Excerpted with permission from Commonweal.
Last week, at our Altar-Rosary Society meeting, I made a heartfelt request that we have vigil candles in church for people to light. Olga, a member who grew up in an Eastern Catholic church, agreed with me, but our request fell flat. The pastor cited the danger of fire, the cost of insurance, and the certainty of theft. I replied that as a rich parish, we could afford to offer candles for free. And if we absolutely couldn't have real flames and smoke, electric candles would be better than nothing.
The pastor voiced surprise that I felt so strongly about keeping up this traditional Catholic devotion. My reasons are simple. Like a lot of other post-Vatican II folks in the pews, I miss something in our spare moderne churches. They often feel downright chilly. Too often, the Catholic tradition's witness to material sacramentality seems faint. Warmth, mystery, and transcendence aren't present. If this is a problem without a name, it's also one I don't know how to fix. A simple-minded imitation of the past won't do.
I could not join Camille Paglia's riff praising her childhood parish church with its statue of Saint Lucy offering her eyeballs on a plate. Nor would I want to import the mural I saw in a Spanish chapel that shows a female martyr's chopped-off breasts flying away in the air. Certain Mexican crucifixes come with far too much blood and gore. These, like the display of Saint Catherine of Siena's severed head, err in too grisly a direction. At the opposite extreme, we encounter excessive sentimentality. While worshiping in a small wooden summer chapel at Lake George, N. Y., I counted 14 images of Mary and her baby. I admired the excess and the feminine ambience, but the dreadful quality of the mass-produced art spoiled the effect. Even the monumental Marian shrine in Washington, D.C., replete with a plethora of elegant Byzantine images, feels cold and inauthentic to me.
Such was the self-righteous spirit that led Cromwell's troops to smash stained glass and destroy statues all over the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, the English Reformation's violent stripping of the altars influenced generations of American Protestants. My great-grandfather was a predestinarian Baptist preacher in south Alabama. His Shiloh congregation rejected the use of musical instruments as corrupt. Only voices could be raised in song. His small wooden church held no ornamentation, much less 14 Madonnas.
Having finally grown up and been converted to the sacramental Roman way, I firmly renounce all past iconoclasm and want to go forward--or deeper. But forward does not mean accepting an aesthetic of functional minimalism. I don't want the Catholic Church to be Bauhaused (an invented verb referring to ambush by sterile modern architecture). Concrete and glass-filled spaces should be limited to airports and shopping malls. Even our newest upscale mall has softened its modernist aura with atriums, fountains, and statues--befitting a capitalist cathedral. In a real cathedral or church, my spirit expands if there are dim corners where worshipers can pray privately before illuminated icons and banks of vigil lights. Flickering lights and flickering prayers ascend together. How marvelous the wartime London churches looked in the movie "The End of the Affair." Their glowing transcendent aura made it believable that the heroine might give up her lover for God.
Worshipers attend to a threefold reality. God is in the gathered body of the assembly, God is within, and God dwells in unapproachable light beyond. Vatican II teaches that "in the earthly liturgy, we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem, toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God." Yes, that's it; I have been late in grasping the vision of "the heavenly liturgy." My attention has been focused on the urgent need for justice and equality, in the church and in society. But I see now that it was the magnetic pull of "the Mass as heaven on earth" that brought me into the church and continues to nurture me. Without this transcendent eschatological dimension of worship, fully embodied in art, music, beauty, ritual, and sacred space, Cromwell wins.