Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Evidence of the Unredeemed

June 10th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

I was recently in the Shanghai Museum in Shanghai, China, wandering through its wonderful collection of bronze, ceramic and porcelain ware, clothing, furniture, calligraphy, painting, and other arts. Two vases from the period circa 3,000 to 800 B.C. caught my eye and reminded me of what is, I believe, a truism of human behavior; namely, that once the basic needs of nourishment, clothing, shelter, and security are provided humans turn to the creation of beauty. The more secure we become and the more thorough our basic needs are met, the more sophisticated and intense becomes our quest to create beauty.

Fig. 1 LEFT: Red Pottery Vase with Pointed Bottom, Xiwangcun Type of Yangshao Culture, 3000-2700 B.C.; MIDDLE: Detail of vase on left; RIGHT: Impressed Pottery Lei (Pot), Western Zhou, 11th century - 771 B.C.

One of the vases [Fig. 1 Left and Middle] (ca. 3,000 – 2,700 B.C.) in the museum has a utilitarian form interesting enough in itself. But, what caught my attention was the textural pattern of parallel lines scratched freehand over the entire surface of the vase. In addition, a less pointed instrument had been used to incise a pattern of lines around the vase and over the scratched pattern. The relative spontaneity of the decoration is perhaps indicative of a first step in the quest to beautify.

Next to the vase I just described was another one [Fig. 1 Right] from a later period (ca. 1,100 – 770 B.C.). Its form is also interesting but it exhibits a greater care for symmetry than the other even though it, too, was constructed using a basic coil (snake) technique. This vase, however, has a rich array of different patterns that were paddled or pressed into the moist clay at the time of construction. Much effort must have gone into creating this decoration as the patterns would have had to be created first, on a separate object, and then stamped or paddled into the moist surface of the vase. The quest for beauty had apparently intensified.

Fig. 2 Women's Embroidered Garment, Yi, Yunna, ca. 1975

The quest is also evident on another floor of the museum, in the display of Chinese minority costumes [Fig. 2] used for special occasions like harvest festivals. They nearly all consist of intricate patterns and a variety of woven materials that had been painstakingly dyed. We’ve all seen this kind of thing in cultural arts displays. Like the patterns on the vases the colors, patterns, textures and intricate weaves of the costumes add absolutely nothing to the practical functioning of the clothing. In fact, in some cases, movement must have been impeded.

Why do it? Why go to all this trouble?

Obviously, to make it “look nicer” –nicer than ordinary clothes.

Fig. 3 Chausable - "Tree of Life" set; first half of 18th century; made in the former Ursuline convent at Neuburg a.d. Donau, Bavaria. When a priest vests in the chausable he "puts on Christ", Beauty Himself.

Another truism: the more important a building, or object is to a society the greater the effort to make it look even nicer [Fig. 3]. That’s why items associated with religion have always been accorded the greatest attention when it comes to artistic presentation. It’s also why the most precious materials –gold, for example—are reserved for sacred things.

Making things look nicer –beautiful—is, I believe, evidence of a natural yearning for God. God, after all, is the source of all beauty.

Art in the service of the Liturgy expresses this yearning for union with God. We employ beautiful chalices, candle stands, altar fronts, vestments, music, etc. to help us worship God, the Creator. It’s not that ordinary objects, clothing and other things are bad. It’s because ordinary things, relative to beautiful things, remind us of an imperfect, fallen world. Beautiful things in worship remind us of a redeemed world; a world at one with God. Liturgy that demeans artistic expression or dismisses artistic excellence and revels in the ordinary denies the Incarnation; denies the redemption and deification of man and the sanctification of the world. Beauty in the Liturgy helps us to revel in our redemption. This is a most Catholic understanding of art in the service of the Liturgy.

There has been, I believe, a prevailing bias in this diocese in favor of the profane and common when it comes to the Liturgy. I think the situation is improving but I’m shocked at the low expectations of our clergy and other leaders and workers on the diocesan and parish levels. It is certainly evident in music but I see it often in the artistic impoverishment of liturgical objects (chalices, tabernacles, crosses, etc.) and the awkward way in which those in the sanctuary enact the ritual. It is the reason why people complain that their parish church looks and feels like a Protestant one. Protestant theology has generally shunned ritual ceremony and opposed the use of beautiful art in worship, rejecting the ability of a fallen depraved world to led us to God . Beautiful art is held suspect; a tempting diversion from our goal.

