Ancient architecture and buildings have a way of communicating beauty to me, transporting me from the material world, to somewhere beyond the X-Y-Z planes. These sorts of structures seem so rare today, and more so in such a country as Uganda. This is so especially, given the fact that most Ugandans build primarily for shelter, and would be happy to spend as less as possible to get a roof over their head. Barely do people here build for beauty.
A gaze at the new St. Francis Chapel Makerere University however suddenly awakens a wonder in you unknown before. It’s one thing to see amazing architecture on google, it’s another thing altogether to goggle at one, before you. The builders did an excellent job. I think.
St. Francis is one of those buildings that drive you back to antiquity, having a sort of majesty about it. ‘And isn’t that what churches should be, majestic?’ Nuwamanya Mategyero of mategyero.com responded to my amazement. ‘Consider the Cologne Cathedral whose construction started in 1248 and was not completed until 1880. The Gothic jewel in the main sanctuary had to be perfect!’
Think about the lilies of the field, how lovely they look, flooding our eyes with beauty, filling our hearts with wonder. Sit, look, gape, meditate. In an instant, you are separated from your struggles, sort of detached from your fear of death.
What people call a sense of wonder and beauty baffles the senses. Have you ever noticed that amazement seems to send us beyond the moon and back, so figuratively speaking? Be it the attractiveness of a scenery, or water fall or damsel. There is something almost irrational about beauty, that somehow puts our senses to sleep. Man can have arguments metaphysically against metaphysics, he can argue about knowing or how to live, but confronted with beauty; he is speechless. Wonder reminds us that we are not just matter, that what matters is beyond us. Beauty concludes arguments, it removes fear, it demands a stop to self-centeredness.
We might as well ask ourselves why beauty does exist, and why man is able to appreciate it. Is it an accident as atheism tells us? Is it a product of unguided evolutionary process as Darwinism suggests?Can this sort of beauty that causes us to transcend the boundaries of this material world of itself originate from the material world? Or is it in fact true, that this material world is simply a channel through which beauty comes to us?
It would be one of the greatest wonders itself if beauty comes about by the accidental collision of time, matter, space and chance, for nothing of this kind is empirically verifiable. We do not see beauty often spontaneously spring from nothingness by nothing and for nothing. This thought seems to me quite absurd and to be disregarded immediately by any honest thinker. But if beauty is created, if truly the world and our senses are simply channels through which the Grand Weaver reaches out to us, then as C. S. Lewis presents it quite carefully and amazingly through an imagery of an Island in his ‘Pilgrims Regress’, to pursue this beauty purely in the visible agent (the island) is to pursue an illusion that leaves us both empty and angry.
Beauty and wonder cause us to move beyond the visible and tangible, because that’s their source, their origin, their abode. The Psalmists in Psalm 27:4 captures well the origin of beauty when he searches it in God. He says; ‘One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.’
Perhaps the reason why those of old surely built these temples majestically was to reflect, even in an infinitesimal way, the majesty of the King. It is what Mategyero meant by asking, ‘isn’t that what churches should be, majestic?’. But we must be careful, again, not to pursue this in purely material things, the stone, the arch and the sit. The distinction between the thing (or Person, so to speak) and the channel must never be blurred. And our sinful hearts often do blur the lines. As such, (John) awakes to Sweet Desire; and almost at once mixes his own fantasies with it (Pilgrims Regress).
Through wonder, God is wooing us to Himself. We must pay attention, lest we adulterate ourselves with the channel and miss the Person, the source of this splendor. The Psalmist wants to inquire in God’s Temple, not because of the temple itself, but because through it and in it, he is able to behold the beauty of the Lord. For us now, Christ is beauty personified. He is the Temple that was destroyed by men and rebuilt in three days (John 2:19). In Him all things consist (Col 1:17), including meaning and wonder and admiration. For this reason, when I see excellent architecture or falls or an island, my heart rejoices in Christ, through whom and to whom and for whom all things were made (Col 1:16). The greatest tragedy, as Michael Ramsden of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM-Europe) says, is not necessarily that we have nothing to be grateful for, but no one to be grateful to. But in Christ, we know who. Our worship is centered, not on man or beast or tree or mountain, but in Person-hood, in Deity, Deity in flesh!
This Christ, who is God-Man is the reason we have hope, that death does not destroy beauty. We know that the longing for the heart shall be fully satisfied. This is the Christ the Apostles beheld as He was transfigured on the mountain and were fascinated. They saw the risen Christ and they were encouraged to face fear and threats. The thing about beauty, as I said before, is that it removes fear. That is why, the Psalmist, in the same Psalm speaks of how beholding the beauty of the Lord is like a pavilion, a shelter from trouble (Ps 27:5). We fear because we haven’t beheld Him. Perfect loveliness casts out fear, for love and beauty are united in One.
Therefore, beauty must draw us to God, in Christ, and if it doesn’t, then it’s because we have been idolatrous. We have worshiped and served that which is but a conduit, and have rejected the King. He is more glorious than hills and dells, museum and music, falls and flowers, more to be desired than any temporal treasure.
The next time you visit such beautiful places as St. Francis Chapel or the zoo or the hills, meditate on the pleasures of Him who gives us all things freely to enjoy (1 Tim 6:17). How Glorious God is when magnified through the lens of His creation!