Body and Soul
The Devil is in the details. He is indeed. Take this whole body/soul thing, for instance. We have a very hard time giving each its due. The world of the flesh is constantly trying to pull us away from the life of the spirit. It’s always tempting us with mere stuff. In our efforts to resist the world we often overcompensate. We try to behave as though we were pure spirit, like the angels. Ironically, that often leaves us more immersed in the world.
Given that, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the history of the great heresies is the story of our failure to comprehend the balance of the material and the spiritual. The Arians, for instance, simply couldn’t accept that a fully human Jesus was also fully God. They erred on the side of the flesh, and decided that Jesus was a created being. The Docetists couldn’t conceive of God truly incorporating human nature, and so erred on the side of the spirit. They taught that Christ’s humanity, and therefore his death and resurrection, was an illusion.
Jesus Christ Himself, on the other hand, tells us, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The Latin word perfectus is a translation of Matthew’s original Greek τελείως (teleios). The most literal translation of the Greek word is “finished” or “complete.” Christ is the perfection, the completion of humanity, and he’s inviting us to model ourselves on him. We are not incorporeal angels, and we aren’t earthy beasts. We are body and soul.
“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
The Sermon of the Beatitudes, by Jacques Tissot, 1896
Body and Soul: Destroying the Temple
Our difficulty in grasping that duality with our finite minds is a vulnerability. The Devil can exploit that weakness to separate us from our true selves, and from the true God. Consider the case of another heresy, Albigensianism. The medieval Albigensians believed that matter (including the body) was bad, and that spirit was good. The application of this belief to the actual details of their lives led to some odd results. Since the body was bad anyway, you could hardly make it worse by using it in sinful ways. Many Albigensians, therefore, saw no problem in embracing a life of carnal ingulgence.
The most advanced members of their sect, however, however, went in a different direction. They called themselves (ironically) the perfecti, or parfaits in French. Since the material body was bad, they reasoned, the ultimate good deed would be to deny it all material sustenance. The culmination of Albigensianism, therefore, was the endura, the act of starving oneself to death. In their quest for holiness they destroyed the vessel that Holy Scripture call “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Temples of Stone and Brick
The Albigensians themselves are no longer with us, but something of their spirit lives on. Over the last century or so we’ve seen an echo of the violence that they visited upon the temples of their bodies. In our day, however, the urge to destroy is instead directed at the temples of stone and brick in which the body of the faithful offer up their worship to God. Last week I discussed the former St. Mary’s Church in Lewiston, Maine. This one-time Catholic church is now a community center and museum.
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.” That’s good for the Franco Center (the building’s new name). It’s bad for those of us who must worship God in a structure that’s as ugly as sin.
The design and appearance of our churches is not a trivial matter. I touched on this point in another recent post, on The Basilica of St.s Peter and Paul (also in Lewiston, as is the former St. Mary’s). I described church buildings as “enormous sacramentals, consecrated objects that can help connect us to the Grace of a God who is pure Spirit.” We are body and soul. Human beings need material means to approach the immaterial God. The means need to be suited to the end, or we’re liable to go astray. For that reason, destroying the beauty and religious distinctiveness of our churches does real spiritual harm.
Crisis magazine published one of the best explanations of the important connection between faith and the spaces in which we worship several years ago. The article is by Anthony Esolen, who uses 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. It doesn’t limit itself to matters relating to church art and architecture. It has wrought havoc upon language, liturgy, and much else. As it turns out, the indefatigable Prof. Esolen published a second essay on The Catholic Thing website at about the same time. Here he examines the theme of tradition and destruction through the posture of prayer in the Mass (ably assisted by Homer and his Odyssey).
A Great Symphony of Stories
Esolen’s articles have not lost any of their relevance over the past eight years. If anything, the problerms he identifies have come into sharper focus. His overarching theme is the incarnational nature of Catholic worship. The art, architecture, language and posture of prayer are not only the direct tangible connection to the experiences of our predecessors in the Faith. They are also 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.
It’s worth noting a connection, by the way, that St. Ann’s has with both St. Mary’s and the Basilica of St.s Peter and Paul. Poor French Canadian millworkers, not the wealthy and well-connected, built the Church and commisioned the artwork.
The Original Smashers of Images
We worship the God Who Became Flesh with our entire being. 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 existence):
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 the Crisis article:
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. We get the leveling, and the whitewashing. In sum, “as an ultimate but never to be realized aim, the destruction of Christ’s Church on earth.”
Why Not a High Altar?
I found myself entertaining similar thoughts as I sat in the former St. Mary’s Church in Lewiston, Maine. I was there to hear a lawyer who is also a Baptist preacher. He was talking, ironically enough, about the deconstruction of the U.S. Constitution. The original reredos (the structure that stands behind an old-fashioned high altar) still towered over the stage. There, keeping her original place in the reredos, the Blessed Mother cradling the Baby Jesus looked down on it all.
The whole time I kept thinking of so many newer churches I’ve seen. They just 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 [sadly this, too, has now been painted over]; 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 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. This was 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. Somehow, 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.
Maybe Our Ancestors Were on to Something?
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. There’s a danger of dropping either the Sacred Host or the child. They seem unaware that they could simply hold 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. Again, 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. A reredos or a baldacchino (a canopy-like structure over the altar) gives it even more emphasis. In a church of traditional design, all the elements naturally draw the eye toward the high altar. Here the miracle of transubstantiation takes place, the Word becomes Flesh. Just above that is the Tabernacle, containing the Body of Christ. Even on an unconscious level we understand that Christ is at the center. We know that our encounter with Him in the Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Christian Life. Now, compare the esthetic confusion of many contemporary altars and churches to the still profound impact of a former church like the former St. Mary’s in Lewiston . . . or St. Ann’s 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. Both churches were originally expressions of the Catholic faith of poor French Canadian laborers. Both are now non-religious meeting halls. You can visit the web site of the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center here. The Diocese intended to tear down one of the most beautiful, and one of the most theologically engaging, parish churches in the United States. A secular group recognized its the value. They saved it along with its treasures of sacred art and inspiring architecture.
Now its gorgeous frescoes look down on wedding receptions and the like. There is no longer any regular celebration of the mass, however. There is a link on the website labeled “Church Services.” The only services, however, are the Firm Foundation Christian Church’s Sunday morning worship service, and Friday evening Bible study. Of course, it’s good to see there is still some connection to Christian worship. But unfortunately, both the high altar and the free-standing post-Vatican II altar seem to be little more than relics.
The Sons Of This World Are Wiser . . .
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 one target of the libido delendi. The project of eradicating the old and beautiful also includes sacred art, sacred language, traditional devotions, and much more. As Anthony Esolen argues, it ultimately aims to destroy the Church by destroying any sense of identity among its members.
Totalitarians smother opposition by separating people from each other and from their history. They want people to have no strong sense of self, of who they are. They divide body and soul. St. John Paul II understood this well. By recalling the Polish people to their national and Christian identity, he led the way to the overthrow of communism. So why are we trying so hard to destroy our own Catholic identity?