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What You See in a Catholic Church, Part I

When you go through the streets you see buildings which are quite different from warehouses or cinemas or living-houses or shops or public-houses. Sometimes they have towers or pointed windows instead of square ones, but there is always something about them which makes you say, “That is a church” or possibly a “chapel.” There is also usually a board outside them with a name upon it and hours of “services.” Sometimes these churches are open; if they are Catholic ones, they nearly always are. But a man might well feel too shy to go in, at any rate without being invited; and even if he were taken in, he might be puzzled by what he saw there and even feel too awkward to look about him properly.

If you did go into a Catholic church, what would you notice? I think that you would probably notice, first, that it smelled rather sweet and, second, that there was a little red lamp burning at the end of it. Both these things will be explained later on. In this essay, we will begin at the beginning.

A church is built so as to look different from ordinary houses because it is different from ordinary houses. We call it “God’s House.” We know quite well that God does not live in houses made of stone and brick, as we do; but when people come together to pray to God and to praise him, they have to get under a roof, especially in a cold or wet climate. Besides, they have a very precious Treasure, which they cannot leave lying about out of doors. I will explain what that is later on. Then, a church ought to be beautiful and quiet and a pleasant and comforting place to go into when ordinary life has tired you or depressed you; that is one reason why Catholic churches are usually open all day long. And that is one answer to people who ask: “Why can you not pray quietly at home, without making a fuss and going to a church?” Well, many people find that their home is a place where there is very little quiet; when they go to church, it is often to escape from fuss, not to make any. Besides that, it is part of human nature to join together when doing anything important. Human nature has what is called the “social instinct.” So we like to worship God not only privately, but all of us together, fraternally, and in union. So we need large buildings in which to do this. The church is the common home of Catholics and also a kind of quiet, peaceful refuge for each separate Catholic. This is why, on the one hand, churches have bells, when they can afford them, to announce the times of public prayer, and again why they are left open all day.

People ought to come in time for a united and public service and need some signal to remind them that the hour is approaching. Bells are used, partly because if they are well-made their sound is mellow and beautiful and floats far out—and sick people can hear them from their beds and like to join in spirit with the general worship of their friends; and also, because it is difficult to see what else you could have which would “carry” so far. You could not have something ugly, like a steam-siren, which you think of in connection with factories and work. The church, even when it is full of people, ought to be a restful place. So, should you not be a Catholic, don’t be afraid to go in and just sit down and keep warm and rest a bit if you want to; and don’t be afraid to walk about and look at things, provided you don’t disturb other people. I said that a church is “the common home of Catholics,” but it would like to be everybody’s home.

You do not usually go straight into a church, but into a porch first. You may see certain things in this porch. First, notices about what is going to happen in the church itself, or the district, during the coming week or other important announcements. You may also see several cards pinned up, having black edges, which shows you at once that they have something to do with people who have died. On these cards you will see the name of someone who has died, perhaps the relative of Catholics who come to that church, and a request for prayers. Catholics believe that you can help the souls of those who have died by praying for them. It shows you at once what a close link is made by prayer among Catholics, since we can not only pray for one another while we are all still living on this earth, but we can pray for those who have already died and help them even beyond the grave. When one of your own friends dies, it is quite likely that you will say (half without thinking), “God rest his soul.” This is a good custom which ought not to die out.

Also you may see in the porch (or just inside it) a bowl or saucer full of water. Sometimes it stands on a little column; sometimes it is stuck in the wall. You will see Catholics put their fingers into this, and make the sign of the cross with it over themselves. This water is called “holy water.” It reminds us that we ought to be clean in heart when we enter God’s “house” or come into his presence by prayer. But more than that, the cross that we make with that water reminds us that it is through Jesus Christ our Lord that our sins are forgiven, and sin is the only dirt that can blacken our hearts and souls. So we ask that our souls may be washed clean through Jesus Christ. But more than that. This water is called “holy water” not only because we put it to a holy use—we do not drink it, or wash our hands in it, and so on, but we use it, as I said, to remind ourselves of religious things—but also because it has been “blessed”—that is, God has been asked to look at us with special kindness when we make that little action of dipping our fingers in this special water and signing ourselves with the cross of his Son and to give us special help because of this small thing that we do.

When Catholics come into a church, even if there is not a service going on, they do not merely wander round but kneel down to pray. That is what they came in for. So there are benches or kneeling-stools everywhere in the church. But why should we kneel down to pray to God? Can we not pray to him sitting down, or standing up, or walking about? Certainly we can. But then, since “talking to God”—and praying is simply talking to God—is different from talking to anyone else, and because we have great reverence for God, we like to put ourselves as a rule in a different position when talking to him. In old days, people usually stood up to pray, for standing was the attitude of respect. Sometimes they would fling themselves flat on their faces; but that meant that they were feeling desperately sorry for some sin or altogether overwhelmed by the Majesty of God’s Presence, and on the whole we do not act like that now, though abroad you might see people doing it, because in southern climates people are less stiff and formal than we are and express what they feel more openly. In this country [England], men kneel on one knee sometimes when they receive an honor from the King, but I think that we nearly always keep the practice of going down on two knees for praying to God. Anyhow, in our churches you will see seats for you to sit on when you want to sit and some kind of stool for you to kneel on when you want to kneel. These prevent your trousers or dress from getting dirty.

