Archive for May 2nd, 2011

My mother is 85. When we visit her in Michigan we attend the Roman rite, for her tastes in worship are a lot like her tastes in food: she does not like what is not familiar. We have taken her to the local Byzantine parish, but it is sort of like serving her Thai cuisine. She may be polite, but she obviously wishes she was somewhere else.

Usually Mass in Michigan means attending Mom’s small parish, which was built in the 1960s and is sort of a caricature of modern American Roman Catholicism. There is nothing beautiful about the building or the art within, aside from an icon of the Mother of God of Perpetual Help (or “of the Passion”, in Eastern parlance), the one icon that is common in Latin rite parishes. The hymnody  is of the banal variety, and the liturgy mundane, though I must say I have never heard anything heretical from the pulpit.

I have friends who face such a situation every Sunday and have resigned themselves to it. As they really have no practical alternative, I suppose this is better than getting angry every Sunday.

But it still breaks my heart.

On this Sunday, though, we got up too late to attend the one liturgy at Mom’s church, which is at 9:30 (her parish was recently consolidated and lost its pastor). So instead, to my relief, we drove 15 minutes west to St Matthew’s, the Augustinian parish in downtown Flint.

Flint, unlike other industrial towns of comparable size, like Toledo or Akron, does not have many beautiful churches, but St Matthew’s is the exception. It is Romanesque in style, built in 1910, and has dazzling stained glass and fine statuary (and a Perpetual Help icon in the back).

It is beautiful, but studying the interior I was struck by the very different ways East and West have evolved regarding the aesthetics of church design.

Some may doubt that there is even such a thing as a Western ecclesial aesthetic. After all, even traditional Western aesthetics range from the stark simplicity of the Cistercians and Capuchins to the very different exuberances of the Gothic and Baroque styles.

     And in many places built since Vatican II there is an approach to church interiors so severe that one suspects iconoclasm.

                                                    Iconoclasts in space?

But this variety in itself suggests what is characteristic about the West. That is, there is no universal understanding of the meaning or placement of art in Roman churches. Though there are certain conventions- a crucifix, statues of Mary and St Joseph- there are no rules about such things. What art is present, and where it is placed, depends on the whim of the pastor (or the parish council) and the tastes of the parish.

At St Matthew’s, for example, there is a traditional high altar behind the free-standing Novus Ordo altar. In the highest niche of that is a statue of the Sacred Heart. Just below that, and above the tabernacle, is a small brass crucifix. On either side of the altar are statues of St Matthew and of St Ann and the young Virgin. To the left and right of the main altar are side altars with statues of the Mother of God and St Joseph. On the wall above the altar are murals of the four evangelists, and above them, in the blue dome over the sanctuary, is a painting of St Matthew, holding an ax, the instrument of his martyrdom. Angels kneel, some blowing trumpets in his direction, which seems theologically problematic. In the back of the church, under a stunning rose window, is a large wooden crucifix, and scattered throughout the church are large statues of saints and angels.

It is all lovely, but there is no apparent meaning or order in any of it;  all seems randomly placed.

In contrast, the Christian East has a highly evolved universal ecclesial aesthetic language. Because iconoclasm shook the church so profoundly, the Eastern Christian churches developed a theology of the image quite unknown in the West, where images were never attacked until the Reformation, and then only secondarily. The image in the West has never had a liturgical role (the only liturgical veneration of an image in the West is on Good Friday, when the Cross is venerated), while in the East the icon is always venerated several times in every Liturgy.

The church- or temple, as it is called- is seen a microcosm of the universe, and every thing is precisely where it should be. Of course there is some variation; a poor or a new parish will not have the resources to be as complete an image of heaven and earth as an older or more affluent one, but what they have is where it should be.

In this cosmology, the dome of the church represents highest heaven. Thus an image of  Christ the Pantocrator, the “ruler of all” is in the center of the dome, or if there is no dome, at the highest place on the wall above the altar. Below this, just above the altar, is an image of the Mother of God, most often the Mother of God of the Sign, the mystical icon of the Incarnation.

The sanctuary represents the Kingdom of Heaven, the nave symbolizes the earthly realm, and the iconostasis is that which at once separates and unites heaven and earth. In the center of the iconostasis are the Royal Doors, with images of the Annunciation and the Four Evangelists- the things which open the doors to the Kingdom for us. To the right, (if you are facing the altar) is always an image of Christ, and to the left, an image of the Mother of God. On either side are other saints, including St John the Baptist, the particular patron of the church, and nearly always St Nicholas, so beloved in the East. Above the Royal Doors is the icon of the Mystical (Last) Supper. If there is a second tier it would have images of the twelve great feasts of the Church. A third tier will have the Apostles, and a fourth the Old Testament prophets.

As I have said, there is some variation in this, but it is universal  enough that to one who knows the language every Orthodox or  Byzantine Catholic  church feels familiar, feels like home. It is not unlike the  old days in the Latin rite, when every Mass was in Latin, so a  believer was never lost, anywhere in the world.

While the Western churches have lost this universal verbal language, thankfully the East still has its universal visual language, which makes every temple a microcosm, the heaven and earth where the drama of salvation is revealed.

Next: How the West was Lost?; Naturalism and Sacred Art

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Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the LORD see it, and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him. (Prov. 24:17-18)

Amid much rejoicing at the news of Osama bin Ladin’s death, even from Christian bloggers, this is a timely  reminder of Our Saviour’s command:

» 05/02/2011 12:43

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – ” Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices,” and will not create ” an opportunity for further growth of hatred ” is the comment of the Vatican press office on news of the death of Osama Bi Laden. In an official statement to reporters, the director Fr. Federico Lombardi, said the ” Osama bin Laden – as we all know – was gravely responsible for promoting division and hatred between peoples, causing the death of countless innocent lives, and of exploiting religions to this end”.

He added: ” Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace”.

The comment of Fr Lombardi comes as news of young Americans’ celebrations outside the White House in Washington. Even U.S., European and international politicians applaud the result of American anti- terrorist operations in Pakistan.

In the country, afraid of violent reactions of revenge by extremist groups security at government offices and churches has been strengthened.

The Pakistani newspaper The News reported today on its website only part of the Vatican statement, saying: “The Vatican said that” Osama Bin Laden was gravely responsible for promoting division and hatred between peoples”. No word on the Vatican’s call “not to rejoice” over the death of a man, or create opportunities for “further growth of hate”.

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