“He hath made every thing beautiful in His time: also He hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” –Ecclesiastes 3:11
In the hyper-connected age of social media, many have taken to using the Internet as a pseudo-confessional booth, inflicting their every thought and opinion on the world. With this in mind, I ask your indulgence for a brief admission of my own: I am a Christian and an aesthete. These two cardinal sins of the 21st Century are not only twin offenses against the modern world, but, two years into the reign of Pope Francis, seemingly a contradiction in terms. That I’m one of only a handful of my peers to cling to that withered old Christian creed in my adulthood is bad enough, but to openly admit my delight in the finer things in life tends to suggest, even to fellow believers, that I try to serve two masters.
It’s true: I hate ugliness. Despite my lackluster income, I prefer hardcover books to paperbacks, wood furniture to plastic, craft beers to the cheap stuff, and even Blu-rays to mere DVD’s. I lament the fact that wearing a necktie in most places is now seen as trying too hard, and I don’t understand why any grown men 30 or more degrees north of the equator would wear shorts in public. I’ve even taken the unusual step (for a Catholic) of opening this essay with a quote from the King James Version of the Bible – hardly a bastion of doctrinal orthodoxy, but undoubtedly the bedrock of modern English and the most mellifluous rendition of Holy Writ in our tongue. I could go on, but you’ve probably already concluded that I must be an insufferable snob, all style over substance, and that I am a poor representative of the Christian ideal. On that last count, I wouldn’t entirely disagree.
But on the things that truly matter, I have recently come discover that I’m no longer entirely alone.
A few weeks ago, I spent about five minutes whipping up a shareable meme to go with my pithy observations on the aesthetics of the chair that was unveiled as that which will be used by Pope Francis during his upcoming Mass at Madison Square Garden:
“On the left is a “simple oak chair built by immigrant laborers and devoid of the ornate trappings of power” made for Pope Francis to sit on when he celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden, New York during the upcoming papal visit to the United States. Sounds like a wonderful gesture of solidarity for a “people’s pope”, no?
On the right is a splendid Gothic revival chair crafted for Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States in 1999 by an American master woodcarver.
My friend Jacob, a woodcarver who makes furniture for Catholic churches, was taught his craft by the gentleman who made the chair on the right. His former teacher had to give up his trade in St. Louis, Missouri and move to California because there wasn’t enough demand in the Church for his work. He now carves ornate cabinets and furniture for the wealthy, mainly for private homes, never to be seen or enjoyed by the general public.
The fact that we deride beauty as vain or wasteful is one of many cancers in our church and society. By insisting upon plain, “humble” furnishings for our churches in the prosperous first world, on the contrary, we make a show of false humility, prideful in our shabbiness like a well-to-do family man who calls himself “middle class” for wearing board shorts to work and then frowns on a poorer man for wearing a suit.
As Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey said when his heir was thinking of firing his valet in the name of living a simpler life: “We all have our parts to play, Matthew, and we must all be allowed to play them.”
By the night’s end, my post on Facebook went unexpectedly viral, racking up several thousand shares. It was hardly my best writing, but the message clearly struck a chord; even some of my non-religious friends were passing it along! For a brief moment in time, citizens of the world — though separated by different religions, nations, and languages — heaved a collective sigh against the relentless barrage of ugliness and false humility foisted upon us time and again by even (or perhaps especially) society’s wealthiest and most influential members. Though in the grand scheme this victory was a small one, it is enough to give us hope that we might some day collectively wake up from this cultural nightmare and ask ourselves:
What is wrong with the world?
G.K. Chesterton, so the story goes, famously answered this question when it was posed by The Times to authors across the globe in a letter with just two words: “I am.” Although that little anecdote might be apocryphal, I stand by the sentiment and will go a little further: We, the Church, the whole family and society of the faithful on earth, both lay and clerical, are the problem.
For well over a thousand years, we bred, molded, trained, and commissioned the greatest minds of Western Civilization, harnessing their creative energies ad majorem Dei gloriam. In the name of Jesus, we raised up the cathedral of Chartres, illuminated the Book of Kells, developed the university, built a vast network of hospitals for the relief of the poor, and paved the foundations of international law. Then, somewhere along the way, the message grew stale, or so it was perceived. We were taught to be embarrassed of our spiritual and cultural heritage; that it was “triumphalist” to revel in the Church’s past role as a builder and mover of civilizations.
