This is the fourth post in a series that I am writing about my reversion process. The title of the series is hopefully self-explanatory: I decided that my reasons for reverting to Catholicism were too many, too juicy even, to list in a single blog post. If you haven’t already, check out the first three posts in this series first!
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you. —St. Augustine of Hippo
Of course I was drawn to the immense beauty of Catholicism. I did, after all, call my blog Holy Sparkle. I haven’t made any attempt to hide the fact that I love opulence. If something is over-the-top, obviously I am on board with it. I love the gorgeous cathedrals and basilicas that speckle this Earth, I love the golden chalices of blood-red wine at Mass, the white statues, the Priests in their ever-changing vestments, the breathtaking altars. I’ve said all of this before. And I could go on and on. I love beauty in general because it makes me feel vulnerable and open and human. True beauty is transcendental: it brings us to that pre-verbal, childlike state in which receiving God is so simple and delicious.
Beauty is ultimately what soothes me forward in my life.
When I began to explore Catholicism, I was surprised by how often I heard the word beauty. Beauty, both physical and spiritual, is permitted and encouraged by the Church in a way that I did not expect. I have a weak spot for earthly beauty that I often tried to conquer through the study of Buddhist philosophy and New Age Monism. Which, by the way, if you ever want to read a miserable and boring handwritten book, you could read the journal I kept during my time as an aspiring Buddhist. Lawd, nothing is more tedious and bloodless than Chelsea Clarkson’s attempts at non-attachment and mindfulness. During this time I was operating under the belief that everything on the material plane was superficial and meaningless.
What a rollicking, frolicking bore.
I won’t blame Buddhism or Monism for this. I will say that I have come to view the human soul as a picky orchid that must be set within the right conditions in order to bloom: my own soul needs the security and majesty of God, the full acknowledgement that real suffering hurts, the acceptance that not all evil can be thought or willed into oblivion, and yes, generous servings of earthly beauty in the form of art, music, chanting, prayer, sacramentals such as the rosary, and certainly stunning altars and churches.
As I later learned, the reason that all of this beautiful worship is indeed “allowed” is because ultimately the Catholic faith is incarnational:
“We believe that the Son of God took flesh of the Blessed Virgin and entered this physical realm of human history. That transaction within history registers as the expression of God’s everlastingly beautiful glory and power alive in this world. So a Catholic Church that is beautiful and built to last is a witness to the incarnation.” -Fr. Dwight Longenecker
If I understand correctly, by becoming Man (a man who cries and shits and breathes and bleeds and dies like any other man) God affirmed the inherent worth of both the corporal body and the Earth as a whole, including the earthly delights of pleasure and beauty. Yes, there is a framework for partaking in these earthy delights but they are to be enjoyed nonetheless. Unrelated to beauty but perhaps helpful in understanding this concept: drinking, for example, is not forbidden to Catholics because, well, wine is wonderful. Wine is good, the body is good, the world is good, art is good, beauty is good. (I sure hope you are enjoying my cavewoman-like interpretations of Catholic theology here.) To put it another way, this world is not something we should withdraw or detach from: we are made to attach to it in the fullest way possible. So it is okay to swoon in front of a stunning Church altar.
It’s funny, I’ve read a few Catholic conversion stories now: many of these stories center around a former Protestant who feels drawn to the Catholic Church but is experiencing this deep, soul-wrenching struggle with, say, stained glass windows. Or statues. Or the Pope with all his bling. Or they are totally losing their marbles over the Catholic tradition of Marian devotion, suffering deep concern over whether they can be devoted to Mary and remain true Christians. Since I have read so many of these conversion stories now, I can conclude that the list of things that trip up Protestants on the road to Catholicism is the same checklist of things that make me say haaaaaaay, what up Catholicism, I’m tryna be with you FOREVA. In other words, the hang-ups that Protestants have make no sense to this heathen. Unnecessary opulence, the intercession of wacky Saints, the Popemobile, a star-crowned Mother Mary breastfeeding all over the place: sounds like a party to me!
So naturally, I had to sit down and educate myself on why Protestants and many other non-Catholics take issue with all the opulent traditions and rituals that I call beautiful. Beauty includes far more than what we can see and touch on the material plane, we are all in agreement on this. But lets stay with what is tangible for a minute or two because that’s where all the controversy is: the Catholic Church is considered ostentatious by many and the extravagant splendor surrounding the faith is a common stumbling block for non-Catholics. The questions, which I consider completely reasonable by the way, generally go like this: why is the church so opulent when there are so many starving people in this world? Shouldn’t we sell the Vatican to end world hunger? Why is the Papacy so pimped out, isn’t that un-Christlike?
How I wish this post on beauty could just be a perfumed trek through all that I find beautiful about the faith! Instead it seems that every topic pertaining to Catholicism comes with a can of worms. Y’all, there are so many talented folks who have already tackled the above questions that it’s almost a joke for someone like me to comment on them. A simple internet search of any of these questions will offer you a variety of intelligent and poetic answers. I am going to cut myself a break and simplify the question to: Why are Catholic Churches so opulent? shouldn’t that money go to the needy?
To address the first half of the question: there are innumerable reasons that Catholic churches should be beautiful. As already mentioned, beauty is good. Also the beauty and time-tested strength of these ancient buildings is considered a worthy testimony to the Christian faith. And the Vatican can’t sell the Vatican because the Vatican believes the Vatican belongs to the people of Earth: it is no one’s to rightfully sell. Another reason often cited for why the Church is so ornate is that Catholics believe in this creepy, magical thing called transubstantiation, which is the change whereby the bread and the wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist become, not merely as by a sign or a figure, but also in actual reality the body and blood of Christ. So, nope, not symbolically. Therefore, many believe that since Christ is literally present in the host, He should dwell within a veritable Kingdom.
Moving on to the issue of poverty: what the Catholics will tell you is that the Church is big enough. That is, big enough to build and maintain these resplendent palaces to the faith while simultaneously performing corporal works of mercy: feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, providing housing to the abused and abandoned. These folks will generally go on to imply that the Catholic Church provides an immeasurable safety net of social services in this country and abroad. This claim seems to hold water, as Catholic Charities USA (which is just one of many Catholic charitable organizations) has more than 2,500 local agencies that serve 10 million people annually. Pope Francis is particularly called to address food injustice and believes that there can be an end to world hunger by 2025: click here to check out the campaign he has launched to address worldwide food security. Many Catholic social justice workers confess that they feel like a sitting dog being told to sit when they hear that the Church should do more to help the poor.
But this isn’t actually what this post is about and I’m probably doing a shoddy job of presenting the facts anyway. My goal is only to shed some light on a misunderstood subject and to tell you, without shame, that I trust in beauty. I trust in beauty because real, true, authentic beauty is always good.