Saturday, June 9, 2012

Beauty You Won't Find In a Protestant Church: Cathedrals and Churches of the Old Tradition

Don't let the title fool you: I am of the Protestant persuasion, though every day I'm given new cause to be skeptical of modern Protestant thought. That, and most of the great reading I've been exposed to lately has been that of either Catholic or Orthodox persuasion, and despite my Protestant upbringing and frame of faith I find much to admire and even love in these texts.
But there is an aspect of Protestantism that, in spite of it's message of love and mercy and oneness with God (which I agree with and adore), leaves me rather cold: it is that of the austerity and blandness of Protestant churches. This is not to say that all Protestant churches are like this, but the modern Protestant churches are, to say the least, rather bluntly, bland. Hello? We're not Puritans or Quakers, people. And yet we seem to agree, even today, with the idea that a church should be austere. There is little beauty, save for the occasional stain glass window(s) to be found.
Perhaps, as some would suggest, the beauty is in the Message. I wholeheartedly agree. But the idea of the church should, I posit, reflect the beauty of the underlying Message. That is something that we Protestants have a hard time grasping. Catholics and Orthodox, on the other hand, understand this better, hence the great constructions of Christendom, from La Sagrada Familia still under construction in Barcelona to St. Peter's Basilica to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (I do not like to call it Istanbul; Constantinople, to me, has a much better ring to the ear) to St. Basil's on Red Square and St. Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg. These cathedrals and churches are built with a kind of Spirit and enthusiasm and beauty that one will not find in the average Protestant church. For Catholic cathedrals, the very statues and doors themselves tell the Divine Story, their steeples and towers piercing the skies as if attempting, albeit in vain, to be One with the Pantokrator, the Creator of All Things. The windows, stain-glass, tell the Story as well, and the effort and care put into their creation reflects upon the belief and depth of love of those who built them, and the ever-present Cross, with our Redeemer shown in all His agony, is a stark reminder of the Cost of our Emancipation from Hell's grasp. In the Orthodox cathedrals and churches, the gold domes show the outward Glory of the Faith, while the inside is a solemn Refuge from the outer darkness of the world. The Icons of Christ, Mary, and the Saints and Angels are made in such a way that brings out fully the kind of devotion and faith of those that created them. The gold filigree and vibrant colors of the Icons, and the emotions of love and solemn purpose invoked in the eyes of not only Christ but the Angels and Saints as well, is moving in a way that no Protestant church could ever hope to mimic.
I will admit that the one thing that Protestant churches have (and something that brings tears to my eyes as I recall it) is the monopoly on hymns. I enjoy the meditation and inner reflection that is found in the Gregorian chant and its Orthodox equivalent, but there is nothing so stirring to my heart than to hear "Guide Me O, Thou Great Jehovah" or "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise" or (a personal favorite of mine) "Blessed Assurance". It is our own version of that Beauty which brings out the Divine that resides within us.
Too often, I think that we ignore beauty as a requisite thing in our culture. To our modern age, beauty is found in superficial things, in abstract, in the unanchored, anarchic, and ultimately, the barbaric. That sounds too much like Sadism, which the great author Dostoevsky spent a greater part of his life writing and fighting against. It is in his character Father Zosima that we find the true Beauty of civilization: it is in being anchored to God, to His Divine Order, in living in His Love and living AS His Love. We are called to be "like God", and if God is Love, as the Apostle John of Patmos maintains, then we, as contingent beings, are only free when we become part of that Incontingent Being that is Love Incarnate. I am not the only one that believes this: there is a wonderful lecture about Freedom and Authority in Dante's Divine Comedy that I recently heard and if it is possible, I will post it on MAT (Middle-American Thinker) and would greatly recommend it to those who are interested in such things.
I lay my proverbial pen down for now.

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