Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Dreams Are Meant To Be Shared … But Even More So, The Catholic Faith

Dear Friends;

Here is a dispatch from my mission in California.  Greetings from the land of Bl. Junipero Serra, the intrepid Franciscan missionary that baptized this region, giving all of California a most Catholic essence.  How beautiful are the feet of the missionary!  He leaves behind a blessing, giving names to all in the name of Christ.

Los Angeles = The Angels

Santa Barbara = St. Barbara

San Francisco = St. Francis 

Sacramento = The Most Blessed Sacrament

Even the winds were baptized by the missionaries, the Santa Ana Winds!  And there are other wonderful Saints mentioned as well … too many to mention.  It were as if the devil himself has paid Catholic California a back handed compliment by planting his jack-boot slavery of degrading pop culture and techno-porn here.

But the missionary spirit must be kept alive and ever present.  There are robust little remnants of Catholic culture throughout the state, and there are many wonderful priests and bishops leading with genuine shepherd's care.  There is without a doubt a decline of faith.

What is the source of this decline of faith?  I am sure there are many, but here is a post card, that I think could be replicated all across the world.  The symptoms are universal, and terribly ironic.

On Sunday, June 29th, my assistant drove me from San Francisco to Simi Valley.  The drive along the California coast was spectacular.  We stopped along the way to visit a monastery, the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur.  I was excited to visit, because I had read a great deal of the reforms of St. Romuald, and his Benedictine efforts of the 13th Century.  I knew of their austerity, their love of silence. And the location couldn't be more conducive to contemplation.  

Alas, I was so disappointed.   I was disappointed to find in the bookstore yoga manuals and Buddhist tracts.  There were collections of nice Byzantine icons and Thomas Merton books.  But as for real authentic traditional material of the Camaldolese monasticism … nothing.

But my disappointment didn't stop there.  The chapel awaited a visit and I was even more disappointed.  Here 'the cult of minimalism' had triumphed.  The chapel was divided in half; the entrance being for the Liturgy of the Word and the inner hexagon room had a centralized barren altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist (no altar cloth … nothing to soften the eye) with no visible tabernacle, and no image of Our Lady.  The Crucifix seemed small and non descript in a suspended state.  Once I discovered the tabernacle, my amazement for its hiddeness knew no bounds.  It was no more than a plain cupboard in a back corner.  You would never know it was a tabernacle except for a feng shei orb lamp on a ledge by the side of the wall.  A big pottery bowl contained loose pieces of paper, presumably petitions.    
There was nothing to attract the eye.  It was intentionally severe in its hard simplicity.  Nothing was attractive.   It was the most purely functional room I had ever encountered. It reminded me of some kind  of Roman bath.

How different down the road things were.

Down the road  from the monastery was the unbelievable  Hearst Castle.  Built by an enormously wealthy William Randolph Hearst, from the early 20th century, the Castle became a magnet for people ever since.  Hearst built the place, as they said, because he believed "dreams are meant to be shared".  In the 1920's and 1930's the Castle hosted countless starlets and silver screen stars.  What a place!
You should see it.  I am not going to give you a history lesson on how it was created or even why.  One guy had money, but he spent it in an explosion of generosity for others.  Now it hosts people continuously.  It is simply awesome. 

Hearst collected all sorts of art from human culture and civilization.  Christendom is everywhere.  Paintings, statues, ornaments … in a word, beauty.  You can't help but feel inspired, and in a strange way, loved … because this fellow shared himself with you.  He took what he had and did something wonderful.  Did he solve world poverty?  No he didn't and I didn't hear a peep from anyone saying California should confiscate the property and give it to the homeless.  NOT. A. PEEP.

He wanted to share his dreams.  The Catholic Faith is better than dreams; its the real deal, but sadly we are so STINGY with it.  Why can't our monasteries look, even a bit like the Hearst Castle?  Why do secular buildings inspire more then our chapels and our churches.  What a shame!

The next day had me in the heart of Los Angeles.  The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels has long been on my list of places to visit.  So much has been written about it, that I confess, I was eager to see it.  I had read all sorts of pros and cons on its construction.  But nothing actually prepared me for what I found.  Again, the minimalism of the design, the hardness of the lines, the austerity … was profoundly un-Incarnational.  It didn't feel like a home, it didn't feel like a place in which you want to pray.  Rather, it had a very strong industrial feel to it.  Like a big factory.  Maybe that is the intended goal.  As a factory, it seeks "to make Christians".  But we are not products on an assembly line, we are children of God.  