Fig. 4 LEFT: glass wine gobblet; RIGHT: Chalice from Pozsony, early 15th century, Church of St. Martin in Bratislava, Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

I recall –this was many years ago—attending a liturgy committee meeting at Good Shepherd Church in Henrietta. I raised the issue of the quality of the chalice used by the priest in celebrating the Eucharist. It was inexpensive glassware [Fig. 4 Left] and was, I believe, purchased at a local discount department store. The communion cups were of the same material and quality. I suggested that the cup that holds the Sacred Blood of the Savior should be of a precious material and as artistically excellent and original [Fig. 4 Right] as we could afford. The reaction from one of the other committee members was, “Well, we don’t want to put on a show!” It seems that ceramic and glass vessels are commonly used in the churches of this diocese but it is not for their beauty but for their association with impoverishment, in the case of clay, and for their transparency, in the case of glass.

Fig. 5

At the same church the priest routinely prayed the petition prayers of the Mass and the locally prepared prayers for feast days and other occasions from a Kodak three-ring training binder –the Kodak red and yellow icon, as large as it could be, on the cover [Fig. 5]. I purchased for the parish a set of three-ring binders from a liturgical supply company that at least sported liturgical colors and Christian symbols but I never saw them used.

Church entrance doors now are more than likely to look exactly like the common unadorned glass and metal doors you pass through on the way into the shopping mall [Fig. 6]. Rather than stoking our anticipation of entering into the sanctuary of the most High God, the transparent glass doors are meant to make us feel welcomed as if we were entering a common run-of-the-mill Wal-Mart to shop. There are even greeters, just like a real Wal-Mart.

Fig. 6 LEFT: Contempory commercial entrance; RIGHT: St. Helen's Church in Gates

Fig. 7 Church Doors by Scotsdale Art Doors. This company creates doors based on characteristics of historical periods or imagery.

This peculiar adversity to beauty shows up in more than just the objects used in the Liturgy. Altar servers put on a show all their own. They seldom seem to know what they are doing, appearing awkward and hesitant, their movements jerky and uncoordinated. The result is distracting to those in the pews. In the “old days” anyone assisting in the sanctuary was taught a proper way to walk, genuflect, bow and move. It was a choreographed dance of sorts (real liturgical dance!). No wasted or awkward movements. Every movement reinforced the theological underpinnings of the action or, at the very least, minimized distraction. It was beautiful to behold. Not anymore. Beautiful and meaningful movements are out, jerky stumbling distraction is in. And it’s not just the altar servers. Priests go out of their way to be casual and awkward as if to imply that Jesus would not have been concerned with graceful ritual and formality; imagine that, the author of all grace and beauty. Then, of course, there is the way the congregants dress for Sunday Mass; you and me.

I know, it’s not just this diocese. The Second Vatican Council is often incorrectly cited as unleashing a type of Chinese Cultural Revolution; a purifying of the sanctuary; out with the beautiful, the old, and the traditional, and in with …the common, the ordinary.

The common and ordinary –evidence of an unredeemed world.


Book Suggestion: Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Denis R. McNamara

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11 Responses to “Evidence of the Unredeemed”

  1. Gen says:

    Excellent post. Welcome to the blogosphere, Bernie. 😉

  2. Nerina says:

    Bernie, I LOVE this post and everything you had to say. I especially love how you drew us into the discussion by starting with the secular (Chinese art and its evolution from plain to more decorative/ornate). One argument I hear often regarding the use of precious metal chalices is this: “Jesus didn’t drink out of a gold chalice, why should we?” Of course he didn’t, but what do we say to this minimalist approach to the liturgy? I hear people stress simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Yet it seems like a simplistic approach to the Mass had gotten us into all kinds of trouble. Not only has our liturgy been “dumbed down,” but so has our catechesis and our basic understanding of theology. This really is a case of “lex orandi, lex credendi.” Judging from our liturgy, one would think we hold almost nothing sacred.

  3. Nerina says:

    Oh, one more thing. Regarding: “greeters” – LOL!! There is a time for welcoming, but I don’t think at the holy water fonts is the place.

  4. Ink says:

    Nerina: the reason we should have a gold chalice is because Jesus is IN it, not drinking from it. =P

  5. benanderson says:

    I agree w/ nerina – excellent post Bernie. As a protestant, I’d say I was somewhat repulsed by the ornateness of Catholicism until God began drawing me into the Church. The more I bought into Catholicism, the more I realized how important beauty was. It wasn’t that Catholicism needed to simplify itself to attract me, it was that I need to change to realize why it is that the Catholic Church is so extravagant. It really comes down to a sacramental world view. I could never make sense of the world until I adopted the sacramental world view. It changes everything. Anyone ever see the movie “Babette’s Feast”? It displays this stark difference in Catholicism and Protestantism.

