I was heartened one Sunday by our priest's brief defense of the use of precious metals in the communion vessels. It made me reflect on the topic and I wanted to post the fruits of my contemplation.
Honestly it upsets me when people argue against so called “extravagance”, saying that the money would be better used for the poor. In their misguided piousness they are echoing the men whom Jesus rebuked for the exact same statement.
For example in Mark 14 we read:
3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.
6"Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could.
The fact that Jesus himself rebuked such a statement should be enough for us never to use such an argument. However, people persist in complaining about the so-called “riches” of the church. As an artist, perhaps I can lend an understanding of a lesser-known point of view on this whole topic. These people, I shall call them the Objectors, betray a deep misunderstanding of art and beauty, their place in the work of salvation and also the vocation of the Catholic artist.
People get so blinded by the outward cost of these things that they cannot see any value in them that is not monetary. Let me remind people of the reality that these objects are made by someone. Each beautiful object is made by an artist who lovingly brings that object into existence. They are given talents and are sent forth, told by the gospels, to use those talents for the glory of God. How dare anybody deny Catholic artists their right and sacred duty to praise God through their talents? Our art is what we have to give and sometimes it feels like the only thing of value that we have to offer. Like the woman in the gospel, how dare you deny a person their alabaster jar?
God is The Creator and in making us artists, in some small way, we artists are apprentices, creators with a small ”c”, children following in the footsteps of our Father, imitating and praising Him with our own creations. To reduce our works to objects only seen for their monetary value is… well…it feels like a prostitution of our work. Art objects have more value than just what you can sell them for.
Philosophically, God has three transcendental characteristics, Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Teachers and preachers are apostles of Truth. Each layman is called to be an apostle of Goodness by striving for holiness. However, it is we, the artists who, in our own unique way, have the privilege of being the apostles of Beauty. Author Peter Kreeft reminds us that, of the three, “Beauty has the greatest power over our souls.”
In addition we must realize that we are creatures of the senses and we strive to feed those senses. We serve a creative God who reaches out to us through our senses. Such things as music, art and literature are not technically essential for the physical survival of the human person, but spiritually we are intrinsically LESS without them. Dare I suggest that churches that deny the goodness of sacred art are essentially sensory deprivation tanks for the soul?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his essay titled “Beauty Will Save the World”, made a series of profound and moving observations about art and Beauty. Solzhenitsyn said:
“An artist realizes that there is a supreme force above him and works away gladly as a small apprentice beneath God’s heaven, even though his responsibility for everything he draws or writes and for the souls which perceives it is all the more strict. But still: it was not he who created this world, nor is it he who provides it with direction, and he has no doubts of its foundations. The artist is only given to sense more keenly than others of the harmony of the world and all the beauty and savagery of man’s contribution to it—and to communicate this poignantly to people.”
“Art opens even the chilled, darkened heart to high spiritual experience. Through the instrumentality of art we are sometimes sent—vaguely, briefly—insights, which logical processes of thought cannot attain… Like the tiny mirror of the fairy tale: you look into it and see—not yourself—but for one fleeting moment the Unattainable to which you cannot leap or fly. And the heart aches…”
“There is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart.”
“Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power- and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.”
My final observation on the matter is this, the Objector, perhaps unknowingly, flirts dangerously with the self-righteous mentality of the Pharisee. If the Objector feels a personal call to do good for the poor, then they are right in following that call. They are not required to sponsor sacred art. However to point to another person’s giving, like donations towards more precious communion vessels, and to declare it frivolous is not right. Look to your own giving and do not dare to judge another’s gift giving. The poor will be with us always. Let the Objector serve the poor. Let those of us who wish to serve sacred beauty do so without condemnation and judgment.
Let us not fall into a new Iconoclasm. Artists are a part of the Christian community. However, Catholic artists and decorators of sacred spaces, during the past few decades, have been told that their ministry has little worth. We’ve been told that our contributions are too distracting, too costly and are, in short, unnecessary. The community needs to beware of whose gifts they push aside as unworthy.
Brothers and Sisters, do not deny a person their alabaster jar.