Friday, December 19, 2014

When A Church Is Not A Church

     These are strange days indeed, brothers and sisters.  In my most recent “Sunday Snippets” post [here], commenting upon a former church that had been converted to secular use, I remarked that “I was struck with the realization that this secular hall still looked more like a Catholic Church than many recent church buildings still being used for that purpose.”  I had been intending to expand on the theme in a blog post this week; as it happens, two notable Catholic commentators, Prof. Anthony Esolen and the inimitable Fr. Z both beat me to it. 

The interior of St. Ann's Woonsocket, RI
     Esolen (to whose work I find myself linking rather often) published an essay [here] in Crisis magazine, using the magnificent St. Ann’s Church in Woonsocket, RI, as his vehicle for discussing what he calls the libido delendi, “lust for destruction”.  This odious force has had its way with the Catholic Church over the past few decades, and not only in matters relating to church art and architecture, but in terms of language, liturgy, and much else.  Fr. Z approvingly takes up Esolen’s evocative Latin phrase in his post [here] commenting on the Crisis article, and ends with a rousing call to battle the libido delendi with a renewed push to revive the Extraordinary Form in as many places as possible.  As it turns out, the indefatigable Prof. Esolen also published a second essay on a the theme of tradition and destruction [here] at The Catholic Thing, this time focusing on the posture of prayer in the Mass (ably assisted by Homer and his Odyssey).
     All of the above is worth reading, but if I may try to summarize: Esolen’s overarching theme is the incarnational nature of Catholic worship, how the art, architecture, language and posture of prayer, and the direct tangible connection to the experiences of our predecessors in the Faith, are all part of our experience of God.  As he says in his Crisis article, referring to the former parishioners of the beautifully frescoed St. Ann’s:

Every time they entered their church, they walked into a great symphony of stories. Here is Abel, the smoke of his sacrifice ascending straight toward the heavens. Here is Cain, ducking, his arms held before his head, the smoke of his sacrifice blinding and choking. Here is God the Father, bringing light out of darkness. Here exactly opposite Him is the prophet Jonah, spat out by the whale de profundis onto the shore. You cannot understand the paintings and their placement in the same way in which you understand a bald message, such as, “The last person to leave the church must lock the doors.” You cannot come to an end of understanding them. They are mysteries, familiar and utterly unfamiliar at once. They cause you to be at home with wonders.

We worship the God Who Became Flesh with our entire being, and we can’t contain that experience within our limited minds and in narrow categories of our own devising.  In The Catholic Thing Esolen describes the church/liturgy/doctrine wreck-o-vators as people who simply don’t grasp this expansive understanding of Catholic practice (and, really, human exeistence):

Over-schooled people, long sheltered from the physical necessities of life, from plowing, sowing, digging, sawing, stitching, bleaching, ironing, mowing – they are most prone to lifeless abstractions, and most dismissive of the bodily gestures that people who work with hands and shoulders and backs understand.

And as he points out, again in Crisis:

Intellectuals are the original smashers of images. It was not quarry workers who demanded that their communion rails be knocked out with sledge hammers. It was not little children who pleaded with their pastors to cover paintings with whitewash. It was not housewives who demanded that the high altars with all their draperies and candelabra be replaced with tables so bare and spare that they would not do for an ordinary kitchen.

Our intellectual understandings need to be refined by the real corporeal experience of the Faith as handed on and as lived by generations of believers. Esolen suggests that when we separate ourselves from the tangible signs of that history, we get the de-mystifiying, the leveling, the whitewashing and, “as an ultimate but never to be realized aim, the destruction of Christ’s Church on earth.”
The reredos of the former St. Mary's, Lewiston, ME
     I found myself entertaining similar thoughts a couple weeks ago as I sat in the former St. Mary’s Church in Lewiston, Maine, now a private meeting hall. I was  listening to a lawyer who is also a Baptist preacher talking, ironically enough, about the deconstruction of the U.S. Constitution, as a statue of the Blessed Mother cradling the Baby Jesus looked down on it all. As I looked at that lovely old reredos (the structure that stands behind an old-fashioned high altar) I kept thinking of all the newer churches I’ve seen, where they don’t seem to know what to do with the space behind the new-style free-standing altar. One of the better choices I’ve seen is a large wall painting of Christ Pantocrator; a large Crucifix is also appropriate; less suitably, I’ve seen shelves or plants; the worst solution I can recall was a piano occupying the area behind the altar, as if it we were in a concert hall.
     One thing I’ve never seen on the back wall in any church built since 1965 is a high altar, with or without a reredos.  One of the most distinctive architectural features, perhaps the only essential architectural element, of every single Catholic church built from the time of Constantine seventeen centuries ago up until the mid sixties, and it doesn’t occur to anyone involved in designing Catholic churches as the solution to the problem of what to put behind the new altar - even if only for the sake of appearance.  It reminds me of the people I’ve seen doing the awkward dance of holding a squirming baby in one arm while trying to receive communion in the other hand without dropping either the Sacred Host or the child (and I have seen this many times).  Do they not realize that they if they simply held their youngster securely with both hands and put their tongue out to receive they could protect the safety of the child, the sanctity of the Sacrament, and their own dignity all at the same time?  In both cases, doing what has been the long-standing tradition of our predecessors is both more elegant and more practical. 
     The high altar, as an architectural element, also does something else as well: it serves as a natural focal point (especially when it is emphasized by the reredos or a baldacchino, a canopy-like structure over the altar). In a church of traditional design, all the elements naturally draw the eye toward the high altar, where the miracle of transubstantiation takes place as the Word becomes Flesh, and just above that the Tabernacle, containing the Body of Christ. Even on an unconscious level we understand that Christ is the center, and that our encounter with Him in the Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Christian Life.  Compare the esthetic confusion of many contemporary altars and churches with the still profound impact of  a preserved former church like the former St. Mary’s in Lewiston . . . or St. Ann in Woonsocket.
     Did I mention St. Ann’s, like St. Mary’s, is no longer a church?  That’s a detail that Prof. Esolen seems to have left out of his otherwise excellent essay.  You can visit the web site of the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center here.  Strange days, as I said above.  The Diocese was going to tear down one of the most beautiful, and one of the most theologically engaging, parish churches in the United States, but the building, along with its treasure of art and inspiring architecture was saved by a secular group.  Now its gorgeous frescoes look down on wedding receptions and the like, but the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is no longer offered, as far as I can tell: neither on the high altar nor on the free-standing post-Vatican II altar.  At any rate, while there is a link on the website labeled “Church Services”, the page it leads to is empty.

Detail of a Fresco at St. Ann: Angel wings come through the architecture

     How odd, and sad. “The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Secular groups are willing to save, on purely esthetic or sentimental grounds, sacred treasures that have been entrusted to us but which we are trying to throw away. The church buildings are only an example.  As Anthony Esolen argues, the whole projects of eradication of the old and beautiful, including not just buildings but sacred art, sacred language, traditional devotions, and much more, the libido delendi aims at destroying the Church by destroying any sense of identity among its members.  Totalitarian states try to smother opposition by separating people from each other and from their history, so that they have no strong sense of self, of who they are.  St. John Paul understood this well, and by recalling the Polish people to their national and Christian identity led the way to the overthrow of communism.  So why are we trying so hard to destroy our own Catholic identity?