Of Beauty, and Saying Goodbye

This past weekend was a farrago of extreme experiences — the anniversary of September 11, the build-up to rallies favoring and opposing the Ground Zero Victory Mosque, marches by paranoid 9/11 “truthers” — and a solemn farewell to a dear friend I will never see again. All this at once, in just two days, might fry the synapses of normal people — but then, normal people didn’t spend their formative years as Latin Mass traditionalists in Manhattan. That experience alone should inure anyone to the bumpy psychic ride of opposites violently yoked together, thundering down the tracks of a rickety roller coaster, groaning to fly off the rails. You really haven’t lived till you’ve listened to a 31-year-old altar “boy” throw a screaming hissy fit about Pope Paul VI, in a coffee-hour crowd of rumpled anti-Masonic activists, European monarchists from Queens, and a woman dressed in cardinal’s robes (she’s saintly, bless her heart, just a little . . . eccentric).

There are worse ways to spend one’s twenties. I could have been living out in the suburbs at a parish built or wreckovated in the 1970s, yawning on a padded, snot-green pew, as “Gather Us In” was strummed incompetently on a guitar. You know the kind of church I mean — where banality and comfort set the tone, where the stark strangeness of the divine and human sacrifice that is the Mass are swathed and obscured in a mauve haze of cozy emotional uplift, to the point where kneeling before the Host seems a crude and archaic gesture. Beauty at such a place would seem . . . out of place, like a laurelled Olympic athlete in a Grecian tunic stranded at an overweight biker’s bar. Just so, a studied mediocrity of music, preaching, and artwork has come to prevail in modern churches. The sanctuary, once the site where the Holy of Holies was honored as best the impoverished congregation could sacrifice to afford, becomes instead God’s refrigerator, where all our slapdash art projects are pinned by plastic magnets. A doting, senile grandma, God loves us just as we are, so our half-baked efforts are plenty. As I’ve found myself muttering on the way out of such places, “Nothing’s too crappy for God.”

 

Given the alternative, I’m proud to stand with the oddballs. I’m glad I was one of those weird enough to insist — in the face of all apparent evidence — that the Church’s historic liturgy wasn’t dead, that it would someday be revived and embraced throughout the Church around the world. Wherever that fugitive, exquisitely un-modern creature poked up her head, we hunted her — in crumbling Armenian chapels filled with puzzled Ecuadorians, in abandoned Italian parishes kept alive only to conduct Mafia funerals, in mental hospital chapels where the bishop consigned us “crackpots,” or forgotten graveyard chapels where we tried (it seemed) to raise the dead. We chased her down the nights and down the days, we chased her down the arches of the years; we chased her through the labyrinthine ways of canon law, and pastoral provisions. And at last, by the grace of Pope Benedict XVI, who chivalrously conducted the holy lady out of hiding, we welcomed her, still-blinking, back into the light.

 

It was at an obscure, traditional liturgy — at a parish that offers the Russian Catholic rite, one of just two such places in the country — that a dozen years ago I met a dear friend of mine, the person who drew me back to New York City last weekend. I went there to say goodbye. I will not see her in the flesh again. She isn’t dying in the normal sense of the word. This old friend, after many dry years spent in prayerful, painful discernment, bade me farewell over a long dinner at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Then she flew off to England where she will live in the desert: a starkly traditional Carmelite convent.

She can’t answer letters; she isn’t even sure if she will receive them. No phone calls or e-mails, of course, and probably (rightly) no visits from old boyfriends. Behind the old stone walls and iron gates, with nothing to call her own but a straw pallet, six or seven books, and a habit, she will spend two hours each morning and each evening sitting on a stool in the convent chapel, “immolating” herself in contemplative prayer. “I feel like I’m dying and going to heaven,” she told me over our oysters. To those of us who aren’t called, it sounds rather more like hell. But then that’s how vocations work; the life of a soldier, a mother of ten, a missionary in the slums seems inconceivable to anyone not given the graces to want it and live it. To the person who chose rightly and supports his work with prayer, the prospect of living any other way will sound, at best, sterile and futile. That’s how my friend explained it to me, and in my best moments I believe her. I’ll welcome her promised prayers, and offer her my own, for what they’re worth.

A caffeinated flibbertigibbet like me would never normally meet a person like this, a wistful mystic whose interests run to reading the Desert Fathers and singing polyphony. Only the Church brought us together, and not merely in the old sense: “Here comes everybody.” In fact, the storied Catholic universality of which James Joyce was wryly boasting is now but a memory. The shattering of the liturgy after the Council, and the splintering of the faithful, made of us factions and sub-factions. Technically, I belong to the 5 percent or so of American Catholics who are H.V. (Humanae Vitae) positive, and within that to the smaller set who are N.O. (Novus Ordo) unfriendly.

