It’s hard to deny the beauty of many of the Catholic churches across the world – and especially those of a particular era. Filled with carved marble, exquisite statuary, beautiful stained glass and glittering gilt, they most certainly lift the senses to Heaven – which is precisely what they are intended to do. But we need to be very careful to ensure that, regardless of their undoubted beauty, we look beneath the surface and see not only the representation, but what it is which is being represented.
I see many posts online where the author – it seems to me – gives the impression of having succumbed to the beauty of an object, or to the ‘theatre’ of a ritual, but has not always gone just that little bit deeper and considered what these things are designed to move us toward. Stopping at the surface, at the external appearance, so often means we never really get to see what is beneath. And that is great pity – it can mean that the visible has failed in it’s task to open our eyes of faith; and it means that while we may have begun to walk, we have stopped short of moving firmly toward our destination.
I remember in Rome a few years ago being very taken by the grandeur and the sheer beauty of many of the great basilicas there, many of which I visited. And yet, the three churches which I recall now are one very poor local chuch that was next door to my hotel; one tiny little church where the sense of the divine was almost palpable; and a third which was filled with homeless people, who were there for shelter and to be ministered to. And in that third church, Christ was most certainly moving amongst them, reaching out to them through the hands of volunteers, who welcomed them exactly as the Lord would have done in the stories recounted in the Gospels. Conversely, many of those great basilicas, filled with treasures as they surely were, seemed to be little more than museums – something intrinsic was missing.
Similarly, it matters not a bit whether the Mass we take part in is celebrated in the ordinary or extraordinary form, whether the language is Latin, English or some other vernacular tongue; it is the same Eucharist that is confected and which we receive. The Church does not place either one before us as the ‘better’ of the two, even if we ourselves make such distinctions.
We can extend this out to our prayers. It is very easy for us to focus a little too much on the form of a prayer or devotion, or to be constantly seeking new ways in which to pray – while at the same time forgetting, to one degree or another, what prayer is actually about. As with the churches, the surface can be the point at which our journey stops – and because of which, we lose out enormously.
Perhaps worse that all this, is that we can allow our shared faith to become an obstacle between us; “you do it that way, while I do it this way – and my way is better”. That sense of one-upmanship is contrary to the faith we are professing and not only does it do us no good, but it often ends up undoing some of the good which has already been done.
Our faith is a shared journey even if, ultimately, we make it alone; still, we make it alone together. The various types of churches, of prayers, of devotions, are all roads leading to the same final destination. But all of them are means to an end, and never intended to be ends in themselves – a point we are sometimes liable to forget.