In many cities around the world, you don’t have to go to a museum to find incredible pieces of art, architecture, and an experience of beauty. You just have to walk in to a Catholic church. In addition to the statues and paintings that can be found in churches, the church buildings are a work of art unto themselves.
But unlike a museum, church buildings are not built to offer an experience of beauty and stop there. Rather, the art and beauty found there is always created to point our eyes and souls toward Christ. Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop Fr. Matthew Spencer shared an experience he had where the beauty of a church was an opportunity to invite others to encounter the Lord.
By his home at the Oblates of St. Joseph Provincial House in Santa Cruz, CA is the Shrine of St. Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer. Recently a father and his daughter were visiting the Shrine, admiring the architecture of the buildings. Father Matthew showed the pair around, and the father explained that he was baptized Catholic, but had not set foot in a church in years.
“We get to the Shrine of St. Joseph itself and I said, ‘Come on in. Let me show you inside the church,'” Fr. Matthew explained. “And this is the most beautiful part of what we have as Catholics. It’s not the old structures that we have. It’s Jesus Himself.”
While they may have been reluctant to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, their interest in architecture led them into the Shrine, where they were immediately impressed with the sacred art inside.
“The first impression that they had (because the church was rather dark – it was afternoon and the lights were off) was that the sun was shining brilliantly through the stained glass windows that we have,” Fr. Matthew recounted. “I mean, these vibrant blues and reds and greens. The place was flooded with the colors of the stained glass that was there. And that was what caught their attention right off the bat. They said, ‘My goodness, we haven’t seen stained glass windows like that in ages.'”
Fr. Matthew pointed out that although it was simply beauty that the father and daughter were seeking the beauty that they found in the church building was created for the specific purpose of leading them closer to the Lord.
Speaking of the sacred art and beautiful architecture that can be found in churches, Fr. Matthew said, “It’s to direct people’s attention to the beautiful, to the true, and to the good. It’s to lift our minds and our hearts up from this valley of tears and to focus us on God, who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Himself. Stained glass windows are intended to communicate beauty. But beyond just the beautiful colors that they depict and represent, and they inspire in us, they’re meant to communicate catechetical truths as well.”
“I wonder if you and I appreciate the sacred nature of our churches,” he continued. “If we appreciate the beauty of them. I know you do when you go into your church, you can recognize the sacred art that’s there, I hope depicted prominently, tastefully. I hope your church has beautiful architecture, I hope your church even has this high roof, drawing your attention up to God in a way that other structures can’t do. Most importantly, I hope your church has Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament most prominently positioned. That’s the most important part of our churches.”
But if our church buildings aren’t places where others are drawn to the sacred, is it because we don’t treat them as sacred spaces? People are craving the beauty, the silence, and the transcendence that can be found in churches. But if we treat our sacred spaces as just another gathering place, we can miss the lesson that our churches are teaching us: that the good, the true, and the beautiful all point us toward God.
“I think there’s probably a lot of work that you and I could do,” Fr. Matthew said. “I think there’s a lot of work we could do in our parishes. There is a lot of temptation to make a lot of noise in them. To not be careful about allowing people to pray, allowing people to be transformed by the beauty that they encounter in these spaces.”
“They want silence, they want an encounter with the transcendent in their life, and they’re going to find that in our churches, if we work toward that.”
Listen to the full reflection below: