Scattered across the Southern landscape are hundreds, if not thousands, of small (and not so small) churches. What strikes the non-Southerner as most odd is that they are all so alike with their bare brick walls and white roofs and cross-less steeples. It is as if they had been mass-produced, as if there were a church factory where these were manufactured in an assembly line and numbered before being shipped out to their final destination: First Baptist Church, Second Baptist Church, and so on. So remarkably mass-produced they seem that it would not surprise a visitor to find a label on them saying, “Made in China.” This might all seem fine and normal to the modern mind that is so fond of standardization and mass-production and simplicity per se, but it causes an eerie sensation to the Catholic mind. There is something unnatural and inhuman about these cloned churches, a sort of impersonal feeling, like what you experience when you walk into a neighborhood where every house follows exactly the same pattern and uniformity has squashed all uniqueness. Somewhat like those massive apartment complexes built by the Soviets where everything was exactly the same and nothing reflected the individuality and personality of its inhabitants.
It is under the weight of this sense of artificial uniformity that one drives through most of the small towns of Alabama. To a passerby driving by Hanceville, this tiny town is not the exception to the rule. However, if this passerby were to get lost and ended up driving by the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, he would encounter something seemingly violent within the usual landscape, something as violent as a thunderbolt ripping through the night sky. Standing at the end of the road, he would see this:
Given the strangeness of this sight, he would be justified in wondering if he was still in Alabama and not somewhere in Europe. Let us say that this passerby’s curiosity is stirred and that he decides to visit this mysterious place and find out what it is all about. Let us assume that our passerby is not Catholic, that he is instead a faithful Protestant who attends one of the small, mass-produced churches I described previously. The first thing he would encounter as he begins to walk from the parking lot toward the temple is a sign welcoming Catholics and non-Catholics alike and pointing out that this is a place of prayer and worship of the Lord present in the Most Holy Sacrament, in the Eucharist. Our passerby, for whom the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act in which the bread and the wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but not the real thing, remembers what a friend of his, a faithful Catholic, had once said about the Eucharist:
“In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially contained’” (CCC, 1374).
He continues to walk toward the temple, thinking to himself, disdainfully he would later admit, that if he believed that Jesus Christ, his personal Lord and Savior, were truly contained in the small piece of bread he eats every Sunday at church, the only thing left for him to do would be to fall on his face in worship and never get up. It remains to be seen whether Catholics do this or not, whether they are consistent with what they claim to believe or whether they are too busy worshiping Mary and saints and lighting candles and doing all those other non-biblical things they enjoy doing. His thoughts would then be interrupted the moment he runs into the statue of “El Divino Niño” (The Divine Child) that stands in the middle of the atrium and perhaps his attention would be directed to the phrase engraved around the statue in several different languages: “A child will lead them.” “Ah! That’s from the prophet Isaiah!” he thinks and is then confirmed in his suspicions by the inscription itself, thinking, “It seems like Catholics do read the Bible after all; now that is surprising to say the least.” But, since he does not like this whole statue business, forbidden as it is for men to make images in the likeness of God as the book of Deuteronomy clearly states, he proceeds in haste to the temple itself.
After being positively impressed by the strict dress code that is required to enter the shrine (“Okay, maybe these Catholics do have some sense of reverence and respect for this ‘Eucharist,’” he thinks as the guard hands him some pants to wear over his shorts), he enters the church and his eyes become wide as plates as they see, for the first time, an altar and an altarpiece completely covered in gold. “Now that’s quite a sight!” he thinks, though he immediately interrupts himself when he becomes aware of the reigning silence, a silence so deep that he feels that his very thoughts could be loud enough to disrupt it. The passerby quickly walks toward one of the pews and sits down, not even daring to think. And so he notices something else, that people are praying on their knees and that those who walk in, look up above the altar and go down on one knee, genuflecting before the Most Blessed Sacrament. “Okay,” our passerby thinks in a whisper, still afraid of disturbing the silence, “it’s not exactly falling in their faces in worship, but it is close enough I guess…” Then something strange occurs to him and he thinks about the Apostles and how they reacted to their encounters with the Risen Lord: “they did him homage” (Lk. 24).
As he sits there he turns his eyes toward that place high above the altar where everybody keeps their gazes fixed and he sees it: a small white wafer kept inside an eight-foot-high monstrance. The monstrance (as his Catholic friend will tell him is its name some days later) is made of solid gold with incrustations of gems and precious stones. The light coming in from the stained glass window with the image of the Holy Spirit hits it and bounces off in all directions, adding an aura of magnificence to it. And then he notes something else. The monstrance is located halfway between the floor and the ceiling and halfway between the left and the right walls of the building. It is to be found in the dead center, at the point where everything converges! “I wonder if they did that on purpose,” he ponders, realizing that that would be a perfect way of communicating the importance of having Christ as the center of your life. He remembers something else his Catholic friend told him once:
“The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’” (CCC, 1324),
“Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking” (CCC, 1327, quoting St. Ireneaus).
Our passerby, sitting there before the Most Blessed Sacrament, starts to realize that the Catholic Church is serious about its teaching concerning the Eucharist as he goes on thinking, “It does seem quite adequate that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords should live in such a magnificent place, that His throne and His palace should be covered in gold and precious stones, as it befits a king.” He starts regretting that his own church treats the bread and wine (symbols as they may be) with such carelessness, passing them around in plastic trays and plastic cups that were manufactured together with millions of other plastic trays and cups and then discarded just like one would discard plastic utensils at a picnic. The idea of a golden, hand-made monstrance that is beyond all price for the Incarnate God to use as His throne starts to make more and more sense to him.
“Well, this is a most unique and fascinating place,” he thinks. If only he knew that every single Catholic church is “fascinating” because it houses the Most Blessed Sacrament; that even when two churches are not remotely alike in their exteriors, they are one in faith and devotion to the Eucharist; that the bond that keeps the Catholic Church together, that allows it to remain one amidst its diversity, the point at which all our faith converges is none other than Christ, truly present in the bread and the wine!
He remains seated, staring in awe, when a bell rings and the priest walks in and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass begins. A choir of voices rises from some hidden place within the church (the cloistered nuns, whose existence our passerby ignores) begins to chant and it seems like nothing less than a choir of angels has come down to aid in the Church’s worship. He runs out dazed and confused, in fear and trembling, fully aware that if he believed that Christ was truly present in the Eucharist in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, what he witnessed is exactly how he would worship him. Adoremus in aeternum Sanctissimum Sacramentum, “Let us forever adore the Most Blessed Sacrament,” these words loom over the door through which he has walked out. The merciless rays of the Alabama sun, which ordinarily blind him when he leaves a building, seem dull and lifeless compared to the brightness he experienced inside where the True Sun perpetually casts His merciful rays upon those who kneel before Him in adoration. He had at some point wondered if he was still in Alabama, but now he wonders if he is still on Earth, if he did not, somehow, wind up in heaven.Tags » Architecture, Catholic Art