St. Catherine of Siena taught that there was only one infinite thing in our life. We do not have the ability to love infinitely. We do not have the ability to sin infinitely. We do, however, have an infinite desire or an infinite longing.
When we respond to this in a positive way, this becomes an ability to love with God’s love, which is infinite. When rejected, our time in hell is infinite. But for now, it is enough to say that we have an infinite longing. Only God can fill that infinite longing.
But we cover up that desire with sin. When that desire is not fulfilled, we heap addiction upon addiction into our lives to distract us from that infinite longing. When a person turns to God, she begins a relationship with Jesus and is baptized and/or makes a good confession.
Even after initial conversion, it is a lifelong battle to go deeper into the human longing and divine fulfillment by the ascetical life (fasting or sacrifice) as well as mental prayer leading (hopefully to) Holy Liturgy. This is not a casuistic formula, but rather the means to the end which is nothing short of Divine Union in charity, where the soul actually knows God via love (the classic definition of Wisdom, the ultimate of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.)
This ascent to God is God’s initiative but our cooperation. The union of charity that comes from the ascetical life and the prayer life is probably the main difference between a saint and a person who simply dies in sanctifying grace.
For the children of Christendom, an initial encounter of beauty in a parish was probably an important launching point into the making of saint, later to be a married or religious person. And perhaps this is why the parents of Christendom put so much more than their tithe into the making of the physical Church buildings: The art had to be equal to an infinite longing.
But most importantly, they believed that God in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass deserved the best. Building such beauty around liturgical splendor seems to us to be something relegated to the past, something relegated to Europe.
However, after spending a month in Louisiana this year, I saw that our forefathers in this country—simple French, German, Irish and African forefathers—were the workingmen who not only built glorious Cathedrals, but even small Catholic Churches on the Mississippi.
For instance, Convent, Louisiana (pop 711 souls) is home to a small parish called “St. Michael the Archangel.”
It has the jubilee doors for the year of mercy. As I went through those doors, I saw what 19th century Catholics could do if they were true believers. Most likely, this was built by very poor barge workers on the Mississippi (the river being only 100 meters away) who surely gave more than their tithe. More important than the money, however, was the transcendent aspects of the Holy Mass that can be seen in the art they made, century unknown on the art but seen here:
Everything about that high altar and dome says “You are no longer on earth but in heaven.” The eyes of even the simplest believer must look up to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. It is no wonder that people wanted to be saints when they entered a Church like this.
About an hour away, in New Orleans, I was welcomed by a friendly pastor into his ante-bellum rectory.
This is St. Patrick’s parish in a busy part of New Orleans. Father let me offer the Traditional Latin Mass on the high altar, where he himself offers the TLM:
Being an Irishman myself, I was moved that this building was built not only by Irishmen of the 19th century, but poor Irishman who gave their blood, sweat and tears to build something this beautiful and transcendent. How many of them, in their daily lives, felt like St. Peter sinking? This very old painting is found to the right of the altar, and the figures are larger than life size:
What especially struck me, however, was the picture of St. Patrick baptizing the princesses of Ireland. This too was an old painting honoring the true Irish-Catholic heritage that probably meant a lot more to the 19th century Irish workers than Mardi Gras or the St. Patrick’s parade. It too is larger than life, to the left of the high altar:
It should be no wonder that parishes more recently built, like St. Bernadette’s in France, can not bring the human heart (or eyes!) to the transcendent gaze of beauty that leads to grace.
To me, this looks like a face on Pixar’s Cars.
But back to the Irish Princesses. The only thing that would convert these princesses of Ireland would be the grace and truth of Jesus Christ flowing through a saint like St. Patrick. And the response of Ireland from the 6th to 10th centuries was one of love, a fire of love that could only be fueled by beauty.
Liturgical beauty and majesty was surely not the only part of Irish life, but the art of the country or city parish had to be focused on God in order to tap that infinite longing and desire.
My proposal is simple: If we want a return of the princesses of Ireland (or the United States) to Christ and His one Church, then we need to return to building Churches with a transcendent and majestic beauty that honors the God who made heaven and earth, seen even outside St. Patrick’s in New Orleans: