Abandoning Utilitarianism to Embrace Transcendent Beauty

We live in an age marked by utilitarianism. If an item, building, or artwork does not serve some use it is easily discarded. It is also an age of secular humanism in which the person is the center of the cosmos, not God. These two philosophical undercurrents have impacted us as Catholics whether we like it or not. There is nothing wrong with a properly ordered humanism, just as there isn’t anything inherently wrong with using items for their utility. I clearly need to use a knife to cut an onion. The problem with utilitarianism is that it has come to dominate Western culture from how we understand the human person to art to religion to architecture. We do not use people, but utilitarianism tells us this is acceptable since the goal of life is my personal happiness. Beauty is of little use in this system. Beauty within itself serves no real purpose. It cannot be formed and re-ordered to my personal end, so I discard it. This is evidenced by the architecture and art of our day. It is largely devoid of transcendence and keeps us firmly, if not stuck, here on earth.

We are not at home here in this Fallen earth. We are called to come to know God and grow in further communion with Him through His Church and through His creation, but our end is not here. Creation is a window to God. It is one of the ways he communicates His beauty, transcendence, humor, creativity, and power to us. The earth is not the fullness of revelation, however, that rests with Christ. We are made for communion with God. In fact, we are made in His image and likeness, so that we could bridge the gap between the material and the immaterial. We were meant to unite the gulf between the spirit and matter. Our vocation before the Fall was to bring creation into communion with God. Through the Fall we failed and Christ had to come to complete that vocation for us. If we look at the architecture and art of the last decades, do we see our call to transcendence or do we see a desire for comfort for the things of here and now? Are we uniting Heaven and earth as Our Lord has done?

Robert Barron, now Bishop, wrote a book of meditations on the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe called Heaven in Stone and Glass. I have stood in the same places as Bishop Barron with my eyes raised to flying buttresses, rose windows, and dark spaces that give way to true light. If you are ever in Paris, Notre-Dame is a must see, but do not leave the city without visiting Sainte-Chapelle. It is tucked away in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks from Notre-Dame, but the stained glass is unlike anything you have ever seen or will ever see. It is glorious and transcendent. Standing within its walls is to be transported.

It is true that building great cathedrals of old is prohibitively expensive these days, but that does not mean we should acquiesce to the utilitarian principle of use and “practicality”. This often translates as beige, spaces devoid of opulence and beauty, and strangely, a courting with iconoclasm (a heresy condemned by the Church centuries ago) in abandoning sacred art and statuary. Our sanctuaries and worship spaces are not places of utility. They are places where Heaven and earth meet through the Sacrifice of the High Priest, Jesus Christ. It is difficult to understand that truth if you feel like you are sitting on your couch at home. As Bishop Barron writes:

One of the serious problems that we face is that for the past thirty years this iconic element has been undervalued [churches are an icon of the sacred]. Our church buildings have become largely empty spaces, void of imagery and color, places where the people gather but not places that, themselves, tell a story.

—Bishop Robert Barron, Heaven in Stone and Glass, Page 10.

Beauty is a gift that transports the soul. Utility leaves us firmly planted on earth. Whether it be art, architecture, music, or other aspects related to beauty, we miss out on a core tradition of our faith and aspect of the human person when we rid ourselves of transcendent beauty in favor of comfort. Beauty makes us uncomfortable. It reminds us that we are not yet home. Beauty comes with an inherent sense of heartache, but in a way that reminds us to continue towards God.

When I lived in England, I lived two blocks from the great gothic Lincoln Cathedral. I spent hours and days walking the inside and outside of this majestic and grand building. I experienced the soul lifting heights of Handel’s Messiah performed within its flying walls and ceilings. There was no utility in it and I did not feel safe. At times contemplating its grandeur gave me the deep and heart-breaking sense of home-sickness. But there was no mistaking who the cathedral was made for and to whom I belonged when I stood within its walls. My mind was raised to God in every element of the building. It told me the story of salvation history. The Church itself is no longer in Catholic hands, but it’s construction began in the 11th Century, well before the Reformation. It is also dedicated to Our Lady.

