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A House of God

In making ready a physical building for the fruitful life of a family, Christopher Mahon writes, we mirror the Church's use of liturgical beauty to make us ready to be present to God

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A House of God February 1, 2015  |  By Christopher Mahon
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Some dear old friends of mine recently moved into a new home in Toronto. Their prayers for an improved living space were answered when they found a property that is generously spacious and could be made quite beautiful but that was, at least initially, surprisingly ugly in décor. Had I not gone over on the day they took possession to help with the move, I might never have understood how big a task they had in front of them as they began the arduous work of cleaning, fixing up and beautifying.

Exploring the house and the surrounding yard that day, I was struck by how the previous occupants had left the place. The walls had been unevenly painted in dark splotchy colours and were perforated with nails and screws of every imaginable size and type, many of which had no apparent purpose. There were bizarre stickers, drawings and images of animals and insects strewn throughout the house. A panoply of cheap trinkets depicting fairies, butterflies or strange creatures hung on every surface, both inside and outside the house, creating in places the effect of a shrine-like pagan iconostasis.

Scattered about the garden, frequently half-buried, was an alarming menagerie of odd and ridiculous junk, some of which had been deliberately placed and some of which had been "thrown out" halfway to the garbage bins. The number of these sculptures and objects that were meant to light up or glow in the dark was astounding. You might have been forgiven for thinking the random logs were for a fireplace until you saw they had plastic eyes with disconnected wires within their hollowedout interiors. The only inhabitant of the two birdhouses had long ago departed this world, although its protruding corpse created a momentary illusion of avian life.

Had it not been for the presence of a certain humour in the property's overall effect, it might have been deeply disturbing. Then again, when the subject of a house blessing came up, I did suggest they forego their parish priest and instead summon the diocesan exorcist. Who knew what else they were bound to find as they made their new house a home?

I was struck that day by the cheerfulness and joy of my friends as they tackled this immense labour, somewhat more difficult than a normal move. It was a testament to them that they were immediately able to see beyond the vision of chaos to the potential of not just a livable but a beautiful home for their large Christian family. However, I began to wonder what all this may have suggested about the minds of the previous inhabitants. Perhaps they were just disorganized. Perhaps they had neglected the state of their home because of some impairment. My thoughts also turned to their spiritual state and to the bolstering effect faith can have on efforts to order and beautify one's surroundings.

Later that day I found myself reading the April-May 2014 issue of Convivium, in which I found a similar theme from the perspective of faith about man's challenge in building up a home in this world. Doug Sikkema had written, in "Enchantment and God's Green World," that man is meant to build up his environment, incorporating paradise within it. Noting that Scripture has us moving from a garden paradise in Eden to a holy city in Heaven, Sikkema suggested our cities ought to retain a sense of mystery and enchantment.

This aim also requires constant labour, and Sikkema has seen the same caring application to the task that my friends have shown. About one park, he wrote, "Perhaps my favourite thing about this small park is that it is often filled with landscapers who prune back the trees and clean the walks, revealing that even these natural cycles of birth and decay require the caring attention of stewards." Such oases of paradise in the city are "... only as strong as the individuals and systems that will dedicate the time and energy to caringly maintain them." Another space he initially described as "relatively useless" was transformed into a space "where downtown Hamiltonians come together to cultivate gardens, raise and harvest small crops, discuss small successes and failures with their neighbours, and even share meals and poetry readings. Again, this is a place where individuals become increasingly aware of the systems of birth, growth, death and rebirth so fundamental to human life." The hard work put into such places makes them fit for human society and, so, places of beauty.

Prior to the fall of man, our home was Eden, that beautiful garden, "pleasant to the sight," that God had made. It was not just a dwelling place for man; it was also where God met with him, spoke with him and walked with him. Being with God — this is the principle of Paradise. Afterwards, however, the natural order is beset by an ever encroaching wilderness and decay, an entropy that human beings must ceaselessly work against to maintain a home therein. Man is thus forever building and rebuilding his environment in sweat and hardship, striving to impose order on his habitat, to make it livable but also to make it beautiful. Neglect and banality are both obstacles on the way back to Paradise, yet we keep trying to make the return journey.

There are exceptions, of course, and sometimes the work of beauty is abandoned, whether because of acedia or wilful opposition. After all, in a society that increasingly undervalues human dignity, obscures the distinction between the human and the animal, and rejects human dominion and stewardship, it is far from universally acknowledged that man ought to rework his environment to his own ends in the first place, even so as to make it a home, beautiful and accommodating. Whatever the reason, the job is at times left undone.

Looking back a few years, a previous move my good friends undertook sparked a transformation in reverse. Over the course of many years, they had worked to improve their old house to make it a suitable home for their growing family. They had renovated, built new decks behind the house and on the roof, stripped paint, stained and varnished, built a second bathroom, enlarged and built a new kitchen and added a bedroom. Their seven children helped out in different ways, too, as they grew. Each summer the lawns were mowed regularly and the flowerbeds were tended. Every Christmas the front porch was tastefully bedecked with evergreen boughs, red bows and tiny white lights. The property was cared for and made relatively beautiful.

