I spent the past weekend in Orleans, MA, on Cape Cod, at various events celebrating the Church of the Transfiguration. This house of worship is the workmanship of the Community of Jesus and has taken years to complete; actually they still have some frescoes to paint. I’m including the link because I couldn’t capture it with my phone camera. Sculptures, paintings, mosaics, floral arrangements—the place is stunning in its detail and joyous in its beauty. When they add the music and drama of their professional singers, musicians, and actors, the moments tumble over one another in an endless rhythm of art and faith. Go to www.churchofthetransfiguration.org
The Community brought into this long, complex process the expertise of sculptors and mozaicists from Italy and Germany; the artists were there for the celebration and gave talks and presentations about how they worked on their particular contributions. Also in attendance were scores of people who had contributed financially and supported the work in various other ways. The weekend carried a palpable sense of wealth and artsyness at times, but many of those people whose status might put me off at other times were singing and praying alongside all of us during the services. Overall it felt like two full days of “Thank you!” to God and to one another.
During one conversation, though, a friend questioned why it was necessary to spend so much money, time, and energy to construct a building. She confessed to living more in the vein of St. Francis of Assissi, a spirituality that stresses our solidarity with the poor. This friend did not condemn the Community for what seemed to her an extravagance, but she simply didn’t “get it.”
What does art have to do with justice, really? Should we spend millions of dollars on the best mosaic work in the world, when that money could feed, clothe, and shelter so many people who need those things? Is there really a place for Christians obtaining the best of the best because we want to offer the best to God—in physical, monetary terms?
I asked a similar question the week after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I was at a bookstore celebrating a friend’s newest book publication. At the time I was working on a novel. I asked another friend, a wise woman and lover of books, “Why the f--- write stories, when they’re digging through rubble for body parts in New York?” She said, “Oh, I think that now we need your stories more than ever.”
If we truly possess a sacramental mindset, every thing matters. Beauty is worthy because it is beauty, and beauty offers to us a quality that nothing else provides. Another friend, a great lover of social justice, came to understand this principle years ago when an organization began beautifying some slums in her city. At first she was critical because that money could go to schools and social programs. But the Holy Spirit tapped her on the shoulder and said, “More than anyone, the people of this neighborhood need trees and flowers.”
Beauty has the power to move a soul, and thus it is capable of transforming a life. Who hasn’t stood in a particular place—a cathedral or a golden valley or at the foot of a glass building eighty stories tall—and been transported out of self and into a larger, more colorful vision? Not long after I moved to Chicago, I was stopped short one day downtown by this realization: All of these buildings and bridges, windows, roadways, and subways were imagined, designed, and built by creatures a few feet tall with very limited physical strength. We humans managed to create structures thousands of times our size and mass; this itself is a miracle, and we walk past hundreds of them every day on our way to work.
There is a true place in the human landscape for the Church of the Transfiguration. This doesn’t mean that every house of worship should follow the example. There is also a place for the storefront church and the house church, for the suburban church that welcomes the community by providing community space in the form of auditoriums, coffee shops, and gymnasiums. The older I get, the more I believe that there’s a place for just about everything in this world. And I can say with enthusiasm that I am spiritually richer after two days among the frescoes, fountains, phrases of song, and light glinting off the many-colored visions in stone.