The Grave Necessity of Superficial Things

By S.P. Ora (Rated G)

I would like to draw your mind 100 years into the past to consider the western world, here epitomized by the situation of England. Although the long-awaited sunset was approaching the British Empire, the great edifice of London was still considered the center of the civilized world (though New York would soon succeed it). The driving piston of science and progressivism from the Victorian period was currently clashing with continental pessimism and a thousand other trends thrown into the fray by the powers of finance and communication. The religious predicament is, at least in kind, familiar to us today: the influence of Christianity was waning, new loyalties demanded the inmost hearts of men, and fresh spiritual novelties sprung up to best suit the needs of modern people. Institutional churches, and the Church of England in particular, were very badly mauled by a spirit of secularism, excoriating assaults on the authority of Scripture, and indifference within the hierarchy sufficient to allow unorthodox and modernistic theology to become the face of established churches. 

People had outgrown Christianity (so they said); it wasn’t modern enough, it wasn’t forward-looking enough. Many held to the opinion that a belief in a fixed or absolute truth was simplistic and childish – truth could only be found through constant change. Scrambling to accommodate to the new temperament, churchmen everywhere emptied out from their sermons such abhorrent things as doctrines and definitions, they got rid of “all that ritual nonsense” that the fast-moving modern couldn’t stomach – in short, they tried to bring back the common man by meeting him halfway. What they actually did was to confirm him in his skepticism by offering a second-rate relativism which neither satisfied his taste for fashion nor reignited in him an actual love for truth. Religion, it seemed, capitulated to the fads of the world.

There was one structure, however, which notably did not suffer the same fate as the rest of Christianity in England. This would be the Catholic Church (or the Church of Rome, as they would have called it). It’s a little-known fact that Catholicism experienced a revival in English culture that it had not enjoyed since the Medieval period. Names like G.K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh may be familiar to the reader; names like R. H. Benson and Maurice Baring may not. I would recommend Joseph Pearce’s excellent Literary Converts on the Catholic movement in English letters during this time period, but suffice to say that Catholicism, viewed for 400 years as a disreputable foreign cult, now demanded the consideration of the educated Englishman. Whence came this dramatic change in public opinion?

The reasons are too wide to be discussed here, but I would like to highlight a specific factor that made a big impression on so many people who would later convert. What I’m talking about are the aspects of Catholic worship which I will call, somewhat provocatively, the “superficial”. In the context of this present article, I would like to nuance the use of this word to express a certain thing in which we are now deficient – I don’t mean to consider things that are vapid and meaningless, but instead I mean things that are visible on the surface (which is all the Latin root of the word means). What here separates the superficial from mere mummery is the fact that superficial things (things of the surface) reflect a deeper truth beneath, while mummery is just pomp and ritual for its own sake. That being said, allow me to explain the grave necessity of superficial things.

Concretely, what am I talking about? Church architecture, the music that accompanies liturgy and the forms of devotions promoted amongst the faithful. Each of these things speak implicitly to the worshipper who observes them. When we recite a creed or responses, we express truths explicitly; we say that this or that thing is true. However, the former things also express truth, albeit in a different way and with different results. This is very much paralleled in the relation between the spoken word and body language: if we were to warmly welcome a returning family member with kind words while standing with our fists clenched and our eyes staring out of our head, the recipient might be taken aback by the mixed signals. What then, can we expect of the person who recites strong and beautiful words of devotion while listening to vapid hymns in a deliberately ugly building? Without the implicit affirmation of the truths spoken directly, the entire act of worship is thrown into confusion.

I am a Catholic, which is relevant to this topic in two ways. First, this problem, this disassociation between the core of the Faith and the surface of the Faith is particularly acute in many Catholic dioceses around the world. Second, this is important because I believe that this concept which I have been describing is analogous to the Catholic concept of the Sacrament. Sacraments are physical signs that take place in the physical world: the laying on of hands, baptizing with water, the consecration of bread and wine – all these are things that are attainable by our senses. However, these “signs” are more than signs. These material acts are representations of spiritual acts (which are, may I add, more real than the physical acts) which are currently happening through the agency of God. Just as we wouldn’t say that the physical act of laying on of hands imparts grace, we also wouldn’t say that the outward signs of expressing the Faith is the real test of trust in God. But what can we say about these outward, “superficial”, things?

Through observation and through reason, I think it is perfectly clear that the rejection or confusion of outward signs acts over time on the Christian until they start to degrade and muddle his explicit faith. This is not to throw out the free decision of the Christian to cling to God and ignore the world, but most of us are very frail and we need all the help we can get. This is, I think, a large contributor to the downfall of the Puritan societies and the certain sort of worldly secularism that we can see in their descendant societies today; the lifelong fast of Puritanism is not healthy for human society because it ignores the first aspect of our body-and-soul nature. I do not say that it is not right to shun material things entirely because you hold such a firm love for God and his Kingdom and, indeed, you would be in very good company with myriads of holy and ascetic saints if you decided upon that sort of life. What I do say is that the human society at large cannot survive having this interminable penance thrust upon them and that they are bound to eventually reject it with violence.

