Unlikely and delightful
I’ve found it interesting to notice the extremely divergent reactions provoked by what might (now) be called “over the top” elements of the Catholic religion. I’m not referring such extravagantly over-the-top dogmas as the Incarnation of God the Son or the General Resurrection, but rather of non-essential elements from the man-made periphery. Papal tiaras, for instance, or episcopal cappe magne, or birettas, or fiddleback chasubles. One could add, in addition to these sartorial extravagances (which, prior to our lackluster day, would once have hardly raised an eyebrow among Catholics), processions with holy relics, odd local customs, Trappist sign language, bone churches, Epiphany chalk, or blessings of animals on St Francis’ Day. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved these things. And many readers have responded to the blogposts on these subjects in much the same way as one of our altar boys responded when I showed him the cappa magna photo collection, “That is SOOOOOOO cool!”
A few others respond in precisely the opposite way with an earnestness that is a bit frightening. These things are seen as frivolities that are worthless at best, and perhaps downright pernicious. I suppose people feel as if they distract from the deadly serious project of not falling into the everlasting pits of fire and brimstone. Or they are gross indulgence in vainglory. Or they make religion seem to be out of touch with the modern world, which is far more interested in making money and other such important things. Or they symbolize the obfuscating power of the clerical elite. “Would Jesus wear a cappa magna?” some sour-faced reformer might ask. Why bother with birettas when little babies are being killed by abortion?
Granted, none of these things will save one’s soul, and if all one believes in is watered silk and choral evensong, one will probably lose it. But it’s a false dichotomy to say one must choose between the external trappings of religion and the interior stuff that has eternal significance. There’s no reason in the world why one can’t have both, and Catholicism has traditionally kept them both together. To be unimpressed by a triple tiara certainly does not make one a bad Catholic, but I wonder whether zealously opposing all these little grace notes in the religious score might not. To my mind, at any rate, all these things speak of the magnanimity and exuberance of a religious spirit that spills out into the world in all sorts of unlikely and delightful ways. They knock us out of the prosaic and linear existence of everyday life and remind us that old-fashioned religion, in addition to being good, saving, and true, is also charming, merry, and even whimsical.
I share this view and would add that what these things do is attempt to recall in us that truth and beauty, properly understood, are related. There will be times when this will be hard to see, when our minds and our hearts will be challenged. Those are the times when we need to recollect.
When the truth looks ugly, or when beauty looks false, then something is wrong with the way we are seeing and thinking. It’s hard correct this, and even harder to accept the need for it.