No single gesture could more sharply express this surrender of the Church’s patronage than the one made on November 13, 1964: the day Pope Paul VI laid the papal crown upon the altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica, ostensibly to auction it off for the poor in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and its “new springtime.” Pope Paul was cheered on with cries of “long live the pope of poverty!”, but since the crown was, at the time, valued at only $12,000, the act undoubtedly did more to dispense warm, fuzzy feelings than to actually deal a mortal blow to human suffering. The poor we still have with us, but the Papacy forever threw away one of its most visible signs of universal authority.
We have, in short, grown bored of our civilization. No one has said it better than art historian Kenneth Clark, who, in 1969, set the popular imagination alight with his monumentally successful BBC documentary series, Civilisation: A Personal View. In the first episode, Lord Clark ponders on why the Roman Empire collapsed:
“[B]oredom, a feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people with a high degree of material prosperity. There’s a poem by a modern Greek called Cavafy, a poem in which he imagines the people of some late Antique city, waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack it. And then, finally, the barbarians move on somewhere else, and the city is saved, but the people are disappointed. It would have been better than nothing. Of course, civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity, enough to provide a little leisure, but far more, it requires confidence. Confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, confidence in one’s own mental powers.
“The way the stones of that bridge are laid is not only a triumph of technical skill, but it shows a vigorous belief in discipline and law, energy, vitality. All the great civilizations or civilized epochs have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilization consists in fine sensibilities or good conversation, and all that. Well, these can be among the agreeable results of civilization, but they are not what makes a civilization. And a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid. So, if one asks why the civilization of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.”
Now, I don’t blame the average, non-Catholic denizen of the 21st Century for scoffing at the Pope being called “father of princes and kings, governor of the world” in that embarrassing old coronation rite, just as the triple tiara was placed on his head. The days when popes were sovereign over a third of Italy and brokered peace between the ruling powers of Europe were done long before Vatican II was a twinkle in Pope John XXIII’s eye; indeed, as an aspiring historian, I see some merit to the argument that the loss of the Papal States ultimately freed the popes to concentrate on the more important business of shepherding souls. But now, we live among a generation of Catholics who still, in this ever more secular world, inexplicably muster the willpower to roll out of bed early every Sunday morning and yet have never even heard of anything like the “social reign of Christ the King.”
For us, living up to the Christian ideal of poverty means attending a Mass offered in a garish polyester chasuble decorated with childish designs and seeing the Eucharist confected in crude earthenware, rather than beholding the lovingly-stitched embroidery of a vestment worn by a pastor’s predecessors for five generations and seeing Our Lord’s Body and Blood given due accommodation in vessels crafted from precious metals. The elegant golden chalice paid for by the hard-won savings of an immigrant people in a hostile land is now deemed more suitable for display behind a glass case in the bishop’s museum, if not in a listing on eBay. We spit on the inheritance of our forefathers in faith and call it humility. We roll our eyes at the pomp of old cathedrals with the same lack of faith and awe as the Romans of the late Empire surely did before the statues of Jupiter and the old gods as barbarians gathered before the gates. We gleefully deface our own churches like the peasants of Reformation Germany, lashing out at things we never bothered to understand. The confidence we once had in the institutional Church has, through our own and our leaders’ follies, been utterly spent.
Pope Francis is as keen and attentive to the power of symbolism and public gestures as any man who has ever sat upon the chair of Peter. Despite my unfamiliarity with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio when he was elevated to the pontificate, I could see the careful cultivation of his public persona from the moment of his election. Before you rush to the comment box to say your “why, I never’s”, know that Pope Francis is, at least here, following the tradition of many great leaders. For every minute Winston Churchill spent giving a speech in Parliament or on the radio, an hour was devoted to the practicing, refining, and perfecting of every syllable according to his trademark image of the defiant bulldog with the stiff upper lip. Gandhi was a lawyer trained at London’s Inner Temple and formed with a robust western liberal arts education, yet he knew he would have to trade in his three-piece suit for a holy man’s loincloth in order to gain any real traction with his followers (though the price of Gandhi’s success is that India remains more in the thrall of gurus than the hands of capable statesmen).
