Friday, May 12, 2006

"This is worse than Mordor!"

Sometimes you glance again at something that you've read a dozen times before, and for the first time, you understand that it expresses and explains feelings you've had on another topic entirely.

In an important chapter of The Lord of the Rings that the movie left out, "The Scouring of the Shire", Frodo and Sam come back to their beloved homeland hoping for rest and solace in the familiar beauty of tree, inn, and hearth, whose memory had kept them going at the grimmest moments of their quest. Instead, they find that the Shire's under dreadful new management. The once lush countryside has been desecrated, trees wantonly chopped down, once-friendly inns turned into cheerless barracks, Frodo's home at Bag End stripped and empty, the hobbit population oppressed by gangs of thugs controlled by the fallen wizard Saruman.
"This is worse than Mordor!" said Sam. 'Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined."
That, I realized today, is an echo of what bothers me, and apparently so many others, as we watch fine old Catholic churches and cathedrals get much of their beauty "renovated" out of them: high altars demolished, altar rails torn out, tabernacles with the Body of Christ within them moved out of sight as if they were something to be ashamed of, statues tossed away, seating rearranged to suit non-Catholic worship theologies, traditional stained glass windows replaced with random arrangements of colored glass such as you might find in any airport.

It comes home to you, because it was home.

It was the place where, perhaps, you grew up in the Faith, and whose every corner you can recall with that intensely detailed memory of early childhood. It looked a certain way when you had your First Communion; when you were confirmed; when you were married; when you buried someone you loved. It looked a certain way when you came for solace or courage, and found it. It looked a certain way when you first really understood, at an unexpected moment in an otherwise ordinary Mass, that you were in the Real Presence of the Son of God.

And it was home because we are flesh as well as spirit. Place matters to us because we live out our lives here and now, in the physical world. Change a place that has been vividly connected to people's spiritual lives, and you run big risks.

Now, a church can be changed in such a way that its older beauty is added to, as when a new statue or a stained glass window is installed, or an unwise remodelling is put right with a faithful restoration. When that happens, people's connection with place and with their past spiritual experiences in it is strengthened, not weakened. The connection we made with God at some past moment is reinforced, and seems all the more beautiful and significant. Not all change is bad.

But what's happening all too often is an arrogant, wanton destruction of the physical forms woven into people's faith experiences. Too often, the message delivered is that the earlier forms were wrong, the earlier spiritual experiences were false or useless, and even that the earlier beliefs are suspect. And too often, the bishops, priests, architects and liturgists who have torn up sacred spaces that the faithful loved deliver that message like this minion of Saruman ('Sharkey' in the patois of his henchmen), spitting scorn at Frodo:

'This country wants waking up and setting to rights,' said the ruffian, 'and Sharkey's going to do it; and make it hard, if you drive him to it. ... Then you'll learn a thing or two, you little rat-folk.'

Our modern minions of Sharkey should remember the message contained in the title of that chapter: the Shire was scoured. The thugs were driven out, and Sharkey was -- well, read it for yourself.