Beware These Pretty Things

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Let me guess. You wandered into an Episcopal church and the beauty got you. The rich fabrics on the altar and the vestments on the priests make perfect sense to you, as does the fancy procession down the aisle. Of course they enter the room as if this event matters. And you like words, don’t you? I know you do. And you can’t find a word or phrase out of place in the Book of Common Prayer.

You’ve been long on the road, haven’t you, pilgrim? The dust on your clothes and the look in your eyes reveal much about you, as does the way you zero in on the details and drink in the zeitgeist of this people. Now you’re wondering if the great and abiding mystery of life – that presence you have felt and longed for and occasionally glimpsed – might be found here.

I know. I get you.

Lucky for you Episcopalians only let people join on one special Sunday each year, so you can’t make a hasty decision. And that’s good. Because there’s something I want to tell you.

You should beware these pretty things.

Beauty is always expensive. Mark that down in your book. It’s costly. And even when beauty appears in one of its more innocent forms, it takes a devil’s bargain to hold onto it. So take a careful look at this little Episcopal cathedral you’ve walked into and consider the ledgers that must be balanced. Administrative costs, building overhead, salaries for the professionals, materials, rehearsals, training, and organizing. And if they pulled off Sunday worship in a way that seemed effortless, double that cost.

But that’s only money and time. That’s just the small stuff.

The real cost is hidden and more dangerous. Church beauty is seductive. The siren call is for you to sink into your pew and become a passive observer, a connoisseur of worship forms. You a consumer and the church a service provider, like the phone company or Netflix.

Tread lightly, pilgrim. Your soul is in great danger.

There is a paradox here, which is not surprising. Paradoxes abound where deep truths abide. The paradox is that church beauty is at once good and dangerous and righteous and deadly. And you will never sort this out. Never. Because the danger lies so close to the goodness. It is right outside the sanctuary door. And that’s the farthest away it ever gets. Sometimes – God help us – the dark side of beauty lies sprawled across the altar, grinning at us.

So if you are new to the Episcopal tradition, drink in the beauty. Taste it, smell it, hear it, be immersed in it. Let it transport you on a luxurious journey to the heavens. But on the day you decide to become part of this ancient faith tradition, beware these pretty things. Beware choosing a congregation based on beauty. Great danger lies this way, pilgrim.

But oh, how you will be tempted. New to this beauty, you may want to join the church that puts on the best show.

Listen to me now. I speak to you a great mystery that can help you overcome this temptation. On Sunday mornings, Episcopalians all over the world march into our sanctuaries as one people. We sing and we pray together, as one. And together we bind and loose and give form to unspeakable mysteries. The beauty of our worship is shared across space and time. If you can become quiet enough and still enough and as small as a child, perhaps this mystery will enter your heart. If that happens you will begin to see the beauty of our highest cathedrals in the halting steps of a middle-school boy clomping down the aisle of his humble, small-town church.

Then you will have caught a glimpse of real beauty, which is an ideal we strive for but never quite reach. And you will never again be fooled by any particular counterfeit beauty, no matter how well it is packaged here on earth.

Heaven help us. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy for all the vain things that charm us most.

Gordon Atkinson

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