I love chant. I love vaulted ceilings. I love stained glass and incense, ancient gestures and profoundly freighted silence. Beauty is more than decoration: It nourishes the soul.
More than that, architectural and liturgical beauty have a higher purpose than to feed the senses: Beauty is one of the few fitting offerings we can make to a God whose sacrifice is already complete. Beauty lifts the mind and the soul; it disposes us to grace, and it aligns our hearts with everything that is good and true. I believe these things with all my heart, and would defend beauty till the end of the world.
On the other hand…
There is a case to be made for spending some time with ugliness. Specifically, ugliness at Mass.
You really don’t have to seek it out. Unless you’re cloistered, sooner or later you will find yourself in a parish that just doesn’t get it — doesn’t get beauty, doesn’t want it, chases it out with a stick every Sunday. The tabernacle will be hidden away, while the HVAC will be proudly on display in the beige-brick sanctuary, right behind the hovering un-crucifix made of chrome and burlap. The music will jangle and irritate; the priest will act like a cross between an infomercial huckster and your creepy uncle. The whole production, from the opening joke — I mean, the Introductory Rites — to the last hurrah — I mean, Final Blessing — will seem designed to irritate, to offend, and to cause you grief and pain.
And you know what? This is your big opportunity. You can either clench your teeth, wrap your scapulars around your ears to block out the tambourines, and hightail it out of there as soon as you can . . .
Or you can think to yourself, “Christ is here. And if he can stand it, then so can I.”
You may think I’m kidding, but I’m not. It’s good for us, every once in a while, to attend a liturgy that we think isn’t good enough. It’s good for us to have that sensation of being the only one in the room who comprehends the travesty that is happening around us. Why? Because at some point, in the middle of the noise and the irreverence and the foolish, happy-clappy songs, we’re going to have to go up for Communion. We will have to take God into our mouths. And if we have an honest bone in our bodies, we will have to think, “No, it’s not good enough. And neither am I.”
My soul is foolish. I’m cheap and jangly. I’m in poor taste, inadequate, irreverent, wanting and paltry in every way. My heart is made of little beige bricks and burlap. And for some reason, God keeps showing up anyway. He doesn’t sneer and hunker down and wait for it to be over when he comes into the tawdry temple of my soul. He doesn’t get out of there as soon as he can.
A little ugliness is good for us, folks. Taken in the proper doses in the right context, a little bad taste is something we need, because it tells us something about ourselves. Surrounded with nothing but beauty and elegance at all times, we can come to confuse good taste with good souls: We can think that we really are worthy, because here we are, chanting! It’s timeless! It’s ancient! It’s a worthy offering!
No, it’s not. No matter how glorious your favorite liturgy is, you’re still just some guy, just like any other guy. In fact, I’m afraid that too much beauty can have a coarsening effect. Just this week, I’ve heard devotees of the Traditional Latin Mass say that the Novus Ordo is “Mass for retards.” I heard a Melkite Catholic call the Roman Church “industrial-scale Christianity that turns the Mass into a Eucharist factory.”
Well, that is one road you can take: You can recoil from clumisiness and ugliness, and protect yourself with scathing insults and withering scorn. You can say, “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like one of these!”
Or you can say, “Thank you, Lord, for sending me here to this ugly Church. It helps me remember that I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof.”
God doesn’t come to you because you deserve it, or because you’ve done everything right. He doesn’t come because the house you’ve made for him is beautiful enough. He isn’t conjured up by the proper combinations of tones and attitudes. He comes to you because he loves you — because you need him. We all need him.
We should build beautiful churches. We should make our music lovely. I wish with all my heart that the Holy Spirit would send a divine wind to blow away every silly, vulgar liturgical innovation I’ve suffered through in the last 30 years. I wish that He would clean house! But since the Lord does not deem it time — let’s take advantage. Let’s learn what we can from ugliness. And let’s not add to it in our hearts.