While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.
We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.
So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.
I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.
The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.
Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?
I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.