Beauty

Winchester Cathedral – not my dad’s old parish!

Recently, we have been worshipping at the parish where my dad was priest in my teenage years. Various thoughts have assaulted me, and I thought I’d share two of them. First, the experience of worshipping surrounded by beauty, second, getting plugged back into the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism after years of exile …

In the January 31 episode of the Ad Fontes podcast, Onsi, Colin, and Rhys discussed beauty. You can listen to it here. Beauty is not, ultimately, necessary. Beauty is not a transcendental. And most churches today avoid spending extra money to be beautiful, echoing Judas Iscariot — could this money not be spent on the poor? Nonetheless, most Christians admit that beauty in worship and worship spaces is desirable, if oftentimes financially unattainable.

One point that was made was that no one has been wholesale converted through beauty. Sure, Malcolm Guite’s atheism was cracked by John Keats while visiting Keats House in Rome — but Guite was raised by Christian parents and no doubt had so much Gospel hidden in his heart that it was this that brought him to the living Word behind the words of Keats. Rod Dreher was converted from atheism to Rome by Chartres Cathedral. Yet, once again — he will have needed the ecclesial community of the Roman Catholic Church and the teaching of the church to make a full conversion, I imagine.

Those are the two counterexamples I know, but they nonetheless highlight to us the importance beauty of our experience of God. God has created a beautiful cosmos and is Himself simultaneously everywhere within this cosmos, ordering it aright and thus accessible through its beauty, and beyond it by far. And he, the creator God, has created us in his image. In Tolkien’s vocabulary, we are subcreators.

Making beautiful things is what we do. It’s part of living for God’s glory, showing Him His glory, and living out our existence as beings shot through with His glory.

Now, back to church the Sunday before that podcast episode dropped.

My three-year-old son is irrepressible. He cannot be stopped. Throughout the entire church service, he sat on my knee, rarely taking a break from talking, with a pause to have a snack and many attempts from me to keep the volume down.

At one point, this unstoppable force looked across the aisle from us to the many stained-glass windows flanking the nave and said, “Is that Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“To remind us that Jesus came to rescue us.”

“Why can’t we see through the window?” (This query was repeated later.)

“By making a window out of stained glass, we can see the picture of Jesus but still have the daylight filling the room. The light shining through the window reminds us that Jesus is the light of world, sort of like what Abbot Suger of St-Denis says.”

I don’t expect my sons to get the references to people like Abbot Suger. But I think it’s worth sprinkling conversation with these references to point them to big world of knowledge that awaits.

A while later, he looked to the front.

“Is that Jesus, too?” he queried.

“Yes, that’s Jesus, too,” I answered.

One of the windows on the walls of the apse portrays Jesus and the little children.

I think it’s great that my wee men go to church and hear hymns, hear sermons, hear prayers, hear the Scriptures read. I have no doubt it is good for their spirits to have these come to them. And I know that they don’t just wash over them. The four-and-a-half-year-old is particularly good at remembering tiny references we thought he wasn’t listening to. He is our listener, our watcher, our observer, taking it all in and synthesising the world into knowledge.

Nonetheless, I also love that we can go to this place of beauty where the light shines through, where Jesus shines down on us (most of the windows are of the Lord, in fact), and we ourselves are drawn by the beauty into His true, eternal Beauty, whether we are three or thirty-eight.

I just finished teaching my students about iconoclasm, and there’s something of St John of Damascus in all of this, about participating in Christ through encountering His image, not to mention my reference to Pseudo-Dionysius via Suger of St-Denis (Denis = French for Dionysius). We can meet with Jesus with the help of these images, seeing His beauty made manifest for us in the stained glass.

Maybe the expense is worth it?

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3 thoughts on “Beauty

  1. I also have a pretty noisy “unstoppable force” in church with me- he’s only 2 but my husband and I want him to stay in the service and not go to Sunday school (where I know he’d mostly just do crafts for the next X many years…) We’ve tried new toys, new books, snacks, but absolutely nothing works to keep him quietly in the pew. It’s much too exciting to be in a big crowd of people apparently!
    It’s great to hear that your boys are starting to absorb things through being there for the whole service, that’s exactly what we want for our chaotic toddler 🙂 have you had any pushback from other church members on keeping him in the service?

  2. No one has said anything other than expressing gladness at our presence! But they shut down Sunday School and whatnot 2 yrs ago for pandemic, so my boys = 100% of the kids. Ppl are just happy we’re there!

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