Thursday, August 17, 2006

Another glass - maybe slightly bitter.

In the village of Camara dos Lobos, poverty is the constant companion, walking beside the mangy dogs as they skulk around the gaming tables down by the fishing harbour.
Yet here there is not one but two churches, each plastered in bling.
To walk inside from the world of rotting fish and cigarette ends is an experience rather like visiting Santa's Grotto in the department store of a run-down industrial city during a general strike. All is tinselled disillusion. On the high altar celluloid dolls masquerade as Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Outside, children made in God's image run, scruffy and painfully thin, through the alleys.
I think of all the horrors perpetrated in God's name, from the Crusades to Northern Ireland and add this to my list...

Later in the week, we visit Curral das Freiras, an amazing hidden valley, named as the refuge of a religious order who fled there from the depradations of pirates on the coast. Having spent the morn in the company of a very charming latter day pirate, complete with gold ear-ring, dreads and the statutory gap between teeth to allow him to test the authenticity of gold dublooms, I'd rather question their judgement in fleeing...but then, we've already established my attitude to mountain roads. The valley is best approached by the old route, which includes 2 chillingly narrow roadtunnels, cut through the rock, and enough hair pins to control a junior ballet class.
We snake down, down, to the tiny square at the centre of the village, - and are greeted enthusiastically by a passing local, who begs us to visit "our so beautiful church".
So, here we are in a crater surrounded by breath-taking psalms in rock, expressing God's majesty and creative genius as perfectly as anything can here on earth...and we bow to pressure and enter one of the ugliest churches I've ever encountered,- complete with piped organ music to welcome tourists.
How bizarre is that?
Outside everything shouts praise...inside is artifice, the gilding of lillies, darkness and constraint.
Why? Why do we still insist on containing God, on fashioning the ark of the presence for ourselves again and again? How long will it take us to learn that, in the face of our own inadequacy we might do better simply to celebrate his gifts? It was a relief to emerge into sunshine, to sit and marvel. I hope those 16th century nuns had opportunity to do just that, and to really see.

Somehow, it's much easier to do that when I'm away from my normal environment. Perhaps that's what holidays are really for.


cal said...

Do you know I too used to really hate the fancy, gilded, churches full of riches in really poor countries / communities. The aesthetic is not to my taste anyway and it just seemed sinful that so much money was spent on a building when people were in dire need.

But I'm beginning (just beginning mind you) to possibly understand a little. Remember that film, I think it's called Sullivan's Travels, where a filmmaker wants to make a film about the poverty of the depression but ends up being a tramp and realises that the actual tramps and hobos choose to watch comedy - something that lifts them out of their deprivation.

Apparently cinemas in the 1930's were decorated with the same idea in mind - people's own homes were often dark and damp and not luxurious, so a cinema was a place of glittering luxury that they could enjoy for a bit - all red and gold and plush.

So why not our churches - why can't they be like palaces, a chance for those who will never live in one to experience a little of what it is like?

(There's possibly some dangerous theology there - are we called to live in material richness - but I think it makes some kind of sense. Equally dangerous the other way round of course - people live their lives in luxury but go to very plain churches so believe they are living in simplicity and holy poverty!)

cal said...
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Kathryn said...

Thanks, Cal...I don't know the film, but that's certainly part of why the Anglo Catholic revival was so strong in the poorest areas,- and I can see that an escape from grinding poverty, even for a short while, is clearly something to aim for. There's also the "only the best is good enough for God" argument, of course,- though that depends on his sharing the view of the church builders on what is "the best".
What made least sense to me was the decision to build ugly churches in places of so much unbelievable natural beauty...But why should I use my taste as an yardstick in any case. Something about being a tourist makes you feel qualified to pontificate on all sorts of aspects of the lives of others. Oh dear.

cal said...

(Oops, did I post twice by mistake - sorry)

I suppose that's the challenge isn't it - if you're trying to create a sense of opulence and richness and luxury but all you can afford is something that gives the effect of "tinselled disillusion" (excellent phrase) then is that a good thing to do? Maybe it depends on how the local community perceive it - a church of and for the people indeed. I remember one RC church in China that had multi-coloured flashing fairy lights all the way up both side walls and round a picture of Mary & Jesus above the altar. Ghastly. I'm still not sure whether they really thought it was beautiful or were just showing off how 'modern' and rich they were to have such things. (They weren't particularly common in China at that time). I have a feeling that the overall aim was the same though - to add sparkle and light.

I think you'd like the film - do look out for it.