I was reminded of this recently when I received a series of before-and-after photos of Our Lady of the Mountains, Georgia. I first had contact with this church when the pastor, Fr Charles Byrd, commissioned two paintings from me, of St Gregory the Great and St Ambrose. This little church has commissioned dozens of paintings over an eight-year period. How has this happened? The website tells us that the congregation is just 500 families.
I asked Fr Charles to tell me how he did it. What follows is a summary of his explanation. What is interesting to me is that the pattern he describes seems to support the idea that if you aim for the highest, noblest and most beautiful in our churches, then people are affected by it and want more. And when people want it, they will make the sacrifices to have it.
First of all, as he described it to me, he had to start somewhere, and there was a benefactor who paid for the first two artworks that had an impact on parish life, a pair of stained glass windows. These, he says, helped build trust with the congregation, because they saw what an impact beautiful art could have on the parish. Gradually, they started to come forward with support. It got to the stage where everyone was contributing because the parish actually budgeted on a monthly basis a steady expenditure on art, vestments, light fittings and so on, gradually improving the look of the church without having single large scale benefactors.
He made sure that the images were relevant to the prayers and the liturgy of the parish, so that right from the start, the people were engaging with them in their worship and prayer. This not only made them appreciate the images more, but also contributed to their spiritual lives positively, so that they thirsted for more beauty around them. This is the sort of formation in beauty that is the most powerful. It is a form of holistic catechesis, taking place not in the classroom, but in the church.
Fr Charles told me that he “chose the saints purposefully and invoked their prayers for our parish. In time, benefactors came forward to help with vestments and icons and stained glass windows and an organ. But building trust and forming a Catholic consciousness or spirit took time. I have been here for eight years and initially there was resistance. Some of the people were first scandalized by the beauty of Catholic art and music, and saw it as extravagant. But in time they have come to expect it and appreciate it, and miss it when they are away. Tastes and expectations improve over time, but people learn to let themselves be Catholic after a while.”
He went on to say “At present we have three outstanding projects we are working on and that will be in place by summer. The first is a 12-foot tall hand-carved high cross in a Celtic style which will take a prominent place in the narthex. It will be an amazing masterpiece and it has been commissioned by our Knights of Columbus. It will also honor certain evangelist saints (missionary saints for the Celtic period) like Columba, Aidan, Finnian, and Dallan. Once it is installed there will be lesson plans for the children and we can talk about a whole age of forgotten saints … and we will invoke these various saints carved into the high cross in our work and efforts to evangelize here among the Scots-Irish who are largely unchurched Protestants – we invoke the prayers of the apostles of their ancestors to pull them in.
“There will be an icon of St. George, hand carved in Ukraine. A parishioner from Ukraine was eager to help and we have plans to have a great St. George Day celebration at the end of the year with our kids: lesson plans, holy cards and even an annual ‘slaying of the dragon.’ The icons become lesson plans: they teach, but they also invoke the Saints’ prayers for us.
“And third is an icon of St. Thomas the Apostle, that is being painted at present by an Indian priest. I made a pilgrimage to India in the Fall, and we are supporting in prayer the efforts of a new house of formation there for seminarians. The Christians there are suffering, so we’ll have two identical icons one here and one there. I offered the Mass over the tomb of St Thomas when I was in India, and this will be a very Indian icon.
I wrote a piece about beauty and superabundance some time ago, in which I argued that beauty in our churches actually benefits the poor more than if the money were spent directly on alleviating their problems. For not only is it there for the poor who go to the church to see it, but also, it affects all of those who attend and inspires them to give of themselves more fully in service of God and their fellow men. As a result, all are more inclined to give to the poor, and also to participate in the superabundant creation of wealth. This enables the poor to cease being poor because they become richer, and by gifts made to them by the wealthy. The story of Our Lady of the Mountains seems, in a small way, to corroborate this. It is an investment that pays off because those who attend are transformed by contact with it, when they engage with it in their worship and prayer. So we shouldn’t sell the art to give to the poor; rather we should commission beautiful art to inspire people to give to the poor; and even, perhaps, to inspire the poor to become wealth creators themselves.
Here are some pictures of the church in Jasper. First here is a picture of the church before the changes: