Beware These Pretty Things

12

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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  • Love this: “church beauty is at once good and dangerous and righteous and deadly.”

    And it is not only true of church beauty. Community theaters are just as beautiful as Broadway. Middle school violin concerts contain the beauty of Carnegie Hall. And every parent’s fridge door can become the Guggenheim.

    • I’d agree with a qualifier. I believe that we humans sometimes create art simply for the sake of beauty. And I am a believer in good art. There is good writing and bad writing. Good paintings and bad paintings. There is a reason why my child’s painting isn’t in the Guggenheim. BUT, art is also involved with relationships. So yes, parents can perceive something deeper in their child’s work. They see love and potential and something sacred in the human drive to create. Sacred art in spiritual traditions has another dimension to it. There is worship involved. One could imagine hiring people who are not believers to put on a mock religious service. And they might perform it technically well. But it would be….wrong. And in the long run unsustainable. the sacred art of worship has developed over centuries and is produced by true believers.

      Beauty in church is dangerous because it can become an idol for us. But it’s also awesome and can be a wonderful part of a spiritual journey.

  • Ashevillian

    Beautiful is as beautiful does. If it gets you in the door and helps you remain faithful to your spiritual search and to the heart of your community, then it is useful and good. If it is a substitute for the hard work of relationship and service to the Christ in each of our sisters and brothers, then it is lipstick on a pig.

  • Oh, this resonates. All of it.

    Thank you for wrapping words around something I’ve been trying to ignore since I got home from LL last year.

  • Dave Vander Laan

    Where ever there is beauty there is the danger of seduction.

    Now, seduction isn’t entirely bad. I love seducing my wife. And I love it when she seduces me. The beauty of the seduction lies in the fact that our hearts are committed to each other. We desire no harm to the other.

    But if our hearts were not committed to each other, then there would only be seduction – no beauty. It would just be a carnal fling.

    I love your final words: “Christ have mercy for all the vain things that charm us most.”

    Surely we can trust that Christ will also redeem the way beauty can seduce us.

    • yes. I took some pains to be careful that I was not misunderstood. beauty is good. And striving for beauty in worship is good. But much like sexual seduction, the danger lies very close to the goodness. In my view, anyway.

      • Dave Vander Laan

        Gordon, I agree about the danger you mention & I think the greatest danger to ‘beauty’ in worship is when worship becomes a performance that’s guided by thinking instead of the obedience of response from a heart wrecked by grace.

        And even after you mentioned the ‘hat tip’ it took me a while to figure out your reference to the second stanza of ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.’

        By the way – did I mention how much I enjoyed reading your original post?

    • There is a hat tip in that final line to a well known hymn that is popular in less formal evangelical communities. Did you catch it?

  • pastordt

    Thanks for that HT, Gordon. And thanks for the rest of this. Yes, there is a cost to beauty, as there is to any kind of excellence. And beauty is such a marvelous pointer to Beauty, no? But I get the fine line thing. Like everything else that is wonderful in human experience, beauty, too, can become a trap. Or a lie. But wow, I thank God for it. Every dang day, when I look around me at created glory. And every time I read a prayer in the BCP or other collection of good worship words. Or sit and weep in a liturgical service that oozes our story in all its long and convoluted history. I am not an Episcopalian but I surely understand why you are.

  • Yes. Thank you for this. I was thinking about this just last Sunday as we were reminded by the Psalm to “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Not the holiness of beauty, I always tell myself. It is easy to get confused.

  • Pam Lovall

    Thank you Gordon. I had a thought that for the true artist, creating a beautiful or provocative work is something that he must do. For the believer, adoration is also something we must do to send something beautiful back in gratitude. The trap is when it becomes the omega instead of the alpha in us. It’s not a fear I have for you however.

  • Aine

    It is dangerous and seductive; I grew up Catholic, and I thought we did the formal art of worship- nothing compared to the pomp and theatre in an Anglican high church cathedral. I can see the way it draws one in, as it has always done for me, and pushes away, creates a thirst for the simple and the plain.