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On Beauty and Worship

I used to debate “worship styles” with people. I used to think that churches that offered different kinds of services (traditional, contemporary, etc.) at different times were too user-friendly. Worship shouldn’t be about me and my preferences; it should be about God! I still think that’s true, to an extent. But let me tell you a story.

Earlier this summer I visited a church that is not my own, and not even Orthodox. I was actually looking forward to a different kind of service. After all, Orthodox liturgy is long and sometimes boring, and you have to stand for 90% of it. Yet when I entered this church, I was greeted by a musty, stale smell. I entered the sanctuary and saw that walls were dull, white, and bare. The worship leader announced the songs mechanically and without emotion, and the organ droned. The homily was uninspired and hard to relate to. The experience was dreadful; the church felt dead.

I realized that I missed the icons, which adorn the walls of my church and give me something beautiful and spiritual to reflect on when I am at liturgy. I missed the smell of incense and the singing of the bells on the censer. I missed the a capella harmonies of my church’s choir. I missed my priest’s homilies, which are always undergirded by passion for life and faith. It hit me hard: I have come to love, and maybe even need, beauty in worship.

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The one part of the service that was good at that church I visited was during the passing of the peace. I was then warmly greeted by parishioners, and I watched as they greeted each other with enthusiasm. The volume in the room increased as the people talked with each other, and the pastor had to actually calm them down a little! It was obvious that the people loved each other deeply.

I understand that the church is a group of people, and not a building. I understand that if we get too caught up in things like the decor of the church, we can lose sight of why we are actually at church. I understand that across the world, there are a variety of structures (or lack of structures) used for worship, and some are ornate, and some are simple. But I have also come to understand myself: I am most aware of God in a place of beauty.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a golden, gilded church. I’ve met God standing waist-deep in the ocean, surrounded by an expanse of sky and sea. I’ve met God on a hiking path among the caterpillars and birds. And I’ve also met God in the eyes of Mary Magdalene on her icon, in the blinking candles of Pascha, in the Byzantine hymns of Orthodoxy, in the smooth wooden beads of my prayer rope, and in the sweet, strong smell of incense.

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I think some Christians have a fear of beauty in worship, which probably comes from the idea that we shouldn’t worship things. In addition, I think that there is this idea that your spiritual life should be just that: spiritual. Your faith should supersede anything physical. Thomas Howard, in his book Evangelical is Not Enough, wrote this about entering a Catholic church for the first time when he was twelve: “Did all these symbols – altar, candles, cross, and perhaps even the sumptuous windows – lean too far towards idolatry? Certainly they had the effect of complicating and elaborating things. Could “the simplicity that is in Christ” somehow be lost in an array such as this?” I think a lot of people will have the hesitance that Howard had.

But I have found that the opposite is true. Our lives do not have to be some division between physical and spiritual, secular and sacred, material and immaterial. The beauty of the incarnation is that all things have been made whole; the line between physical and spiritual has disappeared. We can live a sacred life in the physical world, and we can find holiness in the acts of baking bread, washing dishes, or playing a game with our children. So when I behold beauty at church, I don’t have to push it away and worry that I am being idolatrous or frivolous. Instead, in the presence of beauty, I am drawn in to God’s presence as well.

5 comments

  1. CB says:

    “We can live a sacred life in the physical world, and we can find holiness in the acts of baking bread, washing dishes, or playing a game with our children.”

    Right on. This is beautifully put (if you’ll allow the mostly unintentional pun). Often, I think Christians are more ready to acknowledge beauty outside of church, forgetting that God does not want us to live compartmentalized lives. If we experience beauty at all it is like a hint or a glimpse into the nature of God, the nature which will one day be fully revealed. I think I just paraphrased C.S. Lewis there, but such is life.

    Excellent post.

  2. Audrey S says:

    I just commented on another post of yours, I’m guessing it was old because this one set much better with me. I think this is great, honestly! I wondered if you were talking about a Lutheran service, which can be seriously droll (my dad and I refer to some of our hymns as the “funeral dirges”), but I loved that you pointed out how beyond the service the community of believers were loving and uplifting like a holy family. Also, I agree with some of the places that you’ve connected with God most strongly. Often I find myself closest to God at the most un-churchlike moments: making pancakes and listening to country gospel on Sunday mornings, stoping for a breathing break on a trail run, driving down the highway and watching the sun disappear….. It is truly amazing to see how many moments God can connect intimately with us, outside of any traditional service.

  3. Audrey S says:

    One more thing – after exploring your blog, I realized you are Eastern Orthodox! I truly love the Eastern Orthodox church service, and it’s too bad more people don’t know anything about them.

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