Patron of the Arts?

“Where do we go?!” My sister’s question echoed through the car after Sunday Mass not long ago. I was back East for a visit to my family, and we had all just stumbled out of their parish church like shell-shocked infantry falling out of the trenches.

Painfully Embarrassing

It is a poor parish, and liturgical music had clearly not made it on the list of budget items. The volunteer organist, God bless him, has never quite mastered the left hand signature. Worse still, the accompanying cantor’s vocal range spanned only about half an octave. Horrifically, he covered for this by dragging out each note with wavering tenacity. I imagine the Divine was up there hearing the resulting torturous version of Gather Us In, and saying, “You’re kidding, right?”

But it was worse than just the music. Even the liturgical elements that could be reckoned as “cost free” were mostly messy. The altar boy’s unlaced hi-tops protruded out from under vestments that looked like they had been slept in. The lector raced through a mumbled version of the readings. Considered as oratory, the homily found a launching point in the day’s Gospel, at least, but then quickly devolved into rambling and startlingly obvious declarations. I thought, sadly, that if the talk was on television or radio, most adults would switch it off as not worth their time.

The problem is, this parish is the most doctrinally orthodox one in the rural area where my family lives. Their other options are to go to the next town with the priest they all call, “Fr. Dissent,” or drive forty minutes to the more functional parish three towns over. The issue gets more pressing as my sister’s little boy grows up. He’s five now, and we are worried about the long-term effect of him only seeing the liturgy obscured by disorder and absurdity.

It has to be said. Much of the art we are making as a Church is painfully embarrassing. It has the opposite effect that it should. There is a problem when the Church is roughing up music that would be better suited to an episode of Barney, while Nora Jones trills songs that sting people to the heart. It is not a diminution of the liturgy to evaluate it from the standard of what Hollywood calls “good production value.” The sad truth is, on a weekly basis, most parishes offer their long-suffering sheep all the beauty and excellence of a high school talent show.

The liturgy is the principle work of art for the Church. Liturgy doesn’t use art, so much as it is art. It is something that the People of God create together that becomes the occasion of God’s ongoing artistry of sanctifying and renewing the Church. The point of the liturgy is not to provide an aesthetic experience for the faithful. However, aesthetic experience can foster and heighten the point of the liturgy, which has two aspects: to bring the reality of humanity into encounter with the reality of God. That means that we need to use the arts not just to help the people feel the glory and wonder of God. We also need them to feel their own insufficiency, anger and desperate need.

In the best book I’ve read on the subject, Worship and Theology, Don Saliers notes that we have to re-examine the whole way we have taken to thinking about the liturgy. In too many churches the goal is not to rouse the community to worship, but to keep people from getting bored. So, too often, even parishes that put resources into the arts end up turning the liturgy into a performance in which the liturgical elements are just one more thing going on to keep the people distracted. Saliers notes, “To put it bluntly, God is not adequately praised and adored with the showy, the pompous, the self-serving, the mawkish, the cleverly casual or the thoughtlessly comfortable forms of art.”

Equal Opportunity Ugliness

The understanding of beauty has become an ideological tool with different sides waving the flag for different views. In the midst of this post-modern confusion, faithful Catholics must bear the cross of Church polarization along with the burden of deadening liturgies. On the Left, beauty has very often become a bad, elitist word that they see as incongruous in a church with a “fundamental option for the poor.” Disguised as compassion, this is ultimately a demeaning attitude towards the poor. A poor man can be just as moved by the Pietà as Donald Trump — arguably, even more.

I was born in the mid-'60s amidst the iconoclastic impulse that developed while the Church was purging herself of dross. I grew up as a Gen-Xer, mystified by the missionary zeal with which the Baby Boomers in the Church seemed to want to eviscerate every ritual, symbol and tradition from our faith. I remember once as a coordinator of parish liturgy, being berated by a priest for asking if we could use incense on a feast day. He fumed, “It took us twenty-five years to get rid of all that crap, and now you people want to bring it all back?!”

I didn’t know what “people” he was talking about. I wanted to use incense because it feels mysterious and holy, and because I loved the symbol from the psalms of our prayers rising like incense. The priest was reacting against something of which I had had no experience, and associating it to incense. Incense is not the problem. The problem was a rigid formalism in which many of the rituals and signs had lost their meaning for people. What should have happened was to restore the meaning, not dump the signs.

When art has been commissioned in these post-Conciliar years, it has too often been subjected to the trend toward politicization of our faith. Many frankly ugly works of art have been justified for their social or propagandistic purposes, as opposed to aesthetic or devotional ones.

Not a Holiness Show, Either

An example of this kind of unfortunate sacred art is in the statue that looms over the door of the new Los Angeles Cathedral. My twenty-something students nicknamed the piece “Man-hands Mary” because the short-haired image has our Blessed Mother with sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, revealing heavily veined masculine arms and hands stretched out like she’s ready to catch a football. The tour guide at the Cathedral told us that the artist wanted to portray Mary as strong and “more human than strictly female.” I responded, “But I don’t know any real people like that. Real people tend to have genders.” The tour guide was exhaled patiently, “This statue represents what the Mary figure symbolizes.” (The Mary “figure”?) “Yes,” I rejoined, “but it is kind of, you know, ugly.” The guide pretty much tossed her head, “The Church isn’t about that kind of thing any more.”

On the right side of the spectrum, in the best situations there still tends to be an overemphasis on reverence as almost an end in itself in the liturgy. Poor, needy humanity is almost an embarrassment that gets left outside the doors. The liturgy is not some kind of holiness show that substitutes propriety and formalism for genuine encounter between God and His sheep.

Because we have so few devout artists left in our community, even when the People of God want beautiful contemporary art, it is tough going to find some. So a lot of traditional parishes are cluttered with tacky, sentimental images of saints and angels. As the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor noted, sentimentality is an inexcusable error for a believer.

On the worst side of the Right are those Catholics who have reacted to the aesthetic mess of the post-Conciliar period by stripping down the liturgy with a kind of vengeance. No music, no style to the homilies, quickie Masses that offer no aids to the senses at all for the poor sheep who have wandered in from the insanity of the confused world outside. One priest told me once with a touch of anger, “The Church was never stronger in Ireland than during the years of persecution when the people used to have Mass huddled in fields with no singing or ceremony.”

Yes, but time of persecution creates its own climate of prayer. People who are praying at the risk of their lives have an amazing ability to stay focused. This is not the situation of the glutted, bored, and catechetically ignorant Church in America.

Most parish priests reading these words will have shrugged early on. They hear me talk about uplifting music, well-prepared homilies, training programs for lectors and altar servers, commissioning beautiful statuary and paintings, and their eyes glaze over. Every parish budget is stretched between social-service projects, religious education programs, outreach ministries, etc., and there just isn’t anything left over for beauty. I think we can make a case that leaving beauty out of the budget is ultimately short-sighted. Creating a climate of prayer that works will also stimulate the members of the parish to respond with more committed attention to service and self-donation. And the word will get out that the liturgies at this church are powerful and beautiful, and many more people will come to stuff your pews and say “Thank you” via collection baskets. To those who tell me that “We can’t afford to have beauty in our church,” I have to shrug back, “We can’t afford not to.”

Barbara R. Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood program. You may email her at [email protected].

This article reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register © 2004

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