Mary Our Example

A great majority of the cathedrals of Europe and even here in the U.S. are named after Our Lady. That is not by accident. My own parish, which was founded by Redemptorists, is named for Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It is because Mary is par excellence as Queen of the Angels and Saints, and she is the mother of the Church. I briefly examined ecclesiology in light of Mary in my last Catholic Exchange piece, The Annunciation: A Brief Theological Look. Those who built the great churches and cathedrals of old understood this reality and they designed the dwelling place of the Real Presence with her image in mind. She is God-bearer, she is beauty, and she is full of grace.

….the great cavernous cathedrals of the Middle Ages were seen, in almost literal sense, as the body of Mary, places of safety and birth…The dark, all-enveloping space is evocative of the womb in which Christ himself was nurtured and in which all members of the church come to birth.

Ibid, 13.

From the earliest centuries, the church was referred to as “mother”, mater ecclesia, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, was closely associated with it as its symbol, protector, and premier member. Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says that, in her total acceptance of the will of God, her “yes” without qualification or hesitation, Mary becomes the matrix of the Christian community, the spiritual space in which all of our positive responses to God find their home. And therefore her attitude of acquiescence to God’s designs is the safety which is the church.

Ibid, 13-14.

Mary is our guide as she points us towards her Son. She is a place of safety and hope. She directs us towards the Real Presence of her Son in the Holy Eucharist. She is a reminder of beauty and the power of God’s grace to transform our very being and faculties so that we can enter into full communion with the Blessed Trinity. Mary is a sign of God’s beauty, as is the Church. Beauty is an essential part of the Christian journey. That is precisely why so many cathedrals and churches are dedicated to her, as the one who carried Our Lord.

The Real Presence

Catholic Churches differ from all other buildings on earth. Within the walls of each Church lies the Real Presence of Our Lord, body, blood, soul, and divinity. The Holy Eucharist is His gratuitous gift to us as Real food for the journey. He still dwells among us. The reality of the Last Supper is not something that can be domesticated. Every single time we receive Holy Communion we are receiving the King of the Universe into our souls and bodies. This is something completely new and foreign to the rest of the world. It also means that Our Lord is always present in our Tabernacles throughout the world. He is the King who deserves our right praise, adoration, and devotion.

Beauty is often criticized because it comes with finer things. Many complain about the opulence that chalices must be at least gold plated or of a finer metal. Why not? Why would we not use the finest things we can offer to the Lord of the Universe. Why would a God who has been so gratuitous with His beauty through creation desire us to ignore such beauty and focus on utility? Why would God make us for transcendence if He only meant for us to worship him in safety, comfort, and beige? God made us to ascend to new heights and to enter into communion with Him. He made us in beauty and for beauty. Beauty is a gift for the poor and rich alike. We owe Him a due that is greater than ourselves, so great that He had to send His Son to die for us. We owe him everything.

Now due worship is paid to God, in so far as certain acts whereby God is worshiped, such as the offering of sacrifices and so forth, are done out of reverence for God. Hence it is evident that God is related to religion not as matter or object, but as end: and consequently religion is not a theological virtue whose object is the last end, but a moral virtue which is properly about things referred to the end.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II 81 5 a

The most important thing we do, which is worship God, is also seen by the world as pointless. There is no utility in worshipping God. We worship God because he is due our praise and love because we are His creatures, but also we are united to Him in charity as we offer him sacrifice and adoration. The Cross teaches us that Christ performed the perfect act of adoration through submission and love offered freely to the Father. So too we must freely give everything to God. That means entering into beauty, reverence, and transcendence. Our worship should never keep us firmly planted on earth. Our worship is not meant to be primarily horizontal. It is the balance of vertical and horizontal. There is little doubt that the latter has become overemphasized in recent decades. The pendulum is swinging back in the right direction, however. Let us summon the courage to be uncomfortable, awe-struck, and lifted through transcendent beauty.

“The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness”
—Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

image: photogolfer / Shutterstock.com

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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