  6. Nerina says:

    Ink, I agree with you wholeheartedly, but the naysayers would reply: “Jesus would be repulsed by the extravagance of it all. He would rather we feed poor people than build elaborate churches and pay for expensive vestments. He would rather we imitate his life of simplicity.” That’s why I appreciated Bernie’s post so much. It really does boil down to having a “sacramental view” as Ben notes above (I’ve got to keep that phrase in my back pocket). How do we get our fellow Catholics to be drawn into beauty and therefore Beauty? Excellent, excellent post Bernie. I’ve been thinking about it all day. For me, the following are the money quotes:

    “Beautiful things in worship remind us of a redeemed world; a world at one with God. Liturgy that demeans artistic expression or dismisses artistic excellence and revels in the ordinary denies the Incarnation; denies the redemption and deification of man and the sanctification of the world. Beauty in the Liturgy helps us to revel in our redemption. This is a most Catholic understanding of art in the service of the Liturgy.”

  7. Nerina says:

    P.S. Did they really use a three ring binder with the Kodak trademark? Oh, my.

  8. benanderson says:

    “Jesus would be repulsed by the extravagance of it all. He would rather we feed poor people than build elaborate churches and pay for expensive vestments. He would rather we imitate his life of simplicity.”

    sounds like Judas – Matthew 26:9

  9. Bernie says:

    At Communion time, when confronted with an inexpensive wine glass and a beautifully fashioned silver or gold chalice containing the Sacred Blood, which one attracts our attention more and seemingly pulls us like a magnet to itself? Beauty attracts like a magnet because the source of beauty is God; will shall not rest until we rest in Him.

    “Thank you” to all for your comments.

  10. Mike says:

    Excellent post, Bernie! I feel that too many of us attend Mass to celebrate ourselves (i.e., the “community”) and too few of us are there to actually worship God.

    Your comments on altar servers are right on the mark. One of the things I remember most from my first Mass at St. Stan’s was the “professionalism” (for lack of a better word) of the servers. It was evident that those guys had invested a lot of time and effort in learning their roles and their contribution to the overall sense of reverence was substantial.

  11. Margaret says:

    I recently saw an exhibit on the Old Silk Road at the Bowers Museum. It too had most interesting artifacts from ancient China including some magnificent mummies which were obviously more European than Chinese. There were many beautiful treasures that were buried with the mummies including some tapestries, vases, clothing, grooming aids, etc. It was fascinating.
    I loved your detailed description of the vases you saw on your recent trip. You see so much more than I do when I’m admiring works of art.
    Your comments about church ornamentation and “staff” decorum were most interesting presenting a point of view I hadn’t considered before. I understand that man has long (always?) tried to honor God by using the most beautiful and best materials and architecture available but I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that every day materials or pottery are necessarily evil or unsacred. I think the sacrifice of the Mass is holy and just as sacred with less impressive materials. However, the story about the Kodak binders is classic. There is a point at which one can debase church services by deliberately using the most mundane and/or commercial objects. Our pastor has many faults but he would probably agree most heartedly with you. He has brought beautiful (sometimes gloriously beautiful) music to our church and outfits the church for each season and holiday regally. From your comment about the Walmart-like greeters, I take it you don’t like being welcomed to church. I think that is something that is long overdue. Maybe it is less important in an area like Rochester where everyone should know everyone else from birth. In our community we have lots of people who have been in the parish for 40-50 years but there are also many new-comers who have been ignored for many years. By using greeters, we hope to make people feel more welcome and likely to become active participants in the parish.

    It was also interesting to read the other blogs about parish consolidations and the like. I’m on our parish council and in the last few years there has been a lot of discussion about how the archdiocese is going to deal with consolidations. It sounds like your area is ahead of us in that game. Parishes have disappeared already but so far things are holding steady in our deanery. Catholic schools are closing with some becoming public charter schools. All some pastors see is real estate that could be sold or used for something else. It makes me very sad to think that people have forgotten one of the purposes of the schools was to educate Catholic youths so they would become active Catholic adults. I think we’re going to see a very, very different type of “universal” church in the future.

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