Let the Church Be a House of Wonder
Introibo ad altare Dei.
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum.
I shall go in to the altar of God.
To God, the joy of my youth.
A few days ago I entered for the first time what some people in the area call the Sistine Chapel of America. There’s reason for that. Saint Anne’s Church, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, is a towering neo-Romanesque church whose interior vaults and domes, walls and panels, are covered with frescoes of sacred art. The people who love their old church and who are committed to maintaining it say that there are more frescoes here than in any other church in the nation. I don’t know how you could establish it for a fact, but I wouldn’t doubt it, either.
What happened was this. The French who laid the first stone for the church exactly 100 years ago finally got round to filling it with color, story, symbol, theology, poetry, Scripture, beauty—wonder. So they hired an Italian from Quebec to come down and cover the church with beauty. He arrived in 1940 and spent eight years there, painting during the warm months and drawing sketches during the cold months. He worked on scaffolding up to eighty feet high. He painted hundreds of human figures: the Father, the Son, angels, saints, prophets, and priests. Each of the figures was a portrait of one of the parishioners of Saint Ann’s. The girl who modeled for the child Mary passed away only a few months ago. Even the three devils who are being cast into Hell in the painting above the sanctuary. Signore Nincheri asked the sisters at the parochial school to send him the three most mischievous boys.
So we might say that it wasn’t only the souls of the people of Woonsocket that were lifted up into the precincts of glory. Their hair and cheeks and eyes were lifted up—even their chins and noses. Through the genius, the passion, and the sweat of Nincheri the painter, and the many carpenters and plasterers who labored alongside him, those people poured themselves into that supreme act of devotion.
Every time they entered their church, they walked into a great symphony of stories. Here is Abel, the smoke of his sacrifice ascending straight toward the heavens. Here is Cain, ducking, his arms held before his head, the smoke of his sacrifice blinding and choking. Here is God the Father, bringing light out of darkness. Here exactly opposite Him is the prophet Jonah, spat out by the whale de profundis onto the shore. You cannot understand the paintings and their placement in the same way in which you understand a bald message, such as, “The last person to leave the church must lock the doors.” You cannot come to an end of understanding them. They are mysteries, familiar and utterly unfamiliar at once. They cause you to be at home with wonders.
Ecce panis angelorum,
Factus cibus viatorum,
Vere panis filiorum,
Non mittendus canibus.
In figuris praesignatur,
Cum Isaac immolatur,
Agnus Paschae deputatur,
Datur manna patribus.
Behold the bread of angels,
Made now the food of wayfarers,
The true bread given to the children,
Not to be thrown to the dogs.
It was shadowed forth in signs
By the sacrifice of Isaac,
By the lamb of the Passover,
By the manna given to our fathers.
Only academics can think themselves into pretending to like verse without music, music without harmony, painting without skies or flowers or animals or people. Intellectuals are the original smashers of images. It was not quarry workers who demanded that their communion rails be knocked out with sledge hammers. It was not little children who pleaded with their pastors to cover paintings with whitewash. It was not housewives who demanded that the high altars with all their draperies and candelabra be replaced with tables so bare and spare that they would not do for an ordinary kitchen.
The Latin verses above, from Thomas Aquinas’ Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem, run in capital letters around the frieze of the sanctuary, forty feet above the earth. Sometimes, I suspect, such features of the old churches survive for no other reason than that the spindle-shanked illuminati won’t climb a ladder that high. Had they been lower, and had the people of Woonsocket been less determined, they would have been obliterated, for the specious reason that they could not be understood.
I call it specious, and here’s why. First, are people so foolish that they cannot learn what such words mean? Didn’t those worshipers encounter prayers in Latin all the time, in their missals, with French or English translations provided beside? Isn’t French a direct descendant of Latin? Isn’t English a cousin of Latin, and haven’t we borrowed thousands of words from Latin directly? Second, why is bilingualism to be praised when it comes to knowing how to ask where the bathrooms are in Tijuana, but to be despised when it comes to prayer and song? Did not Jesus Himself pray in the liturgical language of his time, classical Hebrew? Finally, why must everything we say or sing be reducible to the dull and plain and everyday? Isn’t the Eucharist itself a mystery? Why then should it not be celebrated in words that will never quite yield up their secrets? Why must all of our worship be reduced to less and less, rather than be elevated into more and more?
Vere beata es, ac ter beata, quae beatitudine quoque donatam a Deo infantem, hoc est, Mariam, nomine quoque ipso magnopere venerandam peperisti: ex qua Christus flos vitae extitit.
Blessed and thrice blessed art thou indeed, who in blessedness also gave birth to the child given by God, that is, Mary, most worthy of reverence even by name: from whom came forth Christ, the flower of life.
Man among men is never so amiable as when he gives his heart freely to another in the generosity of praise. We are made more, never less, by such tribute; it is a gift that enriches the giver. Christians have known this. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Why should we not be reminded of those witnesses who have gone before us?
Ordinary and healthy people have always loved the saints, in the same way as children admire heroes. It is the intellectual, prone to the leer of envy, who will cast doubts upon the muscular heroism of Saint George, or who will snicker at Saint Michael and his sword, or who will roll his eyes at the middle class girlish effusions of the Little Flower. The people of Woonsocket saw upon that same frieze, in the nave, the words I’ve translated above, from the Roman breviary. They come from the sixth lesson for the second nocturn, for the feast day of Saint Anne. They were written by Saint John Damascene, in praise of the mother of Mary.
Now let us think about that. It isn’t just that the pastor who commissioned the painting chose some words that would be appropriate for the church. They are words from a breviary, that book of prayers that sanctifies every day in the year and every hour in the day. To enter the church is not only, then, to enter a world of stories, as one might find in a cinema, but to join his time with the time of the Church through the centuries and praying on this certain day the world over.
The modern imagination isn’t imagination at all, but a de-imagination, because one symbol is as good or rather as inherently meaningless as another. And this applies also to time. Time is just one meaningless series of numbers on a digital clock. New Year’s Eve is a celebration of when the temporal odometer goes from 99999 to 100000. Hence the obliviousness of the modern liturgist and church architect to the particulars of person and place and time. You go to a Mass on Trinity Sunday and sing no hymns in honor of the Trinity. You go to Saint Bernard’s Church and find no words of that great mystic anywhere. The feast day of a saint comes along and you wouldn’t know it from anything you hear. It’s the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, but because it lands on a Saturday, it disappears, because the integrity of the secular weekend is more important than observing the feast.
What I’m trying to get at here is hard to put into words. When I entered Saint Anne’s in Woonsocket, a church that had narrowly escaped destruction by the diocese, it was as if I had entered the ruins of a lost way of life. Then I began to see that the libido delendi that seized my Church applied to everything in our worship and education. They were not separate but coincidental movements for destruction. They were and are parts of one movement, and not a new movement in the history of the Church, either.
The elimination of altars and communion rails is the obliteration of sacred art. The obliteration of sacred art is the flattening of liturgical language. The flattening of liturgical language is the abandonment of ageless chants and hymns. The abandonment of those chants and hymns is the forgetting of immemorial devotions and prayers. The forgetting of those prayers is the secularization of time. The secularization of time is the laicization of clergy and religious. Their laicization is the rage to deny the mysteriousness of the faith. The denial of that mystery implies the building of churches as neutral spaces. The building of such churches is the destruction of churches like Saint Anne’s, and, as an ultimate but never to be realized aim, the destruction of Christ’s Church on earth.