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.
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.
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.