Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Now See Here

One of the things I love about traditional worship is that all the senses are involved. Body movement, seeing art and architecture, touching water, hearing music, smelling incense, and tasting Eucharist. On my curmudgeony days, I bemoan the lack of regular incense and good music, but still, in theory, worship should be a full-on experience. Going into a church envelops me; it is truly set apart from the world, sanctus.

I’m a visual learner, so perhaps that’s why the look of the church means so much to me. Sometimes I worry that I’m just making a big deal out of my personal tastes, but it’s not that I just like pretty churches. I need pretty churches; they help me worship. They’re essential aides. As I was being less-than-focused during Mass Sunday, I realized how even when my attention wanders from the homily, the church building itself makes sure my mind still stays on Christ. Veering away from the priest as he spoke, my eyes hit upon an upper stained-glass window. The pascal lamb, with its banner of victory. Then I realized wherever I looked, there was something: the tabernacle, the corpus, Mary in her May crown of flowers, Joseph, Jesus with his Sacred Heart, a stained-glass window depicting the life of Peter—his fishing net, the cock crowing, his keys, his upside-down cross. At least three stations of the Cross—Christ condemned, Christ being taken down from the cross, and Christ’s burial. There were candles and flowers and the baptismal font. My eyes couldn’t look away without something else telling me to pay attention.
The Eastern Church really gets this.

Catholic churches are often accused of being too ornate, wastefully decadent. The Calvinists and Anabaptists stripped churches to the bare bones: plain walls, plain windows, maybe a simple cross, and a pulpit. Gold and marble and colored glass distracted from the message, they claimed. But I think the gold and the marble and the colored glass share the message. (Not to say the art has to be expensive, just that religious art has a message). This place is set apart; this worship demands all of you; this is an encounter with the holy.

Picture a stereotypical teenager’s room. It’s messy. She’s not that focused—her attention is split between school demands, extracurriculars, college applications, hormone-fueled crushes, friendships, and social media. The space is an intersection of all of these. On the walls, posters of favorite bands, celebrities, movies. On her desk, pictures of friends and kitschy souvenirs of beach trips and music festivals. Somewhere close by, but tucked out of sight of friends, a cherished stuffed animal. The teenager has made this room her own; she has claimed it as set apart from the household and filled it with reminders of who she is, or rather, who she wants to be. A teenager is still figuring out her identity, and her room showcases reminders of what she loves and what she strives to become.

Corpus Christi is a good Sunday to be reminded of the tangibility of the faith. We’re not Gnostics; the material and spiritual are not mutually exclusive. God created the material world; he loves matter! He gave us creation and physics and bodies. God became man himself. He interacts with his creation. He lets Mary wash his feet and Thomas touch his wounds. Our God-given senses can direct back to God. I’m an easily distracted child, and Mother Church is snapping her fingers, drawing me back to where I need to be. Look at this, feel this, taste this, and believe. 

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