Down the street, again, the secular arm of the world wins the arm wrestle for beauty.  The Biltmore Hotel, one of the original sites of the Oscars is a magnificent building.  Nothing so captures the eye or the soul like the beauty that lies within.  Such magnificence speaks, it tells the visitor, 'you are important, you are a person, and you are worth sharing this loveliness with'.  

What has happened dear friends is a tremendous role reversal.  The Church has fallen into the trap of the industrial revolution, preferring the functional to the resplendent mysticism of the ornate and the beautiful.  The Incarnation of the Word should always be our guide for construction and creation.  Not the blandness of the functional.  

Alas, dear friend, this is troubling stuff.  Let us pray!


  1. Dear Father Nicholson,
    What an eloquent commentary on the tragedy of modern minimalism. It is truly an affliction that diminishes the human ability to see beauty in the Catholic faith. Thank God we have old churches and other historical places to take refuge in and remind us how outer inspiration is important to our interior life.
    Regards and prayers,

  2. The Cistercian and Camaldolese simplicity in architecture is an ancient tradition within their charisms, hundreds of years old. Their reforms emphasize the removal of distractions that may come from wealth and its accretions so that the monastics can focus on Ora et Labora: prayer and work. The public parish does indeed need to educate the public about the great Truths of the Catholic Faith. The cloistered monastery is designed for the growth on spiritual maturity for its inhabitants. Two different purposes = two different architectural styles.

    1. There is a wide gulf between the elegance of simplicity and the brutality of minimalism. The difference is easily noted, for simplicity does not hold contempt for the mystery of Incarnation, whereas the minimalist cannot loath it enough.

      All churches, be they baroque cathedrals, rustic missions, oratories, monasteries or even crypts, have one purpose that rises above all others, and that is to give glory to God.

      Now, Modernist architecture isn't cheap, and polygonal chapels are even less so. Funny how they had the cash for all that, and yet only a little cupboard in a back corner for the King of Kings! Outrage! Horror! Blasphemy!

      Oh how much would their spiritual maturity have grown had they poured their substance and labor for a grand tabernacle under a pitched tent!

    2. Thank you Father. Even so, I must admit that I stand on the shoulders of giants. I admittedly take my hat off to G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and of course, Fulton Sheen.

  3. Junipero Serra. William Randolph Hearst.

  4. The vice of parsimony vs. the virtue of magnificence

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. When Jesus preached he preached in the middle of nature. Jesus and his teachings were for everyone and minimalist. Sandals and a robe seem pretty simple to me. He was not extravagant or boastful. His kingdom and glory are not of this earth. The beauty will be seen in heaven. I'd rather the church spend the money on the health and well being of the homeless, children, etc... "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

    2. Mystery in theology is not to be confused with literary fiction. There is no easy solution to the deep things of God. There are a great number of truths to be accepted by the Christian, many of which are seemingly in conflict with one another.

      Yes, Christ taught us that to worship God to the exclusion of justice to our fellow man, who is made in the image of God, is abominable. At the same time, the wastefully and extravagantly beautiful act of anointing Christ's feet with precious spikenard was rewarded with praise until the end of time. Judas, who was stealing from the apostolic purse, was so unhappy with this that he betrayed Jesus shortly thereafter. I would suggest reading Matthew 26 again.

      Jesus did not always preach in the middle of nature. He preached also in the Temple. This was one of the most extravagantly ornate and decorated structures in all the ancient world. He did not find fault, but rather praised the woman who offered all her substance to it, and yet he also knew that it would be made obsolete in a short time, and destroyed in a matter of years.

      Lastly, the poor have enough ugliness in this world, and never enough beauty. Beautiful things should not be for the sole enjoyment of the elite, stored within their mansions and vaults that they are too miserly to share. The great thing about beautiful churches is that the beauty can be enjoyed by rich and poor alike. The businessman stands beside the bag-lady, serving within the court of the King as equals, even if for but one hour a week.

  6. The minimalism present in the building may be a mortification of the senses, forsaking external realities for internal ones.

    1. I'm not buying it.

      Mortification begins with throwing out the air conditioning...


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