Art and the Spiritual Life
In the Old Testament, God Almighty directed Solomon, the son of David, to build in His honor a glorious temple which would serve as His abode among the Jewish nation. When this house of God had been completed after seven years of construction, we are told: “A cloud filled the house of the Lord and the priests could not minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord.”1 For this reason, the Psalmist exclaims: “Holiness becomes thy house, O Lord, unto length of days.”2 However, this earthly temple was meant only to serve as an image of the dwelling place of the good God in the New Testament.
The Temple of God Is Holy
In the first of his letters to the Christians at Corinth, St. Paul writes: “Know you not, that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? For the temple of God is holy, which you are.”3 In this light, we may better understand the words of Our Lord to the Samaritan woman who had said that the Jews worshipped God in Jerusalem while the Samaritans worshipped Him at Mt. Garizim. He told her, “The hour comes when you shall neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem adore the Father. The hour comes and now is when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit, and they that adore Him must adore him in spirit and in truth.”4 In other words, wherever there is a Christian soul in the state of grace, there we find the temple wherein true worship may be rendered to God Almighty.
Let us take, therefore, a few moments to see how we may be able to render our souls worthy dwelling places of the Creator of heaven and earth. To do so, let us briefly consider some of the qualities that characterize the beautiful cathedrals—Chartres, Notre Dame of Paris, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, to name but a few—which were constructed during the Ages of Faith. These churches were designed principally in order to give honor and glory to the good God; everything in them was directed to this purpose. Although many different styles have dominated various periods of church architecture, there are various elements which remain constant over the centuries. Among these, we shall focus on the great order found in Catholic churches, the frequent presence of natural light, and the fact that these buildings were traditionally built from stone.
The Altar Is the Center
As one enters a Catholic cathedral, one cannot but be impressed by the grandeur of the edifice as well as by the harmonious arrangement of everything contained within it.5 These two elements contribute to the sense of order which pervades the temples of our religion. Of course, if we speak of order, we necessarily imply something which both establishes and defines that order. In Catholic cathedrals—and, indeed, even in the most humble parish church—this principle of order is nothing other than the altar. In a sermon, Archbishop Lefebvre asked rhetorically: “The altar is the center of all of our basilicas and our churches, is it not?” He goes on to say, “What do missionaries do in the lands they want to evangelize? The first thing they do is set up a chapel, a place of prayer. And in this place, what do they put in the middle? An altar.”6 The whole design of Catholic churches is meant to direct souls to the altar. Why? For there is offered the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the sacrifice of the Cross renewed in an unbloody manner, and there is tendered to God the most perfect act of praise and adoration possible. The beautiful art—the statuary, the stained-glass windows, the vestments and ornaments—as well as the nobility of the majestic proportions of our cathedrals are meant simply to help our minds grasp more perfectly the sublime reality which is effected on these sacred stones.
As it is in our cathedrals and churches, so it ought to be in our souls. Every faculty, every desire, every possession of our soul must be directed to reproducing within us the sacrifice which Our Lord offered on Calvary and continues to offer on our altars. What does this mean for us in practice? To answer this, we must first ask what lies at the heart of Our Lord’s sacrifice. We may truly say that the sacrifice which Our Lord Jesus Christ offered on Calvary—and thus which He continues to offer upon our altars—was essentially one of obedience to the will of His Father: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.”7 We may see the final oblation which Our Lord makes in the garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”8 Calvary, however, was merely final expression of Christ’s whole life. St. Paul teaches that when Our Lord entered the world, the first movement of His soul was to exclaim: “Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldst not, but a body hast thou fitted for me. Then said I, ‘Behold, I come; in the head of the book it is written of me that I should do thy will.”9 Throughout His public life, He never ceased to repeat, “My meat is to do the will of Him who sent me.”10 Our greatest passion ought to be to find and to accomplish the will of our Father in heaven. This will invariably mean sacrificing that which is most dear to us—our own will—upon the altar of our hearts. Everything which is in us—our mind, memory, emotions, physical gifts—and even our outward possessions must be ordered to this spiritual altar and the spiritual sacrifice which is offered upon it.
