While gazing around our new church’s sanctuary a couple weeks ago, I was overwhelmed with emotion and awe. Each stained glass window represented a piece of the story in our Christian journey. Each pictorial tile on the floor held some significance. Even the color of the altar – blood red – was not without meaning.
Just when I thought I’d absorbed everything, I looked upward in gratitude, and there on the high ceiling was yet another surprise: three phrases painted in scripted, gold letters. Each phrase contained a key word, which stood out in capital letters so as not to be missed:
Beauty – Truth – Goodness
My spiritual director recently had strung these words together while naming the three elements that draw people to faith. Each of us is drawn more readily toward one over the other, but each element, to some degree, prompts in us an upward gaze, an acknowledgement of our place in relation to our Creator and a yearning to enter into a deeper relationship with God.
I’d like to ponder each of these over the next few weeks. Let’s start with the most alluring physically — beauty.
Throughout the building of our new church, which took place over the course of 15 years and cost millions of dollars, some on the outside were skeptical, even critical over the work in progress. Think of how else that money might have been used, how many people could have been fed from it.
True, indeed, but I’ve come to believe there’s more here to explore. Though food is indeed a basic necessity for physical nourishment, the soul needs to be nourished as well. Beauty is one way that can be accomplished.
In a Catholic News Agency article, “The Importance of Beauty to the Catholic Church,” the author notes that “Beauty is the single aspect of God which can be expressed physically within the earthly realm…The church stands as the dwelling place of the Lord on Earth,” and "reflects the Church dwelling in Heaven" (Built of Living Stones, #17).”
Beauty, the article goes on to say, is not merely human arrogance or a waste of resources that could be directed to the poor but an appropriate and necessary aspect of God’s everlasting mystical presence before mankind.
Father Jack Davis is a priest from our diocese who has lived out the greater part of his vocation in Chimbote, Peru, ministering to the poorest of the poor. He has carried out countless projects for the betterment of the people there, but I will not soon forget one in particular. During a fundraising dinner here in Fargo a few years ago, Fr. Jack was describing how one of his American helpmates had gone to Peru to install a system of underground pipes to bring water to areas of the city that had little moisture, where much of the landscape was barren. This underground watering system helped bring lushness to an area of town that previously had been permeated by dust. For the first time in memory, grass began to sprout and a few small gardens emerged.
I remember Fr. Jack describing these gardens, these patches of life, as well as reactions to them. After hearing someone here comment on their insignificance in relation to the desolation around them, Fr. Jack had remarked that these small areas of lushness had brought a beauty to the city of Chimbote that had not been there previously, and that those spots of beauty had had the effect of awakening souls to the presence of God.
Brown to green — nothing small about it if you happen to live in Chimbote.
We need food to survive physically. We need love to survive emotionally. But if we don’t have a place of beauty to restore our soul, how can we believe there is a God? How can truth or even goodness be evident devoid some measure of beauty? God knew what He was doing when He created the world as He did.
The faithful need a place to gather and be restored. How can we build up the body of Christ and tend to the needs of others if we ourselves have not been filled with light and love? We cannot give from a depleted reserve. Our faith communities give us courage as we prepare to launch ourselves into the world that is in such desperate need of our light. But we need our own lights to be stoked as well from time to time.
Some wonder where all the faithful have gone, but I couldn’t help but feel joy at our the Dedication Mass two weeks back as I took in all of the beauty, and fathomed what it took to bring all of it to fruition. Behind every piece of stained glass there was a person who believed in more than what we can see. I was renewed in the knowledge that the faithful do indeed walk the earth in our time, and vibrantly so.
The investment in a church building may not bring about financial reward, but its dividends are eternal. Our new church is filled to capacity; new life is evidenced everywhere. The existence of a new church that could well last thousands of years, God-willing, is a beautiful thing in and of itself.
Throughout the rest of the week, may you see more clearly the beauty around you. May it be a reminder of God’s magnificence as well as His love for you, His beloved. And may you seek to bring beauty to others in the unique way you are able.