Some time after they had moved out, I found myself in their old neighbourhood and drove down their old street. I was shocked by the change. Rusty bikes were now chained up in the front yard. The grass on various parts of the lawn had either died or gone uncut. Sundry mismatched hanging plants and New Age dream catchers were arrayed over the deck. Odd objects could be seen through the window, hanging in the living room as well. An abrasive political slogan had been put up prominently on the porch. The door had been poorly painted with a very ill-chosen colour that made me sick to look at. Most noticeably, the massive and beautiful old leafy tree that had once dominated the property had been cut down, the stump now competing with weeds and overgrowth.

Where had the beauty gone? This was a sad thing to behold, and I wondered if its former beauty was even missed by the people living there now. Indeed, it seems there is a fight over beauty being waged in many different areas of society today. The ugly and coarse can be seen in every aspect of life, from our architecture and attire to our music and movies.

Perhaps our modern world's frenetic busyness and materialist relativism inhibit the simplicity that allows for a full appreciation of the importance of beauty. Robert Hugh Benson expressed this idea in his fantastical 1911 novel, Dawn of All. As one of the characters explains to the protagonist, "Remember human nature, Monsignor. After all, it was only intense self-importance that used to make men say that they were independent of exterior beauty. It's far more natural and simple to like beauty. Every child does, after all."

In building the common aesthetic of our social environment, we not only provide a home for our families but also educate our children in the importance and power of beauty. Parents instinctively beautify their children, sometimes with bowties and dresses, and encourage them to recognize their own beauty. Whether dressing oneself, decorating a home or building up the culture of the home, God calls his children to appreciate and foster an authentic order and beauty.

This call is heard not only on the small scale of the family but also by whole societies and cultures. Israel's work in making the desert bloom may be a larger example of this. But the Lord calls on us to transform more than just our physical environment; Christians have a vocation to transform the world into one of justice, peace and mercy, reforming governments, economies and cultures to that end, and so build up the social kingdom of Christ. It was not a coincidence that Jesus was mistaken for a gardener by Mary Magdalene on that transcendent Sunday morning. And it is in Jesus and in His garden, the Church, that Christians recognize God meeting us, speaking to us and walking with us. It is in co-operation with the Lord that man is also called to till the soil of his own soul.

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All of this, aided so critically by the Church's liturgy and sacraments, is greatly facilitated by the beautification of the liturgy and sacred music. More and more parishes are recommitting themselves to their own ancient heritage of beautiful services, beautiful music and faithful liturgy. This youngest generation is witnessing the Church slowly overcoming a liturgical crisis and rediscovering the evangelical winsomeness of beauty. Some of the more vibrant church groups are those committed to rebuilding Christian culture and identity, particularly in the recovery of liturgical tradition. Those Catholics who belong to the Anglican Ordinariate, a structure akin to a diocese, which enables them to maintain the liturgical patrimony of their Anglican origins, are one example of this.

Another such group, formed of a few young families and new Catholics working to start an urban parish with a charismatic focus on and heart for liturgical beauty, might even be said to have had a moving experience similar to that of my good old friends. They were given the use of an older, underutilized church building and, while small in number and with few resources, they swiftly and joyfully set about offering their talents to help renovate the chancel.

The pews and chairs in the sanctuary were righted and reoriented away from the congregation to face the centre and the altar in a collegiate manner. Some of the less apropos decorative elements arrayed in front of the altar were removed to restore a certain simplicity. A new altar frontal in a traditional Gothic style was handmade by one of the parishioners and brought in; and the altar itself was reoriented, with additional candles placed alongside a beautiful old missal stand. Some of the parishioners, exploring old cupboards, discovered a set of abandoned, dusty reliquaries. With great excitement and amazement, they realized these old monstrances were a remarkable set of relics, and so they had them restored and made a parish shrine for their veneration. Finally, an impressive upright crucifix was found and placed upon the altar stone and, as in any church, dignified vestments, high-calibre sacred music and serene ars celebrandi assure an ambiance of authoritative worship.

The religious elevation of beauty is seen in the vesting of the minister for liturgical prayer. For the celebration of the Church's sacred rites, her priests change not only their apparel but also their image. There is a stark and deliberate contrast between the meekness of a plain black cassock and the ostentatious beauty of the sacred vestments put on over the cassock for the duration of the divine services. This contrast is meant to draw attention away from the person of the priest and towards his priesthood, but it also reveals the beautification of man in the worship of God.

The Church does not create the liturgy, but she can be said to cultivate and tend what has been given to us in the liturgy. Happily, we can see much improvement in the celebration of the liturgy since the banalities and practical discontinuities of the 1970s, but we still have a long way to go before its full beauty has been restored. Sacred music is one of the most potent channels of beauty and is essential to the liturgy, yet it is still rare to hear genuine sacred music done to a high standard at Mass.

The beautification of the world through the liturgy is one of the pressing concerns of the bishops, but beauty throughout society is the responsibility of each and every one of us. Paradise in the Bible is described as a garden, and gardens are cultivated by gardeners. The faithful are called to be fruitful and to transform, or terraform, this world into the Kingdom of God — in its aesthetics, in its values, in its structures and in its religion. Beauty is what transcends utilitarianism in our transformation of the physical world around us.

As a loving father who wants his children to be happy and know his love, God has placed a gratuitous beauty in human life. In spite of our ancient enemies' efforts to ruin and obscure beauty, by working to cultivate and build up the presence of beauty in our families, in our homes and throughout our culture, we are able to share it with others and express our gratitude to God. In spreading the gift of beauty, we communicate our love for those with whom we share our homes and our world.

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