I’ve done my share of kvetching about the Mass done poorly — those Masses with sappy songs about and to us; those homilies which start out bland and end up heretical; all done within the confines of a church which looks like a conference room in wartime. I mention these things for one major reason: Beauty points to God. And that has two implications: first, right worship of God is beautiful worship; and second, beauty has the power to draw us closer to God as surely as Scripture does.
But rather than just focusing on our failing to attain that beauty, here’s a story about how the Catholic Church, in the form of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia, came through for an Evangelical who was disillusioned with the loss of beauty within his own religious tradition. His post is good, and worth reading in full. After mentioning the old Gospel song “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” his mind was drawn both to beautiful music, and old-time religion, both of which the Church (both Eastern Orthodox and Catholic) provided for him at a time it was much needed, as he reminisced over the loss of solid Protestant hymns:
It is a time I miss, as I stand in church in my jeans, the pop/rock strains of the latest contemporary music filling the room. I miss the old days of singing “Amazing Grace,” “Revive Us Again,” or “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” I miss the days when church on Sunday was a little less like the rest of my week, the days when it was something special and sacred.
I hesitate to bring all this up, because sometimes I feel like an old man, yelling at the neighborhood kids for walking on his lawn. Musical styles change, people will say. We have to appeal to the new generation, people will say. Dressing up for church scares away the poor, people will say. I appreciate these arguments, and I am sure there is something to them. However, I cannot help but feel that there is more at work here than simply a change of style. It seems to me that what we are experiencing is a loss of our sense of the sacred.
It was a Saturday in 2006, and I was stepping cautiously into the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia. Unless one counts a few masses in Iraq held in the shared chapel, I had never before set foot in a Catholic church. It was the most beautiful church I had ever seen. As I walked in, I was faced with the holy water font, a reminder of my baptism. The walls were covered with paintings and stained glass windows, showing stories from the Bible and from the lives of the saints. All along the sides of the church were the stations of the cross. In front was the altar, an object that held far more meaning in this Catholic house of worship than in any Protestant church I had previously attended.
Soon after my Saturday visit, I attended mass. I sat with a kind married couple, whose Bible Study I had participated in earlier that morning. I saw people walk in, drop to one knee beside their pew and, facing the alter, cross themselves in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We knelt to pray, we said the Creed, we prayed the Our Father, we sang hymns (to include one in Latin!). I watched the procession, as the priest walked down the center aisle, holding the Sacred Scripture over his head. We heard more scriptural readings than I had ever heard in one service before. We stood, out of respect, during the reading of the Gospel.
Though I, as a non-Catholic, did not receive Holy Communion, I felt that I had truly participated in the reverent, holy worship of God. This was not a show put on for my benefit. There was no rock band on a stage, there was no multimedia display. And when the priest elevated the Host and said, “This is my body,” I felt that I truly was in the presence of Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity.
It was much the same at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church, also in Savannah. I walked in alone, not knowing what to expect. Here I found the same reverence as at St. John’s. The people lit candles, kissed icons, and made more signs of the cross than I had ever seen in my life. Incense filled the air, the choir sang (again, without a rock band) in Greek and English, following a liturgy whose age is comparable to the settled canon of the New Testament. When it came time for the Eucharist (communion), even infants in their mothers’ arms were brought forward to receive.
Having experienced the reverent, sacred liturgies of both East and West, it has proved difficult to find the same level of worship in modern Evangelical Protestantism. The statues and icons of Christ and the saints have been torn down, the stained glass windows have been smashed, and the sacraments have been reduced to mere symbols. Even the great hymns of Protestantism have begun to disappear.
Beauty matters. More than we know, I think.