Southwestern Indiana's Catholic Community Newspaper

Setting Matters

By Maria Sermersheim
Maria Sermersheim

There’s just something about my backyard.

It enchants me, and it offers a particular freedom that allows me to react more readily and authentically to what I receive there. It totally transforms the way I read and interact with things. I work better, I read better, I play better. Somehow, I am freer to fully engage. Maybe there is some secret ingredient in its being tucked away, nestled among the trees and accompanied by the chorus of birds and cicadas…but there seems to be something more.

There’s something almost sacred about the space.

Likening my backyard to a nearly sacred space, I must pause. Surely I can’t put my backyard on par with a church; but then…why not? Creation is good, and the beauty of God’s great outdoors certainly doesn’t limit my sense of his presence. So, why do we put so much effort into beautifying church buildings? Aside from the obvious need for a place for the Church to gather and celebrate the sacraments, why the arches, stained glass and statues?

The sacred images and architecture of the church buildings are important aspects precisely because the church should transform our prayer as my backyard transforms my attitude. We are physical beings, and our surroundings influence us. Setting matters, and the church should make us freer and more authentic.

In his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” now-Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI explained that we need “sacred space, sacred time, [and] mediating symbols” because “through the ‘image,’ through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified.” The Catechism adds, “In this ‘house of God’ the truth and the harmony of the signs that make it up should show Christ to be present and active in this place.” The beauty of a church gives us a more direct avenue to know and love Christ. It is no wonder that the beauty of his creation consistently reinforces our love and awe, but the church gives us the space we need to see more clearly and center our lives more effectively. God knows we get distracted.

Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI considers every aspect of the liturgy—the building, the art, the vestments, the gestures, the words and the silence—a language unto itself, each of which communicates the grandeur of the sacrament. He writes, “By its very nature the liturgy operates on different levels of communication which enable it to engage the whole human person.” Similarly, each aspect of my backyard plays its role in shaping my disposition: the fact that it is home gives me comfort; the trees embrace me in my own little bubble of the world; and the birds are my choir, whose music delights and surprises me.

Beautiful churches are gifts to transform our prayer. Is it necessary to have arches and stained glass as compared to a small, unadorned chapel? No. But is it a help? Is it a sign of God’s abundant, overflowing love and attempt to change our hearts and call us to higher things and beautiful lives? Yes. We must be aware of our limitations and be grateful that the Church is attentive to our humanity; we do need physical helps to direct our hearts, and the church is an exemplary aid. This weekend, when we encounter the intentional beauty of a church, let’s pause and recognize that the harmony and beauty we admire is the same to which we are called. Let us be transformed as we enter into this space.