Thursday, March 20, 2014

"beauty" in the church

A local church -- a lumbering 19th century edifice on Main Street -- is considering the possibility of selling an enormous Tiffany stained-glass window for $750,000 or more as a means of putting its financial house in order.

First Churches of Northampton Pastor Todd Weir is indirectly quoted in the news story as saying that "while the congregation likes to have an aesthetically pleasing sanctuary ... the church is not a museum."

The church, like any other brick-and-mortar religious institution, has bills to pay and, in keeping with the warp and weft of time, a dwindling congregation to pay them. And then there is the fact that what was once a bedrock Christian presumption in the country, now spiritual interests do not rely as much on the importance of a church and its trimmings. Gone are the salad days when a pastor might scare the crap out his congregation or, under the same banner, raise them up in some credible/credulous fashion.

What interests me in all this is the question of beauty in the concrete realm of churches or temples or other places where people gather to express a common wish or hope or understanding.

Anyone who claims a universally-acceptable definition of "beauty" is either a liar or a self-serving merchandizer. And yet human beings have all, if I had to guess, felt the impact of something referred to as "beauty" and enjoyed its realms. Maybe it's like the Supreme Court justice's observation about pornography: "I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it."

There is something confirming and anointing about being in the presence of beauty -- whether it be a painting, a piece of music, words written on a page, a kiss, a mathematical formula or a feather floating down some swollen gutter. And perhaps "God" is just another way of declaiming a "beauty" that everyone knows but no one can lay hands on.

It is lovely to walk into pleasing surroundings, to be confirmed and encouraged by bricks and mortar. Whether wildly ornate or deliciously spare ... still a pleasing environment or pleasing company suggests that maybe -- just maybe -- I might attain whatever quite intimate beauty I have experienced in the past and long to experience once more. Pleasing surroundings and pleasing company also serve the function of suggesting that I am not irredeemably crazy for seeking out what I cannot see or smell or taste or touch. If I am nuts, I prefer having some company.

But what is/was that beauty? I mean the personal one that brought me to these pleasing surroundings in the first place. The experience was as real and compelling as a Mack truck, but the current surroundings, while pleasing, invariably fail to arouse a similar certainty ... the one within that brooks no interlopers or translators or well-intentioned teachers. Yes, we can talk the talk, speaking of beauty or sorrow or God or the Sistine Chapel, but it's just a pale shadow of what once was beauty.

What is/was that beauty? Perhaps it is something closer to a verb than a noun. Perhaps a synonym for the real beauty is just "melting." Who melts? I melt ... just as anyone else might under whatever circumstances. To melt into a certainty that is not for sale, even if I wanted to sell it. It may not happen often, but when it does, there is no doubt about it, in church or elsewhere.

It is at this point that I feel the need to say "horseshit!" to the casual casuists who assert that "I don't need a church in order to express my spirituality." Everyone is always building and maintaining churches all the time -- beautiful settings in which to rest and rejuvenate and touch base with "the better angels of our nature."

And like actual-factual, brick-and-mortar churches, these edifices within are but a pale shadow of the beauty that once claimed the scene, for however brief a moment. I may remember such moments, but memory rests in a past long gone and I live in the present. Living in the past is a beggar's existence, but melting is nothing if not present... in a kiss, a smile, a phrase of prose or music, or a passing stranger.

 It is pleasing to be supported by beautiful surroundings. It is pleasing to be supported by a coming together of like-minded people. It is pleasing to speak the name of "God" in cozy and supportive unison. Pleasing, yes, pleasing. "Pleasing" inspires hope and belief and whatever level of determination. But "pleasing" is never "pleased" -- the sure-fire realm of beauty, a realm without shadows and fumbling passing as certainty.

To my mind, there is a need for the museums that Pastor Weir rejects. In the realm of hope and belief, what other option is there? Museums on Main Street, museums in the mind. Places to test and snoop and sniff out what may in fact turn to an unshadowed beauty. Of course, such places may turn out to be utterly useless in the quest as well. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets... your life, your bet, your beauty.

It is well said that, "going to church on Sunday will not make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage will make you a car." But going to church, perhaps a beautifully-appointed one, is surely one way to express an interest in what any (wo)man might sell the farm to experience anew.

Melting doesn't come cheap. The trick is to find the fire -- your fire -- that will melt what needs melting. Where beauty holds sway, neither belief nor hope nor even "beauty" find footing. It is not special or ordinary, hard or easy. No effort can achieve it and yet without effort, it is lost. It is yours without the "you."

What is it?

Melt and find out.


  1. This is a fine piece, Adam. I think that your writing is often beautiful.

  2. What the church needs to do is not "sell" the window but sell the naming rights of the window to the highest bidding corporation like they do for sports stadiums and race cars. For example, they could put a name plaque under it with the name "Claritin Clear Window." or "GEICO Stained Glass."