The Call of Beauty
When John Ruskin, the greatest of all Victorian writers on Catholic art and architecture and a passionate promoter of good craftsmanship and the rights of the artisan, went as a young man with his father on the grand tour of Europe, he settled for a while in Turin. One Sunday he attended a service of the Waldensians, those spiritual progenitors of his own Puritan tribe.
“The assembled congregation,” he said, “numbered in all some three or four and twenty, of whom fifteen or sixteen were grey-haired women. Their solitary and clerkless preacher, a somewhat stunted figure in a plain black coat, with a cracked voice, after leading them through the languid forms of prayer which are all that in truth are possible to people whose present life is dull and its terrestrial future unchangeable, put his utmost zeal into a consolatory discourse on the wickedness of the wide world, more especially that of the plain of Piedmont and city of Turin.”
He departed neither troubled nor consoled, but said that from that point on, the old “evangelical” strain in him, that is the Puritan, was gone for good. Very different was his examination of the first old missal that came into his possession. “For truly,” said Ruskin, “a well-illuminated missal is a fairy cathedral full of painted windows, bound together to carry in one’s pocket, with the music and the blessing of all its prayers besides. And then followed, of course, the discovery that all beautiful prayers were Catholic, – all wise interpretation of the Bible Catholic; – and every manner of Protestant written services whatsoever either insolently altered corruptions, or washed-out and ground-down rags and debris of the great Catholic collects, litanies, and songs of praise.”
For a variety of cultural and political reasons, Ruskin did not become a Catholic, seeming to think that he could no more do so than become something other than Scots-English. Yet what would Ruskin say if he visited our American churches now?
It won’t do to say that what’s really important is the message of the gospel. Everybody knows that. The Waldensian heretic knew that. If you are going to a wedding, what’s really important is the committed love of the bride and groom. But we are not disembodied spirits, floating about in mental space. Anima forma corporis: the soul is the body’s form, says Saint Thomas, and we may stress each noun in turn. The soul – not something else, is the form or animating structural principle of the body. The soul is the form of the body, and not some flitting ghost in the machine. The soul is the form of the body – not of a computer program or a tangle of steel and wires. The human soul is the sort of creature God made to animate the human body. They belong together. Therefore we believe in the resurrection in the flesh, not in the fleeting of some soul or other off to sparkle-land.
Therefore what we do in the body and through the body redounds to the good or the harm of the soul. Plato knew this, and that is why he believed that the base of all education was music: harmony. It follows that if we fill our churches with slovenly or silly music, we will be hard put not to become spiritually slovenly and silly ourselves. If we whitewash all of our old stories of saints, and let the young feast on bare walls with water-stains, dust, and mold, we should not be surprised to find that even the gospel stories are not “real” to them, have no body, no imaginative form; a theoretical Jesus, not the real man who might arrest you with his gaze, convict you with his glare, or console you with one glance of mercy.
I have attended vespers with a conservative Lutheran congregation, who had invited me to speak to their assembled pastors and their families all day long, and been struck by the beauty and the Catholicity of the chants and the prayers, and I noted with gratitude and delight that even the small children knew what to sing and how. And I wonder, “What do we think we are doing?” What has happened to the beauty of our prayers, hymns, chants, processions, windows, painted walls and ceilings, vestments, and vessels?
In the 1970s, American Catholic churches engaged in a race of iconoclasm, a race to see who could reach the bottom of blankness first, getting a certain number of points, I guess, for each prayer forgotten or painting obliterated or communion rail reduced to debris. It would be comforting to say that silence took their place. Often a silence of the wrong kind did: the silence of a parking lot where a church used to be. But man’s mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so instead of art we have minimalist mockeries or childish banners, instead of hymns we have political jingles or off (way off) Broadway show tunes for Miss Performance, and instead of prayers we have committee-drafted memoranda: “Parish to God, send vocations.” I know, I know, it isn’t all that bad. Some of it is worse, and in some places there’s a real attempt to recover what we have lost or thrown away.
But it would be a fine and comforting thing to know that whenever you enter a Catholic church, you will be entering a place where people care about beauty, because they understand that God who made the astoundingly beautiful world around us is properly worshiped in beauty, whether the austere beauty of a Carthusian monastery, or the florid beauty of a Baroque cathedral; but beauty in any case. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I should rather say that ugliness is in the eye of the beholder – like a pointed stick. Beauty is a real thing. God made it. We should learn from that.
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