The Goodness of Grandeur
Starting off with a quote:
I don’t go to – I tried to go back. When I was out in L.A. and I was kind of struggling for a bit. I went to church for a while, but it’s kind of, it’s gotten gigantic now for me. It’s like too…I’m doing too much. I don’t want – there’s Frisbees being thrown, there’s beach balls going around, people waving lighters, and I go, ‘This is too much for me.’ I want the old way. I want to hang out with the, you know, with the nuns, you know, that was my favorite type of Mass, and the grotto, and just like straight up, just Mass Mass.
Those words were spoken by the brilliant and hilarious Jimmy Fallon in 2012, when asked about his life as a Catholic and why he left the Church.
Recently, I read about the Diocese of Rochester ending the “tradition” of lay homilists and getting back to the actual tradition of strictly priests or deacons preaching during the liturgy, and Jimmy’s interview came to mind. What also came to mind was the strange phenomenon of straying away from the centuries-old grandeur and majesty of traditional churches to the modern, “worship centers” during the years after Vatican II–the 1970s & 1980s in particular.
A while back, I gave a presentation for co-workers on the precision and genius that went into building the medieval cathedrals, the reasons being that majestic walls of light would help people grow closer to God and the that simple proportion reflected the harmony and order of God’s creation. Preparing for that presentation only increased the incredulity I already felt about the churches-that-don’t-look-like-churches that seem to be more common today than the former.
Thinking a little more about why I felt this way, I soon came to a conclusion: Traditional churches make it easier to enter into our experience with the Lord. Conversely, modern-style churches make it more difficult.
To clarify, I don’t mean “easier” as requiring less of a contribution on our part. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Chartres Cathedral or a church with four white walls and the Tabernacle in another room, God’s never going to do all the leg work in our relationship with Him.
What I mean instead is that traditional church buildings, far better than modern ones, give us an almost automatic awareness that we’re there to encounter the living God.
We’re more inclined to feel closer to God when we put ourselves in a place intended precisely for feeling close to God, a place built with qualities reflected in Scriptures and universally understood by the keepers of the faith for hundreds of years.
The reason a church should be filled on all sides with beauty and grandeur–light, stained glass, high-arched ceilings, a golden tabernacle, a majestic altar–and not just four white walls with a platform in the middle is the same reason a gym should include only weights and exercise machines and not be scattered with couches and recliners as well. Sure, you can still work out in a gym with as many futons as treadmills, but I guarantee it’ll be a lot more difficult.
It has to do with one thing: comfort. When we go to Mass, we’re there to grow, to become better versions of ourselves, to become more holy Christians, not to get comfortable. Likewise, when we go to the gym, we go to grow, to work out our bodies…to get swole…not to be comfortable.
Other traditional and solemn aspects of Mass–silence before Mass, music that isn’t a performance, proper vessels for the sacraments–will only increase that closeness. A greater absence or lack of intention in doing these things will accomplish the opposite. Again, it doesn’t take away the ability for encounter with God, it just makes it more difficult.
In the end, Mass isn’t about us. It’s for us, but not about us. People who celebrated and attended Mass for centuries understood that, and so did Jimmy Fallon.