Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Art and worship

I said something the other day to a friend that surprised me; "I hadn't realized how the design of a space could influence worship." I've noticed lately that I'm beginning to appreciate the aesthetic sense of the Catholic church, which historically has tended toward the opulent. I'm even becoming a bit crotchety over design. We recently visited a parish that placed their choir, which was very loud and big, front and center instead of in the back like at our parish . It bothered me because they were cluttering up my mental space - I hadn't come to see the choir, I had come to be with God, but all I could think about was the choir.

It makes sense that Catholic parishes would, at least historically, take care to build beautiful churches because they are sacred places in a manner that non-Catholic churches cannot quite share. In my thinking, the church building is a sacred place because of the divine activity happening continuously there in the sacraments. The sacrament of the Eucharist happens daily at Mass, the sacrament of penance happens weekly, there are baptisms and weddings, etc. As well, we know Jesus is physically present in the Eucharist, which is usually displayed throughout the week for adoration. It would seem wrong not to have an aesthetically pleasing sanctuary in honor of God's presence there. Growing up Protestant, I played many a game of freeze-tag in the church sanctuary while attending youth activities. I know I would be mortified if my children ever did this anywhere in sight of the Eucharist because it would be so disrespectful of God's presence.

My husband has hardly a drop of aesthetic sense. His favorite outfit on me is jeans and one of my thrift-store workout t-shirts. I'm not a sensitive woman, but his own fashion sense has almost brought me to tears--there was a certain instance in particular involving a metallic blue imitation shark skin shirt paired with orange-accented cargo pants and running shoes. As well, he couldn't care less about things like the color of a couch or the number of weeds in the front yard. But what is the one thing that gets him going? Religious art. Since we became Catholic, he has actually taken it upon himself to hang up Catholic art in our house, and he is still commenting on how ugly some of the churches we've visited and attended were, when I thought they were mostly just sparse.

When I get to spend time in a beautiful church, it reminds me of the majesty and richness of God and our faith. I think my husband has been even more affected by Catholic art and architecture than I have, which is interesting since I think of myself as the more artistic one. But the fact is, no matter who you are, humans needs beauty. The world we live in is a dark place where the unthinkable happens every second, and a church, out of all places, should be a place where both our hearts and our senses get to experience beauty. I think it says something good about a society if its most beautiful buildings are churches. It's a demarcation-- here is something different, here is what is important, here is something befitted by lavishness.


Stina said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

Hey, as you may know, the book "No Place for God" is really interesting reading on this topic, though also saddening. We have a copy.


And Thomas Day has a couple of books on similar topics.

Noy said...

I'm a bit biased coming from a design background but I appreciate the design and aesthetic of churches too. I can't think of the name of the church now but I remember learning about a church (from a Design History clss) where the doors/entrance of the church were only 4 feet tall. The intent was to make each person bow or humble themselves before entering the church. I really liked that idea. I don't think people realize how much designers think through what most people consider simple experiences.