The Reach of Beauty

A Catholic Boyhood in Wisconsin

Photo by Leroy P. KolacinskiWe were as close to God as we were to our animals or as close to our animals as we were to God. It’s difficult to know if He or they were ascendant. I was born on a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin in 1933 where I lived with my parents, two older brothers, two older sisters, twenty-five cows, a series of “love-driven” Holstein bulls always appropriately named “The Duke” by my father after the Duke of Windsor, sixty nameless chickens, a team of horses pegged poetically as Jack and Jill, one three-legged dog injured in a mowing accident, and three semi-feral male cats who, when food scraps were put out after supper, answered to the names of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. It was a life of religious labor.

Prayers were said before every meal, beginning with breakfast: “Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts...”; and the rosary led by my father was recited every evening with all of us on our knees in the living room in the fifteen minutes prior to going to bed: “Hail Mary full of grace...” In the long hours between, my mother and sisters planted and weeded the garden, fed and collected eggs from the chickens, canned vegetables and preserved fruit in summer, and cleaned, sewed, and cooked year-round. But my father, my brothers, and I began and ended each day before breakfast and after supper milking cows—heads resting against the warm flank of this mysterious relationship between man and animal, between a supposedly spiritual creature destined for immortality and a lowly creature who could not pray.

Between morning and evening milking, the workday for my father, my brothers, and me changed with the seasons. In summer we planted and cultivated and harvested while the dreary winter months of December, January, February, and March required daily scouring of barns, sheds, and coops. This Augean task consumed the better half of a fourteen-hour day because the animals were confined indoors by the bitter winter weather. Manure was piled high behind the silo in the cow yard in those frozen months because the fields were too deep with snow for horses to plunge through and the cold was so intense that frozen manure might shatter the iron mechanism of the spreader. Thus we were required to dress four month’s accumulation of animal waste on our mostly flat, black loamy fields in late March or early April as the snow melted and before spring planting began.

 Unlike Hercules, we had no river to clean our stables—or in this case, remove our pile of cow manure in a single day. Long Easter vacations were spent in this dirty, smelly cow yard, where I learned the pleasure of hard, useful labor—the simple joy of seeing the pile diminish and knowing it was partly through my effort as I perspired in the spring sunshine feeling the strength of my youthful muscles. My brothers and I loaded the spreader with broad six-tine forks as the horses stood patiently waiting until it was their turn to pull the mechanical wagon with the cogged wheel that drove the chain that turned the spindle-driven iron fan that churned the straw and manure up into the air five or six feet before it fell to the fallow field below. Artificial fertilizers made from petroleum were not commonly known or used. There was only manure to nourish the hay and grain that fed the cows and chickens and pig who gave us the milk, eggs, and meat that nourished our hungry bellies and paid for shoes and coats as well as staples like sugar, coffee, and flour—with just enough left over to tithe the church that my father with a deep, unshakable faith believed nourished our souls.

All work ceased one day each week. Sunday was by church law a required day of rest. It was a mortal sin to put up hay, thresh grain, spread manure, or weed the garden on this and other holy days like All Saints Day or Christmas. Severe thunderstorms might threaten acres of new-mown hay, but my father would not budge from his chair on August 15, the feast of the Assumption. He was as firm in his practice as a Hasidic Jew who will not press an elevator button on the Sabbath. Only absolutely unavoidable chores were allowed: my mother and sisters still prepared three hot meals and my father and brothers and I were still required to milk and feed the animals. Thus it was not unusual on Sundays for the sweet stink of cows and chickens and pigs to waft through St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church mingling with the smoky spiciness of incense. We had been with our animals within the hour before the 9 a.m. Sunday solemn high Mass.

But that was sixty years ago. When I went to Marquette University, I left the farm forever and after graduation and two years in the U.S. Army, I left the Catholic Church. I was consumed with a desire to find a place in the world where animals and their needs did not drive my daily life. I wanted days other than Sunday when I wouldn’t fall asleep while reading because of sheer fatigue like my father. And as I moved out into a wider world the Catholic religion became suspect to me. I was not struck by lightning like St. Paul; it was a more gradual process. I found it very difficult to accept the divinity of a Jewish man from Nazareth, despite the appeal of his teachings. Though it was painful for my family, especially my father, I could do nothing else.

Soon after I became an ex-Catholic, I can remember telling a woman named Carmen who was from a Latin American country where Catholics were nominally 99 percent of the population that I was no longer a church member. She stared at me with dark, accusatory eyes, clutching her hand over her heart while she operatically declaimed, “I am Catholic and will always be a Catholic to the very depths of my heart and soul until the day I die,” though I knew that Carmen hadn’t appeared in a Catholic church for Holy Communion or confession in twenty years. I was taught that when I sat down for a meal I was to consume the green beans along with the buttery mashed potatoes. Bow your head and accept everything on your plate or get up from the table. I could no longer receive Communion if I was no longer certain of the Divine Presence. I could no longer go to confession if I didn’t think missing Mass on Sunday or eating meat on Friday was a sin. I could no longer say I was Catholic, if like Carmen, I went to church only for weddings and funerals. Still, I am the most Catholic of ex-Catholics—a snobbish skeptic of other denominations, sects, creeds, cults, schisms, persuasions, communions, heresies, and fellowships. If I’m wrong and there is a Christian God, he is Roman Catholic.

