At a friend’s recent wedding, I sat in the pews of an old Gothic Church marveling that the art in every corner of the building so singularly brought the soul to contemplate the beauty of heaven. The rich harmonies of choir and organ, the solemn splendor of the Mass, and the inherent wonder of the mystery of the sacraments were complemented by the fittingly beautiful surroundings.
I have always loved how the Catholic Church sees and uses beauty as a tool to draw the soul upward toward eternal Truth. Studying the cathedrals and artists of the high Middle Ages opened my eyes to the capacity of architecture and art to enhance the worship and prayer life of the church. Although some look at the elements of such churches and see only the cost and difficulty of maintenance, they seem to me both fitting ornaments in the house of the Lord’s True Presence and doorways leading the mind and soul to higher things.
When I hear, then, of old churches lost to the decay of time, the expense of upkeep, or the absence of parish presence, I am tempted to fall into a sort of despair. In my home diocese of Detroit, economic hardship has made the threat of closing all too possible among its many historic churches. It is a loss to both the Catholic and the aesthete. Not only are they pieces of history and art, they are also wonderful examples of how the physical world can bring us closer to the spiritual one: places of worship made precious by absorbing decades, and sometimes centuries, of devotion.
A sense of sadness in the face of this great loss is not inappropriate. Thinking about it, however, ought not to throw me into “the depths of despair.” I, like many of our “living in the moment” generation, find myself acting a bit too much like Anne Shirley and allowing my present emotions to run away with me. Every battle lost seems like utter defeat.
The Church protects us from getting too caught up in these momentary disappointments, however, by reminding us that we are not isolated in time. The liturgical year reminds us that we are participating in a story in which there is “a time for everything.” We are part of a Church past, present, and future, eternally One. Our sorrows are halved and joys doubled by sharing them with the community of saints throughout time. The history of the Church should be a source of strength to us.
How many times did Christians mourn what seemed insurmountable losses only to find that Truth would continue to triumph? The Great Persecutions, wars political and religious, periods of corruption and lukewarm affections, the continual infringement of the temporal powers, and the attack of secular philosophies. Time and time again, the Church faced losses on every front, but always persevered.
This should come as no surprise to us, since Christ himself promised that His Church will not fail. Yet, still we are astounded when we see Her rise again and again from the ashes of what seemed Her destruction. We belong to the bride of Christ and She will continue until the end of the Earth.
Like the saints and martyrs who have gone before and who have been lifted up to lead in times of sorrow, our response to the loss of beauty should be unshakable faith, unfailing hope, and love that can change the world.
Bernard of Clairvoux, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Ignatius of Loyola and are just a few saints who refused to respond to difficulties with despair, but worked with the Holy Spirit to forge a future for His Church. They clung to the Words of Our Lord, sought the intercession of the Blessed Mother and the Saints, and trusted with their whole lives. And those lives brought new beauty into the world, new holiness to their culture, and helped bring new souls to Christ.
When we as a Church find ourselves facing confusion and ugliness, we do not need to fear. Truth and beauty are not passing fads. They have their source in Christ, Who always brings His Church back to Himself. When we face the loss of something beautiful, we do not need to mourn. We will find that beauty again: in the mind of God, where nothing beautiful is ever really lost, and in the person of God, of whom all other beauty is but a reflection.