However, today we face a different disorder – the disorder of materialism, both implicit and explicit. And although we, as Christians, are at least firmly obligated by the most basic tenants of doctrine to reject explicit materialism, the implicit form has become perhaps the largest mood among the Catholic faithful. There is not space in this article to elucidate the causes and effects of implicit materialism, which is, in a word, behaving as if God and the supernatural did not exist while not consciously holding that rejection in the mind. And it is this, I fear, that is being accommodated and, indeed, perpetuated by a breakdown of the external signs of faith.

We no longer seek to be drawn up into the truth and the beauty of the Faith. Most of us, rather, seek to have those things lowered down to the point where we can easily digest them without effort. Therefore, we are given sappy and sentimental songs that emphasize the happiness of belonging to a (any?) community. We construct churches which seek to repudiate the lofty beauty of old and prosaically conform to the ugly standards of a shopping mall or a bowling alley. We are given sermons that challenge no-one to holiness, that illuminate nothing about the truth of the natural and supernatural world that has been handed down to us over millennia from the incarnate Son of God. And yet, we are still to believe that we come to worship He who is unimaginably greater than any possible concept? We are expected to retain the belief that we celebrate the eternally stunning revelation that this Being sacrificed himself for a people so unworthy and meager as us? Even more, are all the indications of attitude and environment implying that we are going up to the altar to receive the actually present substance of the Lord over all creation?

It is difficult for me to imagine a person who grows in orthodox faith and a holistic vision of God while being nourished spiritually by only a modernistic, casual parish. Should a Catholic (or any other Christian, for that matter), need to pursue spiritual readings or apologetics just to remain devoted to worthy worship and resistant to the legions of competing doctrines of the world? It would seem that the average parish is hardly sufficient for this task except for the grace of He who loves us even in our folly.

I think there is one thing that can be counted the special enemy of exterior (and by extension, interior) devotion. It is an old tendency with a new vitality. What I mean is the push for desacramentalization or, as it might also be called, casualization. This is essentially the mood that seeks to make all ecclesiastical matters to approximate secular affairs – specifically, secular affairs of this highly convenient and consumer-focused age. There has always been the strong tendency in Christian society for the average man on the street to prefer spending his time at the hippodrome or the amphitheater, doing his best to keep the time spent at holy Mass to a minimum. However, in pretty much every era of Christian history, this man was always able to make the choice to pass through the heavy doors of the nearest church and join himself to the object and aspiration of the virtuous Christian; he would enter into the quiet place, intentionally beautified to help the mind rise to contemplation of heaven, and he could be sure that sincere devotion was always something that would be available to him. 

This is not so today. Today, the man could turn away from the amphitheater and find that the local stewards of the Church have done all in their power to make the church resemble the amphitheater. This can have serious consequences to an impressionable person – it can make it seem like the thing that he tried to escape from is not escapable, it makes it seem that the high aspirations of the pious past were an excess that has now been corrected. A man trying to escape the ways of the world may find himself dismayed upon entering the nearest Catholic church. This is the fruit of trying to take the sacred out of sacred things. You may know that “sacred” means “set apart”; this modern trend, so sadly cultivated in church leadership, seeks to mix the holy and the profane in the hopes that the resulting stew will be tasteless enough to not cause offense. 

Isn’t this overreacting? Surely it’s not that bad! Surely the effects of tepidity in devotional aspects wouldn’t have such extreme consequences on personal conviction! I need only look at the dismal statistics of religious indifference to affirm that this is indeed an extremely grave problem. It is, to be sure, not the only problem that drives people away from Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular. But it seems to me that the salt has lost its savor and searches in vain for some sort of artificial substitute. Bringing this back around, I want you to consider the wave of brilliant converts that I mentioned in the beginning of this article. So many of them were attracted to the visible signs of Catholic worship and, indeed, so many of them were repelled, only to find a conflict in their hearts that pushed them to consider the Catholic claim. How many of them would be much attracted or repelled at all by the worship of Catholics in the average western parish? What is there to be of note to the outside observer? The mosaiced walls are washed over, the solemn liturgy is simplified for the vulgar taste, the censers of incense are closeted away. And, most of all, the people worshiping don’t seem awfully serious about it.

Now, would those brilliant converts just mentioned abandon ship just because the practice of the Faith has decayed? No. The question is this: Would they ever have felt the initial draw to Catholicism if that religion did not sufficiently distinguish itself from the mass of more fashionable or institutional religions? If a Protestant reader has made it this far into my tiresome article, then I appreciate your tenacity and I hope you found some useful principle herein; the principle of giving physical witness to God is not a Catholic monopoly and, indeed, all of creation is called to it. I end with another call to the restoration of those things I have termed “superficial”. The vaulted ceiling glorifies God. The chant gives back the gift of our voices to the One who bestowed them. The beautiful stained-glass window is pleasing to our Lord in that it is an expression of our joy and gratitude – our best reproduction of the beauty He has infused in the world. Surely “hallowed be Thy name” is a command as much as it is a statement of fact? Let’s do so in every way available to us.  

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