I do a fair bit of posturing myself to express my aristocratic soul and bon vivant personality in this oppressively plebeian and unimaginative world, so when I watched the broadcast of Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass and saw His Holiness kneeling at the tomb of Saint Peter in a deliberately non-descript white chasuble, flanked and contrasted on either side by the eastern-rite patriarchs in the full, splendid regalia of their offices, I knew I was looking at a kindred spirit of sorts. This was not a man who would stick three Roman numerals after his name and be content with being subsumed by the symbols and traditions of his office, but rather someone who needs to stand out from the crowd and make an impression: to brand this pontificate as his own. In just two years, Pope Francis has already distinguished himself as the greatest master of public imagery in the West since Napoleon. Just as the Corsican conqueror had Jacques-Louis David paint him heroically embracing the sick soldiers of his Egyptian campaign as though he were medieval king healing a peasant’s scrofula with his anointed hands, our media machine today would have us believe Pope Francis invented the act of embracing the disfigured. With His Holiness’s impending arrival in nearby Philadelphia, I can’t go to the supermarket without being assaulted by the Pope’s grin across three different magazine covers at the checkout aisle, even if I’m the only Catholic in the store. (My only consolation is that at least it means we don’t have to talk about Bruce Jenner anymore.)
This Friday, the Pope will undoubtedly showcase more of his personal take on what it means to be a Vicar of Christ at Madison Square Garden, for which we already have a foretaste with that infamous “chair seen ‘round the world.” When I inevitably look over the photographs of the event the day after they’re shared by my friends, I won’t be so exasperated by Francis himself (for he is, ultimately, still just a man and a product of his times) as I will by the reactions of the masses he panders to with these calculated gestures evocative of simplicity and humility: the fawning of the secular media, of course, but most nauseatingly of all, the thunderous applause of my fellow Catholics as we congratulate ourselves for shunning our forefathers’ patrimony of sacred art, architecture, and music, preferring to enthrone ugliness and utilitarianism in their place.
I would conclude by calling forth the wisdom of a hero from beyond the grave, a man who did, in fact, die from working himself to death: Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852). Pugin was the father of the Gothic revival, the English architect who designed the interior of the Houses of Parliament and raised the iconic, supremely Gothic “Big Ben” clock tower long after the Age of Reason had its day. More importantly, he was a convert to the Catholic faith who spent his life building churches, designing vestments, chalices, candlesticks, and every other conceivable item needed for the newly emancipated Catholic Church in England. Pugin taught a “morality of architecture” whereby every stone and every arch expressed the faith, or lack thereof, of its architect. Here was a man whose faith was so absolute that he would think of God walking around your church, checking to see if you had been dishonest by using fake marble columns, cheap brickwork for the building’s rear, or sloppy workmanship up in the rafters which only angels and mice could see.
If I had to post an image contrasting my personal holiness to Pugin’s, it would be as a mustard seed to a mountain, but one thing we hold with equal conviction is that symbols matter. Everything in the physical world, especially in a church, conveys a deeper spiritual meaning. So to those who are confounded that so much can be said about so trivial a thing, I simply say: no, it’s not “just” a chair.
“[The church] is, indeed, a sacred place; the modulated light, the gleaming tapers, the tombs of the faithful, the various altars, the venerable images of the just,–all conspire to fill the mind with veneration, and to impress it with the sublimity of Christian worship. And when the deep intonations of the bells from the lofty campaniles, which summon the people to the house of prayer, have ceased, and the solemn chant of the choir swells through the vast edifice,–cold, indeed, must be the heart of that man who does not cry out with the Psalmist, Domine dilexi decorem domus tuae, et locum habitationis gloriae tuae. [How well, Lord, I love the house where Thou dwellest, the shrine of Thy glory].” –Augustus Welby Pugin, Contrasts
James Griffin is a convert from Seventh-day Adventism and currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter. An autodidact and self-proclaimed expert in medieval history, liturgy, and culture, James also has a keen interest in sacred music, and has dedicated many years to restoring the hallowed tradition of Gregorian chant in his native Texas. You can find more of his musings on his blog, Modern Medievalism.