I want to share an experience I had last week. This is likely to be the only “personal experience” post I ever make here, because this site isn’t about me. But I am going to share it because I think it illuminates why it’s worth fighting for beauty in our lives and in the church.
By way of context, I guess it’s important to start by sharing something pretty personal: I have never had a religious feeling in my whole life. No warm fuzzies or even rage like President Bartlet in “Two Cathedrals.”
Just a whole lot of nothing. I mean, sometimes I have strong feelings at church, like despair at the bad music or annoyance at Loud Response Guy, but that’s as near as I’ve ever come to an emotional response in my spiritual life.
Last week I was in the Twin Cities for work meetings. I had some free time, so I paid a visit to the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis. It’s America’s first basilica, but it seems to be overshadowed by the similarly magnificent Cathedral and National Shrine of Saint Paul.
In my line of work, and I think generally in the Catholic world, it is pretty easy to grow numb to beautiful and ugly churches alike. In those times, the good ones give a sense of satisfaction like seeing a tough math equation correctly answered, and not as a sacramental sign etc. etc. Bad ones are an opportunity to laugh smugly and prove how cultured and orthodox we are by knowing better. If you don’t believe me, just look at the comments on Fr. Z’s blog or ChurchPop.
So when I walked in through the front doors of the Basilica, I wasn’t expecting to be moved, but, well, I was.
The baptismal font,
the stained glass,
the baldachino —
all of it moved my heart. I sat down in a pew on the left and marveled. We don’t marvel enough as a society. Here was a church that truly spoke about Christ in its lines, its lights, its rays of gold, expressing in granite and marble what we can only stammer in our hearts.
Sitting in that cold wooden pew, I became acutely aware of how small and stupid was every other concern in my life except following Christ. My eyes passed from window to window, and then to the white carrara altar, the only thing lit in the whole church. Something less than a voice, but more than a thought, came to my mind and lingered a while:
The mystery and struggle and triumph you seek is all here at the altar.
and my own heart responded with a supernatural clarity:
Nothing else matters except this.
I want to stress here that I’m not really a holy guy — although I try to be — so it’s not like I write all this stuff about sacred art and #beauty and now I’m having these mystical experiences because I’m soooo holy. Probably the opposite is true.
Beauty mattered for me that day because it made my heart leap with joy and hope, and opened me up to something I needed to hear. Beauty mattered for the homeless guy who came up from the sandwich line at the pastoral center and prayed the rosary at the St. Joseph altar. Beauty mattered for the two picture-taking tourists in Dallas Cowboys jerseys who wouldn’t have bothered to visit if the church was hideous.
The point of this whole post, and this whole website, and probably my whole life, is that beauty is not just for the Pope in Rome and the monks in France and the rest of us get banal churches that look and feel as sacramental as the dentist’s office. The church is supposed to be a foretaste of the Heavenly Jerusalem and we need to be true to that mission because beauty is for everybody and so is the call to holiness.