A Catholic church usually has a lot of color about it; this is due to its having colored-glass in the windows (when it can afford to), pictures on the walls, colored statues, flowers, and so on. Let us begin by saying firmly that what God has made is good and that we like to show our pleasure in the things that he has made and offer him the best of everything, even though it is he who has first given it to us. If a child is given a box of sweets by its mother, it is a right and lovable thing if the first thing the child does is to ask its mother to have one of the sweets, and even if it picks out the one it thinks the nicest to offer to her. And if a man gives his young son a job in his own works, it is right if the boy willingly contributes part of his very first wages toward paying the rent (for example), thus showing he does not forget what his father has done for him while he was too small to work. So we like to use all the beautiful and pleasant things that God has created, to put in his church, giving him the best we can of them. We cannot imagine why a church should be less pleasant to be in and nice to look at than our own houses. We always try to make these look nice and do the same by God’s “house.” So in a Catholic church there will be bright colors and the best music we can manage and even sweet scents, because these too are the gift of God. The scent is obtained by means of “incense,” which is a mixture of sweet spices and gums that are burnt. In very distant times, this was done as a disinfectant and also to get the better of unpleasant smells, very much as magistrates used to have a bunch of flowers and disinfectant herbs before them on their table when our courts were in a filthy condition. But we do not use incense now for that reason but because ancient writers, Jewish and Christian, used to find that the way the smoke goes curling up softly and sweetly made them think of prayer, as it were ascending quietly and fragrantly before the throne of God. So our incense does not only make our churches smell sweet, but can help us to send up our thoughts toward God, pure and fragrant thoughts, and this in its turn makes us want to keep our hearts themselves pure and sweet, for from a foul heart, sweet thoughts cannot rise, and a hard heart does not pray.

As for the colored glass in the windows, sometimes it consists merely of bright patterns, but often it makes pictures of the saints or of parts of the life of our Lord. These can be as good as books for people who cannot read or for children. During a long sermon, children often like to look at the pictures in the windows, and this can teach them a lot. Besides, there is an old proverb that what goes in through the eye sticks better than what just goes in through the ear. Also, you know how a ray of white light really consists of seven colored lights—you see this in a rainbow when the light gets broken up by the raindrops in the clouds, or when a piece of cut glass breaks up the light into a prism. You can think—if you like—of the friends of Christ—the saints, whose pictures very likely you will see in the windows—as showing various characteristics of the perfect character of Christ, as the rainbow or the prism show the different colors that are included in the perfectly white light.

But whatever else you see, you are sure to notice fourteen pictures put up on the walls of the church. These are called the “stations of the cross.” The word “station “usually suggests to us something to do with railways, but what it really means is a place that a thing stops at. We all know that Jesus Christ was condemned by Pontius Pilate, was made to carry the cross to which he was to be nailed, reached a place called Calvary, was crucified there, died, and was buried. The stations of the cross are the history of this—from the moment when Jesus was condemned to the moment when he was buried. In these pictures you see the Roman officer Pilate “washing his hands” of the whole affair: He was so anxious to keep his job and not to get into trouble with the Roman Emperor that, though he knew that our Lord was innocent, he handed him over to be executed when the Jews demanded it. Then our Lord had the heavy wood of the cross given to him to carry, though he was far too weak to do so. These pictures show him falling three times beneath that weight: once almost immediately, again when he was halfway to the place of execution, and again when he had practically got there. They show us how a man called Simon was ordered to help him. And how he was met by his Mother on the way. And how women from the city of Jerusalem where all this happened, grieved over him; and how one in particular offered him a towel to wipe his face with, filthied as it was by men who had spat at him and by falling on the ground and by his own blood. The pictures show you how at last he reached the hillock outside the town where criminals were executed and how he was disgraced by having his clothes stripped from him before everybody and then had nails driven through his hands and feet into the wood; and how he finally died on the cross. Then he was taken down and buried. This is what these pictures show you.

The first thing to notice is, then, that a Catholic church is all about Jesus Christ. These pictures show that we ought not to “wash our hands” of him and think that he does not matter. They show that most men have a cross to carry in life and, in fact, that those who have an easy time of it are not very like Christ, that we, owing to our weakness, are very likely to fall. There are many other things that the stations of the cross can remind us of, but the greatest thing of all is that Christ did not hesitate to die for our sakes—die, the final and loneliest and most unsurpassable thing that a man can do. 

