Catholic Values Columnist
Last spring, I wrote a spiritual reflection for the Franciscan 40 program on daily readings from Isaiah 42:1-7 and John 12:1-11, regarding what it means to participate in God’s justice. I concluded by describing justice as proper ordering of relationships, essential to having a relationship with Our Lord.
I find myself reflecting on all this again in Gaming, Austria — and a host of other nations — just a few weeks into the semester. Each town, from tiny Gaming to sprawling Rome, seems to have a Catholic church nestled somewhere, and each one is almost always as beautiful as the last, yet entirely unique.
These are places where reverence is built into the very structure of the walls, carven in every sculpture, visible with every brushstroke. They are places and objects where heaven deigns to reveal itself in a splendor the human mind can wrap itself around, and only barely.
Yet in a world where heaven has been forgotten, only the earthly echo of beauty remains. These houses of the Lord are teeming with secular people blind to the spiritual majesty surrounding them; rather than orienting a secular heart toward God, they dilute it into seeing only human achievement. The relationship between beauty and the Lord is severed; Christ is, essentially, exiled from his dwelling place.
At this point you might ask: what exactly does this have to do with a personal relationship with God? The answer is simple: everything.
Throughout history, many have attempted to do away with “graven images”; the iconoclasts and the Protestants, to name a couple. They saw such things as an obstacle to connecting with God. Just the same, many both in and outside the Church now struggle to find a place for reverence and ritual in their spiritual lives; maybe you do, too. Maybe it feels too confining, precise, formulaic to be a proper expression of fathomless, infinite love.
This is certainly the case for many when attending the Latin Mass for the first time. One of the most common questions seems to be “but why do you have to do it like that?” Many reverent practices can make people feel more distanced from God, not less; it can remind you of verses about the rigid rituals of the Pharisees, or the empty noise of works done without love.
This discontent or unease with reverent ritual, however, reveals a misunderstanding about our subjective minds rather than something objectively faulty. Reverence is the idea of a “relationship with Christ” taken to its logical extent: if Christ is a person with whom we can have a relationship, with whom we can be friends, then he is necessarily a particular kind of person, with a unique identity and role in our lives.
True friendship of any kind requires recognition of the other person’s unique identity; to call Christ your friend means the same.
Reverence is the best response to Christ’s identity as king, our divine and sovereign master; this makes us subjects, owing him the greatest honors we can muster. At the same time, we’re his friends — and a king’s true friend, driven by love and loyalty, upholds that kingship as best he can.
It is this reverence that built the wonders of Europe; by building ourselves with that same reverence, we will be made as beautiful as the greatest cathedrals of old. If the beauty of those places has ceased to win souls, then the beauty of our lives must take up the task. As the old adage goes, “you may be the only Bible someone reads.” Your life may, too, be the only mirror of Heaven someone sees.