Monday, May 22, 2017

What Defines Beauty?

This post title is simplistic, and probably overused. However, it may be the most concise way to frame some thoughts that were shared with me and my extensions of those thoughts recently. A few weeks ago, several friends and I made the trek to Chicago to attend the Transfigured conference. This conference, put on by the Liturgical Institute, aimed to share the beauty of the Catholic Liturgy, or form of worship. Sounds like a thick topic, right? It's easy to think so. However, the conference talks offered an engaging look at how the Liturgy and its many parts are arranged to offer "a foretaste of Heaven on Earth.[1]"

St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, Chicago, Illinois, host parish of the Transfigured conference.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are from St. Alphonsus.

One of the speakers piqued my interest as soon as I heard the conference announcement. Dr. Denis McNamara is the author of an informative and tasteful trio of books. A personal favorite, Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago has effectively become my Chicago Catholic church tour guide. Dr. McNamara's conference talk, Beauty, Liturgy, & Heaven, served to share that "beauty" as we see it in sacred spaces doesn't exist merely for our pleasure or simply because someone could afford it. Rather, he suggests, beauty plays an important role of attracting people into an act of faith. 

Dr. McNamara at Transfigured, Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago.

Early in his talk, Dr. McNamara suggested that in order to make a faith compelling, it needs to be attractive. This easily applies to most things that we choose to engage in throughout our lives. However, what does it take for something, like a worship space, to be truly "beautiful?" Visual appeal matters, but making the function of a place clear is important as well. To have a beautiful church in part, means that the space needs to clearly function as a place of divine worship and invite participation in the sacraments. There should be no confusion as to the role of the church building or its major components.

Detail: Baptismal font featuring the baptism of Jesus. 
This common detail reveals the function of the font while also enhancing its aesthetic appeal.

"Attention to function and artsy appeal sounds nice, but why should we care?...Designing churches to look like the Vatican is a waste of money!" - Hypothetical Questioner

Certainly not all churches should look like the cathedrals. However, while it isn't practical to make every church large and ornate, Dr. McNamara advocates for the craft of well designed churches. These places by their design reveal truths about the Catholic and Christian faith. By making clear the Christian belief of life after death and heavenly award that can come through faith, a beautiful worship space serves to attract people closer to the Mass, the sacraments, and God himself...and bringing that foretaste of Heaven to Earth.

Redemptorist priests in prayer surrounding Jesus, thus engaging with Heaven.
The Redemptorists served St. Alphonsus for decades after its founding.

In addition to the need to share truths with church goers and visitors, the beauty of a church helps draw an emotional response that can also inspire faithful action. This can occur simply through well executed artwork. In some parishes a special characteristic about the local faithful, such as a common ethnic background, can contribute to emotionally driven beauty. Chicago and Milwaukee's ethnic Polish parishes, which I've covered in the blog several times, are strong examples of this. The opportunity to conjure an emotional response to a life of faith is yet another strong reason to care for beautiful places of worship.

Polish devotional altar featuring Our Lady of Częstochowa, Holy Trinity Parish, Chicago.

Dr. McNamara introduced a number of variants stemming from the core concepts of function and attraction. In one of my expansions on his ideas, beauty can reach beyond artistic attractiveness. Elegant simplicity can also serve to inspire the hearts of the faithful and curious outsiders. A friend of mine likes to refer me to the modest, but very intentionally designed worship spaces maintained by the Sisters of Mary, Morning Star. I have yet to visit their chapels, but from my friend's descriptions and photos, you can tell that every object they display has a clear functional role in Mass and prayer. Some would even argue that designs such as these make worship a better focused experience compared to their elaborate counterparts. Clear function alone, can draw us to the beauty of the faith.

Chapel of the Sisters of Mary, Morning Star, Ghent, Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of Laura Angle.

With Catholic churches and religious architecture as a whole, there are endless examples of beauty to appreciate. Furthermore, there are many examples that allow us as curious human beings to discover beauty in ways that are not always conventional or expected. I hope to dive more deeply into examples of beauty and share my observations in both sacred and secular perspectives. Maybe you can find a little "taste of Heaven on Earth" through these posts...Better yet, you can go and seek this taste for yourself wherever you are!

Sanctuary detail.

I think that I am long overdue for a conventional "church tour" blog post. Stay tuned!

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