 

What drew us two oddballs to the same obscure little room full of non-Russians in Little Italy, to sing in Old Church Slavonic ancient Jewish prayers collected by Greeks and Christian Arabs? A hunger for the Beauty that’s meant to attend as a lady in waiting upon the Truth. Not prettiness, or gaudy expense, or ostentatious display, but Beauty — a faint elusive flicker we glimpse at the edges of our experience, which artists used to seek. I don’t believe that they stopped seeking; instead, they have forgotten where, and how, to look.

Mediocrity, laziness, and heresy aren’t enough to explain what happened to Christian art. Someone spent a great deal of money constructing churches like these, and massive shrines to modernity like the infamous cathedral in Los Angeles. I refuse to believe that everyone involved in designing, building, and decorating such places is motivated by Sloth or conscious sacrilege. Indeed, I’ve known several artists who are much more devout than I, who have dedicated their lives to creating art that expresses the Christian faith in the “modern idiom.” They will get to heaven long before me. And their work is mostly rubbish.

But why is that? Are we merely being Philistines when we wince at long, spindly crucifixes that imitate Giacometti? Is it merely lazy nostalgia or gilt by association that leads us to crave neo-Classical, Romanesque, or Gothic churches? There’s nothing intrinsically sacred about the Gothic; at Yale we used to sweat in a Gothic gym. And it’s true that each of those styles was shocking when it was new. Stuffy people no doubt shook their heads at the first Gothic arches, or the realism of Renaissance Madonnas alongside the stern austerity of the icon. (The good Kaiser Franz Josef detested my favorite church in the world, the Steinhof in Vienna.) Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles was following good, Renaissance precedent when he commissioned to build his cathedral one of the leading secular architects in the world. Will Catholics of the future laud him for being visionary, and flock to Our Lady of the Angels as we now do to once-controversial artworks like . . . the Sistine Ceiling? Will they laugh at us, as we do at the music critics who mocked Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? We are terrified that they will, and so we go on nodding and accepting modern atrocities.

Why is so much modern art so ill-suited to sacred worship or devotion? The standard, cliché answer is that modern art in every genre mirrors the alienation, secularism, and impersonality of modern life. Professors will pompously say things like, “No honest person could build a Georgian house in the wake of World War I.” And all the students nod, then write such “wisdom” down. That is how modern architects are made. But in fact, such statements are nonsense riding a hovercraft. Was life during plague-wracked late medieval Europe a placid, serene expanse of peace and unanimity? Was war-torn, corrupt, Renaissance Italy any less jarring a place to live than post-war Britain? Okay, then why could men in those other, equally fallen eras craft works that partook in perfection, while we are sentenced to an endless stream of the fractured and the tortured?

 

A colleague of mine at Thomas More College, our artist-in-residence David Clayton, has an answer I find persuasive:

The real issue is why we find things beautiful. Does there exist a divinely-created order that we can discover in nature, articulate in mathematics and philosophy, and express through music, painting, and prayer? The Western tradition, beginning with the Greeks and continuing through the Middle Ages and the Baroque, answers all these questions, “Yes.” Artistic Modernism, a mirror of modern secularism, says “No.” It takes as its starting point the empty, soulless world depicted by materialist theories of science. It abandons the tradition that Creation is a good and orderly place where man was meant to live in a certain harmony with nature, so the art that emerges lacks order, significant form, reverence and beauty. It doesn’t even strive to be beautiful, but “interesting” and “original.”

In the class he teaches on the “Way of Beauty” (watch his 12-part TV course on the subject here), Clayton looks for traces of that “divinely created order,” and uses geometry, mathematics, and traditional techniques to replicate that Beauty in new works of art. He is not alone, thanks be to God. Inspired by Pope John Paul II’s and Pope Benedict’s writing on theology and art, hundreds of other faithful artists are doing the very same thing — for instance, the gifted young architect Matthew Alderman. Follow their efforts and read their essays at the New Liturgical Movement.

I even saw a glimpse of hope that the pope’s long efforts are bearing fruit at my old parish in Astoria. Built in the 1950s in a modernized Romanesque style, decorated reverently in what Alderman would call the “Liturgical Movement Style,” it has long been marred by lazy, modern mediocrity: electric candles, an altar rail ripped out, the tabernacle shunted off to the side so the priest could sit enthroned before the altar. Every time I go back to my old block, I visit that place and the font where I was baptized into life. This time when I went up to the altar where I received my first Holy Communion, delight and gratitude forced me to my knees: The tabernacle was back in its place of honor, behind the altar. It was graced by new mosaics in a solemn traditional style—angels dancing in joy before the Lord. I thank God for them, and for my friend, who even now is walking her very first steps in the English desert.

John Zmirak

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

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