Holy Distraction: The Case for Sacred Art and Architecture

| 10-26-AD2013 | [5]

Joel and Lisa Schmidt - Holy Distraction

We were traveling for Thanksgiving, visiting Joel’s family. It was the feast of Christ the King, and we were looking for a Saturday vigil Mass. There were two options. The first one was just a few minutes from our hotel; the second was across town. Knowing nothing about the first, we chose the second. We had been there once before years ago and recalled the beautiful church.

On our way, we passed by the closer church. Surprised, Joel remarked that he had passed by the building regularly during his childhood and never knew it was a Catholic church. Nothing about its circular, low-profile, flying-saucer appearance gave it away.

By the time we arrived at our destination, our children had fallen asleep. We scooped them up and made our way into the German Tudor Gothic-style church. It was as breathtaking as we remembered: the statues, the paintings, the stained-glass windows, the icons, the Stations of the Cross. Beautiful.

During the Eucharistic prayer, our four-year-old daughter finally awoke. After rubbing the sleep out of her eyes and getting her bearings, she looked toward the altar and asked Joel, “Daddy, why is there a castle in here?” He replied, “Well, let me tell you about Christ the King …”

Aha, the opportunity of holy distraction.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that, “The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction” (2729). We know this is true by our own experience. How hard is it sometimes to pray in our own homes? We can’t help thinking about that load of laundry we should start, or what’s for dinner, or how we really should paint this room, or … insert distraction of choice. Setting aside a space dedicated to prayer helps. It moves us into a place, physically and mentally, apart from the usual domestic agenda. Further, if we fill that space with sacred items, holy distractions, those things can actually elevate our heart and mind, directing our attention heavenward and out-competing the usual distractions for our consciousness.

How much more then should our churches be filled with sacred art and architecture if for no other reason than to help us focus? Opportunities for distraction abound at Mass. There’s the cute (or noisy) baby in the next pew. Perhaps someone forgot to turn off their cell phone (cue mental stink-eye). Then there’s the ever-present potential to get lost in our thoughts, the mental baggage we inevitably bring with us (like that fight in the car on the way to Mass).

We are incarnational beings, which means we are sensory creatures, for better or worse. This can work against us in the form of distractions that take our focus away from the sacred mysteries. However, we can also use this to our advantage. The sacraments do precisely that. These visible signs of invisible grace leverage our senses: the pouring of water, anointing with oil, laying on of hands, words of absolution, reception of the Precious Body and Blood. Also, sacramentals like rosaries, scapulars, and icons tap into our senses to turn our gaze toward Jesus.

Art and architecture are particularly good examples. Beautiful stained-glass windows, paintings, icons, and statues can immerse us in our faith by literally surrounding us with the stories of salvation history, scenes from the gospels, or the lives of the saints. Similarly, many elements of classical basilica-style architecture tend to draw the eye upward. In contrast, the absence of sacred art and architecture allows the mundane to overtake our senses virtually unchallenged. Poorly designed worship spaces fix our gaze horizontally, narrowing our focus to the assembly at the expense of the Trinity.

This underscores the visual power of the crucifix, not just a cross as many modern churches employ. After all, the Catechism teaches us that Holy Mass, the Celebration of the Eucharist, is in fact a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise (1359, 1360, 1365). Without Jesus on the cross, what is the cross’s significance? Where exactly is the sacrifice?

One of our family’s previous parish homes was a reasonably new church with a rather contemporary-style worship space, largely devoid of sacred art. However, it did at least have a few icons and a very prominent San Damiano crucifix hanging above the altar. Accordingly, our daughter has always associated Jesus with two things: the cross and the Church. How else could a parent instill those lessons in a child from such a young age? “You learn your faith through the (church) building; they’re sermons in stone, and that’s why they’re so important,” notes Duncan Stroik, professor at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture and author of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal.

Such is the importance of such sacred images, objects, and architecture. Beauty can sometimes convey truth in a way that words cannot. At one of his recent Wednesday audiences, Pope Francis discussed the evangelical power of beauty.

“In every age the Church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the Gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation, the dignity of human beings made in his image and likeness, and the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to bring redemption and rebirth to a world touched by the tragedy of sin and death.”

This is precisely the purpose of all these beautiful, holy distractions. The ability to be educated and evangelized by our senses is precisely what the functional, modernist, iconoclastic movement in church design largely misses. When our focus drifts, which it inevitably will, from the scripture reading or homily, shouldn’t it remain in the realm of the holy rather than being enabled to wander aimlessly, eventually fixing on what so-and-so is wearing?

Our purpose here isn’t to encourage Catholics to abandon their local parishes for the closest basilica. Rather, we do encourage you to influence the local design or decoration process in any way possible. If your parish or school is planning a renovation, however large or small, get involved. If you don’t make your preferences known, they are likely to be neglected. If no remodel is in the offing, volunteer for your parish’s Art and Environment committee and help ensure seasonal decoration is tasteful and appropriate, perhaps even beautiful and holy. Do what you can wherever you are to help create a vision of the heavenly city.

What holy distractions have you found most helpful to your worship or prayer life?

About the Author:

Joel and Lisa Schmidt co-founded The Practicing Catholic, an antidote to the perception that piety is boring or that the Church is filled with “sour-faced saints”. In their writings, the Schmidts provide witness to the adventure of living an integrated Catholic life ... not just on Sundays. For more about the Schmidts, please see their individual bios (Joel's bio; Lisa's bio).
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  • John Darrouzet

    Thanks for this post!

    When I was a child, I had this 4-story mural above the altar to contemplate when I went to Mass. Christ is my King, my Lord, and my Master!

    http://www.pinterest.com/pin/137500594844701617/

  • jamey brown

    Art can pierce through the hardened heart. French Poet Paul Claudel
    was converted on the spot when he heard the spellbinding music in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The great philosopher Peter Kreeft’s first inkling of conversion came when he entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a child and asked his father how the “Whore of Babylon”—as he called the Catholic Church—could build something so beautiful?
    The arrow that pierced my own armor around my heart and
    let the light shine in was to see the elaborate and intricately designed Celtic Crosses on EWTN. I remember thinking, “These people really take this religion very, very seriously. Let me look deeper into this”–famous last words of a former New Ager.

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  • Theresa

    Wonderful article. I used to feel a bit guilty that I needed beauty in my church to keep me from being distracted from the work at hand…the Mass. Beautiful art and statues keep my mind from wandering.