New Orleans is home to some of the most beautiful churches in our nation. We need look no further than the Clarion Herald’s Bridal Registry to see images of the older churches with their Gothic or renaissance-revivalist architecture, stained-glass windows, ornate pillars and arches, and immense artworks.
Indeed, the faith and worship of the Catholic Church has long been known for its beauty and majesty. If we think of most Catholic churches that we’ve visited, we can imagine the large structures and the beauty held within. Often, this is a complaint that Protestants have of the Catholic Church: so much money goes into the building of our churches, but it’s just a building. And this may be true for Protestants. But for us, as Catholics, the church is much more than a mere building: it is the House of the Lord, where the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ. In the sacrifice of the Mass, we believe in the spiritual and physical presence of Jesus.
In the Old Testament, we read of golden altars and bronze or copper pillars for the temple of God. We hear of the opulence of King Solomon’s Temple, the permanent resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. And, indeed, in the New Testament, when Jesus witnesses the rich making a show of placing their gifts into the treasury, he makes a point of telling his apostles not of the rich, but of the poor widow. She had placed two copper coins – all that she had to offer – into the treasury. Jesus said to his apostles, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” (Luke 21:3-4).
And, of course, the many who condemn the Catholic Church as opulent often miss the purpose behind the beauty and ornate qualities of our churches and rituals. What they miss are the acts of devotion, done out of love for God. Look closely at some of the stained glass the next time you visit an older church. Often, you’ll find a pane of glass towards the bottom of the scene that is inscribed with a name. Frequently, these works of art were commissioned in memory of relatives. And why honor one’s family in this form? To highlight their devotion to the church and their parish, perhaps, but also to honor a life of devotion to God.
The beauty and majesty of the Catholic Church derives from an act of devotion. It is our representation of the awe-inspiring love that we have for God. The grandness of this gesture should, perhaps, come as little surprise.
Our encounter with beauty opens our eyes, and also opens our hearts. When we encounter a beautiful work of art in a museum, or listen to the strains of a symphony – each part working together to create an unforgettable harmony – we experience a message of truth. We are moved, in spite of ourselves, to realize the impact that such beauty has had on our hearts and minds. We recognize the truth behind the artist’s inspiration and devotion to his craft. That’s the beauty of art: an artist visibly portrays an interior experience so that it can be experienced by all.
As part of family vacations, I remember traveling to a number of museums and famous landmarks. But I also remember traveling to experience some of the most beautiful churches in our nation.
At the start of this new year, take in the beauty and grandeur of our hometown churches. Take a moment to really experience these acts of devotion and open our hearts to the message that God is attempting to provide to us.
Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.