Outer Appearance vs. Inner Reality

It is said that one day as St. Thomas Aquinas was praying at Naples after he had finished writing the first part of the Summa, Jesus spoke from the Crucifix: “Thou hast written well of me, what recompense dost thou desire?” Thomas humbly answered, “None other than Thyself, O Lord.”

“All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” __ Saint Thomas Aquinas

 What has the extrinsic (externals) got to do with the intrinsic (internals)? The inner reality is obviously the goal of our spiritual quest and the other accoutrements, art, music, and even theology itself are not, of themselves, the inner reality of what we seek, which is God alone.

As the story of St. Thomas Aquinas’s experience (above) illustrates, Christ is not disinterested in good theology. That might also suggest that the other extrinsic acts of the Church are of some consequence as well. We’ll have to decide about the veracity of that assumption individually.

I see the outward expressions of faith versus the inner reality of our faith in much the same way as I see the definitive teaching of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The extrinsic bread and wine is not the inner reality of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. However, it is essential and necessary to our understanding of the theology of the Sacrament. We cannot substitute a cookie and a glass of grape juice for the elements of the Holy Eucharist as it would not be appropriate, legitimate or valid.

It is also apparent in our everyday lives that if our houses are in complete disarray with televisions and radios blaring, we will have difficulty in reading a difficult work or pondering a problem that requires our complete attention. Likewise, if the extrinsic accoutrements that surround our Prayer of prayers, the Mass, are in disarray, we may deny the Mass its ability to give to us all that is available to our individual souls. In the most egregious cases it might also become inappropriate, illegitimate and invalid. Thankfully, in most cases, one can only claim inappropriateness for the poorly ordered and designed liturgies.

Now as good as St. Thomas’s writings on theology were, and the apparent ratification of his writings from Christ Himself, even Thomas saw past his accomplishments. Thomas knew that the real goal of spirituality was God Himself; a humbling fact that made Thomas recognize that his life’s work was as “straw” in comparison. Though Thomas’s humility is laudable, his theology informs the spirituality of our Church and helps prevent seekers from chasing after “false gods” or embracing heretical ideas. Good theology becomes indispensable to good and proper spirituality. But the theology, in and of itself, is not the end we seek.

If, while attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we expect to be lifted from our workaday world into a direct encounter with God, we may never realize our rightful expectations if all we experience are expressions of the ordinary. If the art is stark and the church space is like an auditorium, we cannot reasonably expect that the people will stop their endless chattering or the lack of constraint that is tolerated by their children’s behavior. We cannot expect them to participate in a more dignified and reverent manner than their surroundings demand. As we laugh and joke and listen to “sing-along” tunes, what religious experience are we actually gaining? Do we really go home feeling like we have had a direct encounter with the Divine Creator?

The banal and mundane have overtaken many parishes regarding their “mission” within the community. Today we have committees writing and rewriting mission statements for their parishes: usually to include small faith communities and activity groups who get involved in helping the poor or feeding the hungry. Obviously it is laudable to help the unfortunate in one’s community but it is ironic that this becomes the focus of the parish rather than the outcome of the spiritual: it should be a natural extension of the only reason a local church has to exist; to save souls. At one time parish churches had no need for a mission statement: the parish was first and foremost a place to increase one’s spirituality, a place to have a face-to-face encounter with God and a place to experience, through that encounter, our sinfulness and need for God’s Grace. The parish made us confront ourselves and our God and thus to know the immense chasm between the holiness of God and the wretchedness of our selves. And this is an essential element to obtaining a mature relationship with God based on True Reality. It is a classic example of how the means have now become an end in itself.

Let me be clear. All Catholic parishes should actively do what they can to alleviate hunger, end poverty, visit the sick and the imprisoned and especially work for the elimination of abortions. We are called to service and we cannot sit idle as others suffer or die. But it is not the end for which we were made – it is only a way to reach our end. The job of the Church should primarily be concerned with getting us beyond our works to the End for which we were made: God Himself.

