In many parts of the world, the church buildings have been closed for about one-half of 2020; and are now, thankfully, starting to re-open on a limited basis. These closures have felt like a loss in many ways, yet, we have learned that much of the spiritual beauty of the churches and sacred art can be experienced from afar.
A church building, and its liturgical art, is designed to show us what heaven looks like – to give us a foretaste of this place that we prepare for throughout our earthly life, according to Denis R. McNamara, in Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (see full reference below). The art and architecture are intended to be a part of the liturgical rite with the symbolism of a place where God dwells and acts with his people. So, the beauty of churches is not just the perfection of proportions, angles and light, but also the communication of the sacred within the structure, artwork, statues and shrines of the building – all of which taken together makes one feel the “church-ness” of the space.
Much of the beauty of a church can be absorbed visually by observing the ordered lines of the structure, the stained-glass windows surrounding the nave or dome, and the statues and shrines of Mother Mary and the revered saints. The lighting of the interior plays a key role whether it be natural light or the flicker of candles. The geometric shapes, and numbers of them, used in the architecture are devices to facilitate worship. Each of these physical features are tools loaded with liturgical symbolism to aid in the glimpse into heaven, and can be experienced virtually.
The ability to experience the liturgical beauty of the church has been demonstrated in the live and recorded videos of the Masses during the shutdown(s). These audio/visual images have been a literal “God-send” to the faithful. To be able to hear the celebration of the Mass, and also see the celebrant, as well as some of the features of the church building and liturgical art have been so nourishing. It seems that the closeness between the laity and the clergy has been enhanced (paradoxically) via the live-streaming, in part because it’s easier for the participants to feel a familiarity to the celebrant and liturgical ministers due to the close-up images on the screen. Supplemental text of prayers, responses and hymns displayed on the screen have helped facilitate participation in the liturgy. The ability to play-back recorded services also provides more flexibility in attendance by the faithful.
Although it’s difficult to replicate the feeling of sacred beauty experienced sitting beneath the high dome of the sanctuary of your favorite cathedral, one can get a sense of the transcendency from seeing the incense rise upward on the screen during the video-cast. Further, one can experience the devotional intercession of the Blessed Mother or patron Saint while gazing at a still image. So, although, not exactly like “being there”, if one is willing, the spiritual beauty from the physical edifice and sacred art can be experienced virtually.
McNamara, Denis R. Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy. Chicago: Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2009.