, nor are they intended to. They bespeak our own devotion to and regard for His ultimate sacrifice. They indicate the lengths to which we will go to offer the better portion of our labors and bounty for His service. In serving Him, of course, we serve one another.

The church itself ought not be comfortable and simple like our homes, it should be more grand and glorious. The vestments ought not be simple and straight-forward like our regular clothing, they should make one realize that he who wears them is in persona Christi capitis. The music ought not be banal and remind us of our favorite songs that get us going, it ought to elevate our mind and spirit. In every way, the experience of worship ought to be above and beyond our everyday experiences, because the mystery we enter into at Mass is above and beyond everyday experiences.

There’s a story about the building of one of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. A person went to the carpenters and asked them what they were doing. “Building scaffolding to hold up the arch,” was the reply. Next the person went to the masons and inquired what they were doing. “Laying stone to build the wall,” they said. The person next went to the glazier and asked what he was doing. “Making the panels for the great rose window,” he said. Then the person went to the old woman sweeping the floor far below the unfinished vaulted ceiling and asked what she was doing. “We are building a cathedral,” she said.

None of those responses was incorrect, of course, but the woman’s response indicated a deeper appreciation, greater maturity, for the whole enterprise. None of those working on the structure would see it through to its conclusion, but that did not dissuade them from their work. She and they were building a home for transcendent beauty and an experience of the divine: a place where all people, through generations, were equal in the eyes of God and were equally surrounded by beauty; a place that expressed, in the best manner our poor human arts can muster, the dignity and glory of what was to take place there “on behalf of all and for all.”

The church and all that goes into worship is not just a meeting, a banquet, a performance: it is to be an offering of the best we have to offer. It is to be an experience of the divine. It is to be, in every sensual, emotional, and intellectual way, a “place made by God, an inestimably holy place, without blame.”



  • Katrina, The Crescat

    … and to think, this post almost never was.

  • Francis

    What a great article – beauty can draw us closer to God, and there are tremendous, wonderful, beautiful, awe-inspiring churches and cathedrals that do just that. Your paragraph discussing the role of immigrant laborers who dedicated their lives to building such edifices really struck me as people giving their best and their totality to God. That’s really inspiring.

    I have to say, though, that there is also value in the small chapel prayer experience. Some of the most intimate and memorable celebrations of the sacrifice of the Mass in my own life took place in small chapels. They certainly had artwork that was intended to draw us closer to God, but not on the scale of a grand cathedral. Also, there is value in music remains in the heart after the celebration is over – if children are humming songs based upon scripture, it matters little if it is “Dona Nobis Pacem” or “Eye Has Not Seen” by Marty Haugen. The idea is to instill in the young people the sacred message. Music is an effective way to accomplish that. Finally, this line from the article that inspired you to write this column bothers me:

    “People often justify their ugly little parishes by saying they don’t believe in wasting money for garnishments that insult the poor. Little do they realize that their bleak and barren churches are spiritually depriving the poor by starving their very hearts and souls; hard lives ache for beauty.”

    First of all, it is a sweeping generalization that has no evidence. Who thinks their parish is ugly? Who justifies this ugliness? I have been in many parishes, and I can’t think of one that struck me as ugly. Can every parish or chapel be a cathedral?

    • Tom Crowe

      Francis– I suppose my photos did not convey that some of those chapels are, in fact, small (at least, small by Roman standards). I agree that tiny chapels can be the location of some of the most intimate experiences of beauty and of the divine; beauty in churches certainly does not require a huge baroque church like the Gesu or a massive gothic masterpiece like the Montreal basilica. But by the same token, being smaller doesn’t mean one can allow one’s standards to flag. And, of course, one’s ability to build a masterpiece is limited by resources and availability of beautiful elements. All of that is assumed if not stipulated. My post is targeted at those who, having the wherewithal to have beauty, opt instead for the banal or common. And that is also the point of the paragraph in the original column concerning those who defend their “ugly” churches. Perhaps “ugly” was a strong word for Katrina to use, but you ask too much in demanding evidence—these are opinion pieces based on one’s experience, not scholarly articles. I, and I assume Katrina, have had people defend banal spaces which are better suited to be banquet halls as being more appropriate (or good enough) for worship, and then those same people deride the idea of spending money on a transcendently beautiful space as wasteful. That also is why I included the account of Judas objecting to Mary anointing Christ with expensive nard. No, not every parish or chapel has to be a cathedral/basilica, but when the option is available, a parish (in its edifice, music, vestments, vessels, tabernacle, statuary, etc.) ought to be as beautiful as the diocese and the parishoners can muster.

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