We live in a busy and noisy world. And that noise and activity is spilling into our sanctuary: our place of quiet, our place of worship and our prayer. Today, being active in a group that provides some kind of good in the community conceals a real danger: for it may supplant or become the sum total of the congregation’s spirituality. As Dom Chautard makes clear in, The Soul of the Apostolate, an intense and deep interior life is essential to the success of any apostolate. Many have become content to remain within this restricted world while they futilely attempt to save the external world while ignoring their internal relationship with God. The extrinsic can never suffice for the intrinsic; its as futile as using a flashlight in the noon-day sun.

Any church wishing to write a mission statement or in need of a motto need go no further than the words we hear at Mass every day: Per Ipsum et cum Ipso et in Ipso. That is to say: Through Him, with Him, and in Him. No mission is possible until this is realized within each and every soul desirous of a fruitful apostolate. Any mission that is founded upon our union with God will always bear fruit that lasts. You will not need to invent apostolates for these members, as their souls will quite naturally be sent forth by Christ as He did His apostles.


9 thoughts on “Outer Appearance vs. Inner Reality

  1. One does not need an ornate Cathedral to have a holy experience. The desert fathers knew of no such items. And while I agree there are often barriers to wondrous worship many of those are personal and accompany people in and out of every Parish, in every type of mass. The Mass does not dictate the hearts of the followers though I’ll admit it can help with the mood for those so disposed. And to be frank, lack of reverence during any mass is a problem to be sure.

    As a lover of sacred art I find it moving but I can find God in the sparse surroundings of a bare room at Mepkin Abbey or in Notre Dame Cathedral.


    • I totally agree and am glad that you made the point. There is one thing that the desert and Mepkin Abbey have in common, a stillness, an other-worldness, a kind of reverent silence (even in community prayer at most abbeys). Reverence and a sense of the sacred can be found in many places but in the busy and noisy everyday world, it is more of a task than most are capable of. It is why the Church took great pains to nurture us until such time as we would be able to still our minds and hearts in the midst of chaos and irreverence. It is time for those parishes that have allowed the hallowed spaces to become indistinguishable from our daily surrounds to rethink the changes that impede rather than induce a sense of the sacred. The surroundings, though extrinsic, can help elicit a certain attitude that is not fitted to the Holy Mysteries that we are to be spending our time contemplating but they cannot do that on their own. In that case we should all be praying at the local art museum. Reverence is the missing ingredient and it can be instilled by a skilled priest who is very careful about all that the Mass requires: the music, the symbols, the gestures, the reverence that he himself shows etc. Many have lost that spirit and their parishes suffer for it.


  2. It seems to me that the extrinsics in a Catholic church serve to remind us that we are Catholic. Catholic churches don’t all have to look like mini Sistine chapels, but we can’t be without the art and other elements that make us identify with the Catholic church. And while corporate works of mercy are an important part of our salvation, they have to be rooted in prayer, not activism. Feeding the hungry and clothing the poor for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of social justice, but certainly recognizing social justice. That some parishes have mission statements makes me think that parishes are being run as mini-corporations, with the CEO not necessarily being the parish priest.


    • I agree. Many parish churches since Vatican II have become groups of social workers instead of Catholics. I think the new model for the parish church is “collaborative” with the laity often taking the leading role in how the parish operates and functions. Its a huge problem in my mind and I hope to live to see it get turned around. My old protestant churches were nothing more than meeting spaces and I’m afraid that many of our more “modern” parishes are starting to look and feel the same way.


  3. Bravo! *Applause*

    Very well said! And as far as for being stark, I would harken back to the post I made on the film “Into Great Silence.” Anyone who watches that film knows that the monks live a simple existence, yet even they recognize the importance of symbols. They are the ones who said if you take away the symbols, you tear down the walls of your own house.

    A church does not have to be a masterpiece of art and architecture, but it should have enough tradition and symbolism to visually stand for what it believes, thereby witnessing to any passerby without saying a word.

    I think my experiences at mystery location # 2 will help show this. They were not as spectacular as in St. Louis, and the churches are more simple, yet still gracefully maintain a traditional beauty that is just as effective in its own way.

    God bless you for posting and I will stop rambling now! 🙂


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