I’m not a very spiritual or religious person, but when I’m in a church I can’t help but feel the sacred power of the space. I recently toured the Trinity Church in Boston, an amazingly beautiful church founded in 1733. The space was nearly empty, and felt cavernous. Though I haven’t in years, I knelt at the pew and closed my eyes, feeling the empty space and listening to every creak and echoing step.
When I visited churches during my trip to Italy, I was in a group of 25 high schoolers who spent more time snickering at the strange-looking paintings of adult- baby Jesus than feeling the significance and beauty of the church, but here in Boston I was free to let the church consume my entire attention.
I walked around the perimeter, soaking in the intricacies of the stained glass and golden detail, the soaring pillars and the arching ceiling, every inch packed tight with as much beauty as would fit, and I began wondering why my church at home, made in the 1960s, is so plain. One stained glass window with nothing special, a decent crucifix, but really nothing but wooden pews, electric fans, and a few statues in the corner. The rug had several burns from toppled candles, and the choir sat on plastic chairs. When did we stop adorning churches with marble and gold?
It may have something to do with the fact that my church at home is Catholic, and the Trinity Church is Episcopal, or the cost of material in the 60s, or any number of things, but I instantly equated it to this BBC article about how we are beginning to dress more and more casually to work: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20160120-have-we-taken-casual-workwear-too-far
Have we stopped caring about elegance? Yoga pants and jeans replace suits and nice dresses, the casual and comfortable taking the center place in our closets. High heels become flats. Is that a bad thing, or not?
You are what you eat…and what you wear. When I have time to do my hair and makeup nice, I feel more productive at work, more ready to face the day. When I’m a bit more sloppily dressed, my work follows suit. I wonder if we would all work better if we were meant to dress better?
And, why is elegance leaving our cultural conscience? Why do we opt for cheap comedies over the opera? Comfort over beauty? Ease over effort? Flats over heels? Plain over ornate?
As I sat in the elegant church, amazed and filled with admiration and wonder, I began to wonder about the people who made the stained glass, who worked so hard to adorn the church, inside and out. They must have felt a need to make the church breathtaking. It felt sacred, because it looked sacred. Because it looked beautiful, even though it didn’t have to be. People put effort into the beauty.
And yet, I was conflicted. Shouldn’t the church have spent all this extra money on the poor and hungry, rather than on petty decoration?
I wondered then if I would have been more spiritual as a child, and now, if my church at home filled me with awe. If my church matched the power and significance of the words we were taught, would I have more readily believed them? If it looked more sacred, more important, more spiritual, would it have felt that way, too? Or would I have been made sick over the vain over-spending from a church grounded in giving to the less-fortunate?
It’s a hard subject to think about. Same with clothing–obviously, I like wearing jeans and comfy shoes. So I guess I don’t know where I stand, in the fight between beauty and ease. What I do know is that these questions are good to think about, and may only come up when travelling alone, just you and your thoughts, in a big, empty church.