The Washington Post recently conducted a remarkable experiment. They had Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most celebrated violinists, play his Stradivarius at a Metro station during the morning rush hour. He performed the greatest classical masterpieces, using one of the finest instruments in the world, but was dressed in casual clothing and seemed to be just another street performer trying to earn some cash. The point was to determine if, lacking the context of a music hall, people would recognize the inherent beauty of Bell’s performance.
So, what happened? More than a thousand people passed by, but only a handful even seemed to notice him. Even fewer stopped to listen. Only one person recognized who he was.
The thought I had: here on earth, the greatest of masterpieces is the Holy Eucharist. The Catholic Church teaches that it is truly the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself. And yet, many surveys show large percentages believing that the Eucharist is merely a “symbolic reminder” of Jesus. Although some have questioned the methodologies of these surveys, and other methodologies have yielded different results, even these researchers agree that the perceived importance of the Eucharist for Catholics has declined for this generation.
Why is this? Much of the blame can be attributed to atrocious religious education in the post-Vatican II years; I still have the textbook we used for First Holy Communion back in the mid-1970s, and offer it as Exhibit A. But I wonder if we should also think about the “context” in which most American Catholics encounter the Eucharist: warehouse-like structures that one author has described as “Ugly As Sin.” We were told that, stripped of architectural and artistic “distractions,” we would be able to focus more clearly on the true miracle of the Eucharist itself. Many of us have thought for some time that such views are mistaken; architectural and musical beauty in fact play a critical role in providing a setting which calls attention to the grandeur and transcendence of the Eucharist —much as a jeweler takes care to fashion an appropriate setting for a fine diamond.
The Washington Post experiment seems to give further confirmation of this view: stripped of its optimal setting, people have trouble recognizing transcendent beauty. Classical masterpieces aren’t meant to be showcased in subway stations. Neither is the Holy Eucharist. What’s encouraging is that this architectural trend may finally be reversing itself. In recent years, I’ve seen a number of churches which had been “wreck-o-vated” in the early 1970s restored to something approaching their former grandeur. And there is a movement afoot, led by architects such as Duncan Stroik and others, to build beautiful new churches.
We consider ourselves blessed to have so many beautiful small town and country churches within easy driving distance. Hopefully we’ll start seeing them emerge in the suburbs as well.