There are usually other pictures besides these fourteen in a Catholic church and also some statues. The pictures may represent any part of the story of Jesus Christ, or of great Christians who followed his teaching and example thoroughly—the “saints,” as we say. But when you see a statue—”Aha!” you may say, “we’d always heard that Catholics worship images.” But, what would “worshiping an image” mean? I suppose it would mean that a man thought that a statue was God and so prayed to it. Now you are sure to know a certain number of Catholics. You cannot possibly suppose that these friends of yours really imagine an affair of canvas and paint, or of plaster, is God. Certainly they don’t. Then why did people ever think they did? I suppose, because they see Catholics kneeling in front of such statues and looking at them while they pray. Now I will imagine that you are in love, and have a photo of your young lady. And I will imagine that you are separated from her for quite some time. I should be very much surprised if you never looked at the photo, and perhaps (when no one was present) kissed it. I have known men who, when they were tempted, took from their wallet the picture of their girl, and looked at it and thought of all that she meant to them, and of how they felt sure that she was true, and so resisted the temptation. If they hadn’t a girl, they might look at their mother’s photo. How often soldiers or seamen have shown me their mother’s photo that they treasured. “This is what keeps me straight!” That is what they would say. So it is not astonishing if Catholics put in their churches statues or pictures of people they like to be reminded of or to whom they like to show respect. This is true to human nature, Conservatives put primroses round the statue of Lord Beaconsfield on Primrose Day, and Communists put all sorts of things round the picture of Lenin, in Russia. The difference is not that we have pictures, but that we pray to the people whom these pictures represent. I never heard of anyone praying to Lord Beaconsfield, and in Russia they are always trying to prevent people praying. But the picture shows that you do not forget the person it represents and helps you to remember that person more vividly. So the pictures or statues in a Catholic church help us to remember certain people vividly—and these are people whom, we believe, we can also talk to. Who are they?

There is one statue or picture you will always see in a church, that of our Lord’s Mother. It would be an insult to any man if we did not respect his mother, and, when a mother is so perfect as Christ’s Mother was and so much loved by her Son as she was loved by him, it would be out of the question for us to neglect her. It was she who brought him into the world, who nursed him and brought him up; it was to him she looked as he grew older for his guardianship and loving hard work and help; and she stood by him when he died. And they were always in one another’s hearts. Also, you are sure to see in Catholic churches a statue of the carpenter and smith, Joseph, who took care both of Mary and of Jesus when he was but a boy. It is pleasant to think that the King of all heaven and earth was cared for by a working-man, and that a working-man is thus honored in all our churches. Besides these statues, there will probably be others, for example, representing the saint after whom the church is named, but these will differ in each church, and we could not make a list of them here. One other statue, however, is almost always to be seen—our Lord with a heart painted upon his breast. This is a very simple way of showing to everyone that Jesus Christ loves us and is not merely “King of heaven and earth,” as I said, but our fellow-man and very loving friend. We all talk of having “hard” or “tender” hearts, of being warm-hearted, sad at heart, and so on. So the thing is easily understood.

Now there are three rather startling bits of “furniture” in a Catholic church that need explaining. Usually at the bottom, near the door, you will see a font, or a sort of large basin, standing on a column. It is usually covered up; and very often surrounded by a railing or even in a small chapel or side-room of the church, all by itself. We all of us have names of our own besides our surnames. We call these our “Christian” names. It is a great degradation when we call them merely our “first” names, and it is a pity if they are not names that have been borne by famous Christians. As a matter of fact, all our ordinary names are truly “Christian” names—Tom, Jack, Jim, Joe; and also Ted or Dick or Harry. They belonged to our Lord’s personal friends, or to true friends of his who have lived since his time. Well, to begin with, you own the name of your parents just because you are their child, but you are given Christian names because you become Christians. You are not born Christians as you are born your parents’ child, but you are made into a Christian, and that is when you receive your truly Christian name. Now our Lord decided that we should first become Christians by means of baptism. You certainly know that water is poured upon the child, and words are spoken which were taught by Christ himself. But baptism is certainly not just the naming of a child—else why should we pour water on its head when naming it? Everyone sees how “water” can stand for “cleanness,” purifying. And first, the water of baptism means that spiritual dirt, which is what sin is, is entirely washed away from the soul of anyone who is properly baptized. But it means even more than that! In old days, people used to go right under the water and come out again—not merely have it poured over them in a few drops. This meant, not only that they were finished with the old life, the bad life, the non-Christian life, but that they came out fresh and clean into a new life, the Christian life. Now you can see, first, that while it might seem difficult to understand how an innocent little child can have to have sin cleansed out of it, it is not at all difficult to see that the child, hitherto just a human baby can start out afresh as a Christian child, beginning already its Christian—”christened”—life. And indeed, baptism does more than merely suggest to you that you are beginning a new life when you are christened—it does not just ticket a child as a Christian. Anyway, the font is where it happens, and “font” is a very good word, because it is the same word, really, as “fountain,” and a fountain is not a sort of stagnant pool, but a thing that leaps up and scatters its spray all round. The font, or Christian fountain, is something that—as Christ said—”leaps up into eternal life.”

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