As far as I have been able to discern, my Catholic faith doesn’t require me to like the architecture of modern churches, as long as I respond to what goes on in them---and good thing. I find the intentional sparseness of modern architecture disconcerting. In contrast to the wonderful exuberance of earlier church architecture, bare walls and impressionist statues just don’t convey the grandeur of God to me. I confess: just as I am a liturgy junkie moved and touched by the solemnity and mystery of a mass with all the trimmings, so am I also moved and touched by soaring arches, detailed story windows, and statues that look like people as real as I am, only better.
Which is why I have trouble in the chapel at the Catholic Center in Atlanta. The one, clear window looks out over urban sprawl, and the crucifix is almost a filled-in line drawing of the crucified Christ that has always appeared flat, two dimensional and uninspired to me. It became almost an annoyance: I come to the chapel to be reminded of God’s greatness, not to see Him reduced to mere lines on a cross.
I make a trip to the Catholic Center three or four times a year as a member of an Archdiocesan council. I look forward to those visits because it is time away from worry, spent in the company of Catholics from all over the state. It always reminds me of how different we are in our daily lives and concerns. Several carry the cause of illegal immigration in their hearts—but in very different ways, and we struggle as a group to work both visions out together with the love of Christ. Another worries about the closing—and opening—of schools. Some bring the concerns of the young, others the concerns of the old. Some are distinctly feminist in their approach, others traditional.
What draws us together, of course, is our faith, and every meeting starts in the Chapel with the Archbishop celebrating mass. One particular Saturday morning, I arrived very early and sat for a long time, alone, listening to the distant sounds of Atlanta traffic, pondering the Presence of Christ, and looking at that crucifix.
I am nothing if not predictable (ask my kids). I started out thinking for the umpteenth time that I wished someone would place a nicer, carved crucifix in the Archbishop’s chapel. My mind drifted off to the beautiful carved Christ I meditate on every Sunday in my own parish, and how its very dimensions draw me into seeing Him on the Cross. Feeling more than a little bit pitiful over my current minimalist environment, the thought crossed my mind that the figure on the cross seemed cartoonish, head thrown back, and in profile, and a body that seemed to be drawn by a kindergartener, no grace or nuance at all.
A flood of shame rushed through me as I realized that there are so many times in my life that I treat Christ the same way: flat, non-threatening, not at all the flesh-and-blood Man who both suffered and died for me and wants to embrace me as I make my own journey of faith. How often am I tempted to draw God the way I see Him, not the way He is.
The artist who created that modern crucifix had both experience and message to convey, and he did it in his own worshipful way. In my own self-centeredness, I closed myself to everything that crucifix—any crucifix—has to offer because I looked only at its surface and failed to open my heart to its message.
I doubt that the artist ever envisioned my particular epiphany on that Saturday morning, but I’ve never looked at that chapel the same way since. I enter it with a heart of great joy and gratitude now for that depiction of Jesus. And I always come away with more than I entered.