What is beautiful?
I've been compiling the results of our recent survey on whether it matters if you're Catholic and have been frequently coming across an idea that I am having trouble understanding. Many of our readers, when asked why being Catholic makes a difference or what they'd tell someone thinking about joining the Catholic Church use the words "beauty," "depth," and "rich" to describe the Catholic experience.
Granted, the survey is short, a series of 12 questions that, as many readers have pointed out, can come across as overly simplistic. Answering an open-ended question on why it makes a difference to me that I'm Catholic sounds more like a weekly writing assignment for a pastoral formation program, for which I'd be allotted 10 to 12 pages, far more space than the not-quite two inches we leave for readers to write in their responses. It's no surprise, then, that when reading filled-out surveys I come across answers that leave me wondering what people mean-or think they mean-when they say they appreciate a liturgy done beautifully or love the depth of the tradition. Not one person who used these words to describe what's so great about being Catholic gave any indication what it was that they found so beautiful, rich, or deep, just that they experienced these things.
My chief concern here is how people understand experiences of beauty, depth, and richness. We love to use these adjectives, or their similes, but we rarely reflect on their meaning. Part of what makes an experience one of depth, is a willingness to describe why it is meaningful or what larger idea it can speak to.
Related to this concern, obviously, is how people talk about the liturgy. It's no secret that there are some liturgy enthusiasts in our Catholic community who find the strong odor of incense, the low hum of Latin chants, and the radiance of gold-embroidered silk beautiful. There is something about these experiences that speak to them and their spirituality and make the worship experience feel, well, more worshipful.
I am not one of those people. But I'm willing to concede that this particular experience of beauty is an important part of some people's spirituality. The liturgical spaces I prefer are starker, quieter and simpler, where less leads me to more in terms of my experience of the divine. Unadorned walls and a silent room help me to reflect on need-both mine and others' and while I love visual art, I find myself distracted by images when worshiping, particularly those that are very literally depicted. Incarnation is probably the part of the Christian tradition that I find most meaningful, and I always imagine it occurring in a moment of stillness, where the paradox of the meeting of the transcendent and finite seems most real to me.
So while 1,500 characters is only slightly longer than the inch of space in which our readers got to share their responses to our survey, I would love to hear in our comments section what you think is beautiful, deep, and rich in the Catholic tradition and what exactly that means to you?