Attention to Our Lord
Another aspect of church architecture reveals to us an additional characteristic of the symbolism inherent in Christian temples. Traditionally, Catholic churches were constructed to face east in order to be directed towards the rising sun. Thus, when Mass was said, the light of the new day would be pouring into the church. Though this evidently serves a practical purpose, it also draws our attention to Our Lord, who is the “light of the world.” In the Gospel according to St. John, Our Lord is recorded to have spoken on this subject on numerous occasions. For example, immediately before His Passion, He explained: “I am come a light into the world; that whosoever believeth in me, may not remain in darkness.”11 In orienting the churches which they built, our ancestors meant in this way to highlight the fact that the Holy Mother Church is illumined by the Sun of Justice.
Here again we may draw a valuable lesson for our spiritual lives. We too must design our spiritual edifice in such a manner as to permit Our Lord to cast His light abundantly within our souls. In the prologue of St. John’s Gospel, we read: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”12 What does this mean? We must study our Faith. What is the Faith if not the truths which Our Lord revealed to us? What are the truths which Our Lord revealed to us if not supernatural lights far brighter than even the brightest natural knowledge of the greatest philosophers? Archbishop Lefebvre used to say that a five-year-old child that knows its catechism understands reality better than the most renowned scholars [who do not know it]. The more we absorb the teachings of God Incarnate, the more He shall dispel from us the darkness of our ignorance and error. He said: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”13
Christ Himself the Cornerstone
Finally, it is worthy of note that the building material of choice for the glorious churches of Christendom was invariably stone. In addition to being a strong and noble substance, it has the happy character of recalling to our minds the fact that “Jesus Christ Himself [is] the chief cornerstone” of the Church. He is also the solid foundation of the Church, “For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus.”14 As it is with the Church, so also in our interior lives. If we are to have a solid and balanced piety, we must base it wholly on Our Lord Jesus Christ as He has made Himself known to us through the public revelation which He has bequeathed to the Church. Indeed, there is no need for a multiplicity of private devotions or pious practices in order to please God. We have only to draw near to Jesus and rest on Him. It is only in this manner that our spiritual lives will have the necessary stability which will enable us to avoid being excessively elated by spiritual consolations or dejected by desolations and trials.
Our spiritual lives will necessarily contain both highs and lows. The glorious temple dedicated by Solomon would be despoiled of its treasures within a few short years15 and eventually destroyed when the kingdom of Judah was led into the Babylonian captivity. Later, He would both resume His dwelling in the second temple built under the supervision of Nehemias and maintain His presence there until the death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.16 God will allow the spiritual temple of our souls to suffer a like fate inasmuch as He will permit it—should we faithfully strive to serve Him—to be despoiled of the riches of His consolations. We may even go so far as to say that He will allow it to be destroyed insofar as He works to annihilate anything in it unworthy of Himself. Only in the measure that we have placed Christ as the foundation of our spiritual edifice, ensured that His light bathes its interior, and placed at its center the altar upon which is to be sacrificed our will, shall we be able to endure the constructive work of God in our souls. Then Our Lord and His Eternal Father shall gladly come to take everlasting possession of our souls and fill them with His glory.
1 III Kings 8:10-11.
2 Ps. 92:5.
3 I Cor. 3:16-7.
4 Jn. 4:21-4.
5 On the author’s first visit to Europe he travelled Spain. Together with a young Mormon friend, he entered the cathedral of Seville and was floored by the immensity and majesty of the building. As both craned their heads to take in the whole expanse of the interior and to glimpse the ceiling, the normally loquacious teenagers were reduced to expressions of monosyllabic wonder.
6 Sermon of March 27, 1975.
7 Phil. 2:8.
8 Lk. 22:42.
9 Heb. 10:5, 7.
10 Jn. 4:34.
11 Jn. 12:42.
12 Jn. 1:4.
13 Jn. 8:12.
14 I Cor. 3:11.
15 III Kings 14:25 ff. The temple was despoiled about 30 years after it was completed.
16 Lk. 23:45.