Reclaiming the Piazza III:
Communicating Catholic Culture
edited by ronnie convery, leonardo franchi, and jack valero
gracewing, 276 pages, $22.24
Why is modern architecture so often dispiriting and repellent? It isn’t just a matter of aesthetic judgment. As Timothy O’Malley of the University of Notre Dame writes:
We often experience the modern city of strip malls, high rises, and constant traffic as “ugly” not just because we are aesthetes, longing for a world devoid of suffering. Instead, we experience the ugliness of this space because such ugliness offers to human beings an untrue world, one that reduces the human person to a machine. Human beings, in such spaces, are designed to produce and to consume, not to exist, to dwell, to feast, and to celebrate. These monstrous buildings shape us, form entire cultures, even if we are not aware of the formation.
O’Malley’s observation suggests that Christian understandings of art have an explanatory power of their own: by beginning with an understanding of the human person as made by, in the image of, and for God, they can address why—for instance—some architecture leaves us cold and some lifts the spirit in a way that goes beyond distinctions, simplistic or sophisticated, of what is nice and what isn’t.
O’Malley’s remarks appear in the essay collection Reclaiming the Piazza, the third installment of a series on communicating Catholic culture in the modern public square. Other essays outline a Catholic approach to art, fashion, journalism, economics, history, film, and more. As the editors observe in their introduction, beauty can be a bridge between the Church and the world: It is disarming, indeed irresistible, to contemporary men and women. Moreover, the Catholic Church “does” beauty, and in a big way. The treasury of visual, verbal, and constructed beauty of Catholic Christianity is unmatched.
These remarks have the ring of truth. And yet all of the time—in bookshops, in galleries, in the streets around churches—we see people move past some of the most beautiful products of Catholic culture, ignorant, oblivious; perhaps, on occasion, even dismissive. When the curious do come forward to encounter and appreciate this beauty, momentarily at least, most seem to walk away unchanged. Life goes on with barely a ripple.
Or at least that is how things appear in the moment and on the surface. For much of the time, beauty, its producers, and advocates need to be patient, to bide their time in quiet waiting. In the ranks of the seemingly indifferent, there will be those who will, at a point unknown, succumb; those who may for now be offering, sub-consciously at least, a reworking of St. Augustine’s prayer about chastity: “Lord, make me worship at your beautiful altars – but not yet.”
Last year the English journalist and “millennial atheist” Madeline Grant wrote a beguiling piece about her return to churchgoing. She had become a regular at St. Bartholomew the Great, an Anglican church in the center of London that was originally an Augustinian priory founded in the twelfth century. Once more likely to indulge in “the shouty certainty of the ‘New Atheism,’” Grant was drawn to Great Saint Bart’s at first by the beauty of its architecture. But there was more to her return than that: personal struggles, the chance of immersion in a community that, “in a faceless city like London,” cut across barriers of class and race. Beauty may need experience and maturity to accumulate within us before its moment arrives.
As the essays in Reclaiming the Piazza recognize, if beauty is a doorway into Christianity, it needs to remain ajar for all, even when the waves of rejection and indifference are mounting. Or, to put it another way, the Church’s treasure chest must stay ever open so that others, wherever they are in life’s strange meanderings, can peer in, shrug in indifference or gaze in wonder, walk away, walk past, return, look again.
Yet that is only part of the Church’s task. When the curious, lured by beauty, do cross the threshold, real or metaphorical, into a more committed interest in Catholicism, they will—if they are going to stick around—look about for more, for something additional to aesthetic pleasure and consolation. The Church needs to be ready. Ready, that is, to explain and to demonstrate how the beauty with which Christianity has filled the world corresponds to and satisfies hidden structures, hidden yearnings within us; how it rests on psychological and anthropological underpinnings that life eventually—and sometimes brutally—reminds us that we must tend to.
That task may also reassure seekers from outside the Church walls that they are not simply falling for pretty nostalgia or a longing for simpler times; rather, they are connecting themselves to something immemorial that resounds from the depths of the deep past. In his essay “A Catholic Understanding of Music,” Robert E. Davis from the University of Glasgow makes clear that such an understanding is about more than cherishing faded glories.
True, Davis situates the tradition of sacred music in our most ancient impulses by pointing to the mandate of David and his Psalms; to the Song of Deborah, a victory hymn from the Book of Judges; and to “the early Church, the Fathers, the first Councils and the copious evidence of music at the heart of Christian worship as the missionary Church expanded and developed across the Mediterranean basin of late antiquity.” But we live also in the here and now and should resist the temptation to dismiss its musical hyperactivity as mere chaos:
Maybe the accidental discovery, reflective of the unpredictability and the improvisations of life itself, is intrinsic to musical experience of the current age and ought to be embraced as such. It seems certain that those who wish to dance will find their dance music; that those staunching the wounds of lost love will keep finding their comfort and solidarity in the blues; that those celebrating the body electric will be exultant at their stadium rock shows; that those declaring the solidarity and the resilience of the oppressed before the promises of God will gravitate towards Gospel and its secular Soul progeny; that the bereaved will find their requiems and the sleepless their lullabies. We can acknowledge, surely, that versions of the good, the true, the beautiful can be found in all of these.
Indeed. No one truly wants to exclusively inhabit a cultural sepulcher. Catholic approaches to art must also show themselves able to accommodate what is fresh in the world, to engage with (but not submit to) the artistic whirligig.
The new evangelization will depend, to a degree at least, on whether those creeping closer to the Church encounter lively but faithful minds on their approach. As the English theologian Jacob Phillips recently tweeted: “How about a lightness of heart and elasticity of feeling which, while deeply based on faith, looks at first sight to others as mere good spirits.” Books such as this are what these good spirits will need to sustain them.
On the subject of sustenance, this volume ends at the dinner table, in the form of an afterword by Giovanna Eusebi, owner of an Italian restaurant in Glasgow. Coming after a series of essays by (mainly) academics, Eusebi’s memoir of food, family, and faith sets a slightly counter-intuitive but welcome cap on the collection with a final lesson of its own: Don’t overcomplicate things.
John Duggan is a freelance writer based in Surrey, England.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.