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Cheating God and our children with shoddy worship

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The Third Commandment requires beauty, not hugs.

“Father, my favorite part of the Mass is the hug part. Oh, and I like the cup-thing too. Why don’t we do more of the cup-thing?” So said one of my students, age 19. I winced, of course, but couldn’t blame her. No one had ever taught her properly—at least not in a way that she’d understand and remember. She didn’t have enough sense to find out for herself, because she had no awareness of what she was really missing.

Continuing our reflections on the Commandments and last week’s meditation on “keeping the Sabbath holy,” let’s ask: “How does this young woman understand worship and Sabbath?” I observed that she saw worship as an occasion for shared enthusiasms (and she was very enthusiastic about enthusiasm!). Sabbath for her was enjoying the bright spot of “the hug part” and “the cup thing,” before catching up on laundry and homework, and getting ready for what she called “the start of real life on Monday.” What a terrible poverty! Both God and that young lady were deprived of what they deserved. God was deprived of worthy worship from her and her comrades. She was deprived of the joy of giving her best to God in communion with the saints living and dead, and was deprived of the true Sabbath rest wisely commanded by God.

Alas, that poverty was not rare among the students I served. In fact, some were quite proud, even aggressive, about the impoverished sterility of their view of worship and Sabbath. One student said that she “liked simple things” and urged me to use clay vessels for Mass, asking me not to “go all-in” for that “fancy vestment stuff.” I agreed—on the condition that she promise to accept only an aluminum foil band as an engagement ring and denim overalls in place of a bridal gown. She declined. (Years later, I saw her wedding photos—her diamond ring and white dress were lovely.)

In both cases, young Catholics had been deprived of what they needed to fulfill the Third Commandment. They were denied access to the wisdom of the Church and her saints, who for centuries have given God (and us!) a gift of wisdom and beauty for the greater glory of God and the good of souls. Make no mistake: We cheat God and our young when we fail to hand on our Catholic heritage of sacred worship. We slap God in the face offering half-witted and half-hearted worship. We surrender our children to the (manic) glamour of the world when we fail to give them the enduring beauties of Catholic worship and the life-giving wisdom of Sabbath rest. What shall we do about this?

Let’s start by turning to someone who has been teaching wisely and well about the link between beauty and holiness. Peter Kwasniewski, a theologian and choir master, is a most eloquent advocate of making available now Catholic treasures that my students have been unable to find. He notes that, “… the ancient liturgy, with its poignant symbols and innumerable subtleties, is a prolonged courtship of the soul, enticing and drawing it onwards, leading it along a path to the mystical marriage, the wedding feast of heaven.” How very different from celebrating “the hug part” and “the cup thing”! His books are an excellent starting point for Catholics to (re-)discover what God deserves and our souls desire.

And let’s turn to faithful Catholics who make beautiful sacred art for love of God and neighbor. Cornelius Sullivan (whom I know well) produces painting and sculpture that are the fruit of careful study, exquisite and arduously-acquired craftsmanship, and prayer. His painting Vision of Saint Michael the Archangel and his sculpture Pieta recall the qualities of past masters and point to the glories of Heaven. How very different from a sanctuary that looks like it was adorned with offerings from Ikea and Walmart!

In “Sacred Art,” Sullivan notes: “… art has become just an idea that man the creator generates. There is no acknowledgment that he is a creature and there is no realization of the truth of the Incarnation. The Church’s distance from music has not been so great because some consensus has been possible. Bad music hurts the ears. Bad art can be shrugged off and then it lingers somewhere in the back of the brain like a bad dream. The elitism of contemporary art is maintained. Typically American Catholics say, ‘I don’t know anything about art.’ And under their breath mutter, ‘And I don’t care.’”

The Third Commandment requires Catholics to know and care about sacred art, worthy worship and Sabbath rest. Faithful Catholics like Kwasniewski and Sullivan—in our own time—show us why and how.

When I write next, I’ll offer another reflection on reclaiming the Ten Commandments in our times. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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