I retain this lapsed-Catholic Catholicism because from early morning to bedtime every day from my first childhood consciousness I was saturated in the old religious rituals: the Tridentine Mass, tenebrae services during Holy Week, novenas, Holy Saturday morning blessings of the Easter candle, and the hypnotic Gregorian chant of the requiem Mass. Thank God, I say—though it smacks of irony. This very formal and traditional religion provided the window for me to see the world as more than sex and food and excrement. Whatever spirituality is, I believe it exists. It may be only a more refined brain chemistry that allows us to fathom beauty, but this chemistry crystalized for me in an oaken pew, with unpadded kneelers, sixteen rows from the Communion railing and to the right of the center aisle at a church in Burlington, Wisconsin.

St. Mary’s was a Gothic Revival structure inordinately large for a small city of fewer than five thousand people, a city seated on the swampy, lake-strewn western coastal plain of Lake Michigan. This church building dominated a community that had been founded by Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians from New England and then overwhelmed by German Catholics and Lutherans. As a child I would climb the tallest hill on our farm and look to the east, where I could spot the steeple of the church even though it was three and a half miles away. Buttresses supported the pale yellow brick walls that were cut through with eight twenty-foot-high stained-glass windows imported from Germany. The steeple enclosed a set of rope-pulled Quasimodo-sized bells topped with a golden cross, which was all I could see from my perch on the hill. When the wind was right, I could not only see the steeple’s cross but also hear the bells’ powerful clanging. All this was erected in the late nineteenth century through the contributions of the relatively poor subsistence farmers led by autocratic German priests with names like Wisbauer and Jacobs. And when I was enrolled in St. Mary’s parochial school, going to Mass every morning before classwork began, another German priest named Kersting, who had recently made a pilgrimage to the Vatican, had the interior repainted and gilded to make it look as much as possible like the rococo churches he had seen in Rome. I remember a small Italian man, who I was told could not speak English, sitting high on a scaffolding applying gold leaf to painted arabesques. To be driven from our family farm on a gray, chilly Sunday morning in our 1938 Willys sedan, away from the mooing cows, across the cement bridge next to the pig yard of our neighbors, past the one-room red-brick schoolhouse, through almost empty fields of corn stubble or left-over rotten cabbages not suitable for the sauerkraut factory, across the railroad track, down the hill by the cemetery where my grandparents were buried to the street near the church where we parked our car, and then taken through the massive iron-hinged door and greeted by a thundering organ with its chorus of silvery trumpets in this Midwestern cathedral on the prairie would have penetrated even the dullest brain with a sense of radiance. I was not dull-witted.

Harold Ross, the founding publisher of the New Yorker, wouldn’t visit La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris because, he said, “stained glass is damned embarrassing.” He had a point. I appreciate the simple beauty of the Quaker, the Shaker, and the New England Presbyterian. But why not enjoy all kinds of beauty. Food for the soul, like food for the body, should be a combination of the rich, the lean, the sweet, the sour, the acidic, and even the bland. Alternating courses are doubly pleasurable. I had no choice but to start with the dessert of gilt and soaring arches, and yes, well-crafted, German-made stained-glass windows—wan, northern sunlight transformed into gulf streams, coral reefs, tropical oceans of bright reds, blues, and greens. And I was so thirsty for relief from the colorless, wintry prairie that I drank it all down.

I think my delight in these services began with the music. When I heard my older brother Gerald in the choir above me with his clear youthful tenor begin singing a solo rendition of “Panis Angelicus” as the devout received the “bread of angels” at the Communion rail, I felt a shivering delight, what Wittgenstein describes as a mystical event in “his teeth and gums.” I was unaware that this experience was tuning my ear for a similar if less religious event when I heard the aria “Celeste Aida” on our RCA radio one Saturday afternoon when I was ten or eleven. Some would think it surprising that a farm boy listened to a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera when he was eleven years old on a Saturday afternoon, but the polyphonic Masses were still ringing in my ears. One of the few Poles in town, Stanley Sydlowski, loved “his” pipe organ that was built into St. Mary’s choir loft in 1905. Stanley made his living tuning pianos but dedicated his life to playing that organ and rehearsing the amateur choir. Their ringing repetition of “Gloria! Gloria! Gloria—in excelsis Deo!” in a building so alive to sound that you could hear squeaking mice in the belfry readied my inner ear to receive the written vibrations of Verdi and all the classical masters.

But my eyes as well as my ears were open. The statue of St. Sebastian pierced through with arrows that captured my childish eye became my prototype for a more experienced appreciation of the human form from Michelangelo to Giacometti. In Florence, standing before Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the Convent of San Marco, I recalled another Annunciation, painted in the triangle formed by the arch above the side altar at St. Mary’s. That sentimentally painted and figured triangle was my childish preparation for the sublime work of the angelic friar. And in Venice, I was stunned to find, for the entry price of a few lire, Titian’s Assumption in its full glory at over twenty feet high and eleven feet wide in the Basilica di Santa Maria dei Frari. I had first seen this stupendous work reproduced on a tiny, two-by-four-inch prayer card given to me by Sr. Mary Casper, who taught me in second grade.

But the forge that fired my imagination was the drama of the Latin Mass. Sunday after Sunday I watched tall Fr. Hannuska raise the thin white host and then the golden chalice above his head, the hush of the consecration broken only by the acolytes’ tinkling bells warning us to be in awe in the third act of this four-act play. It explains why, while jobless in New York, I spent almost my last dollar watching the drug-addicted Mary Tyrone float ghost-like into the evening and in the last act silence her noisy, drunken husband and sons with her tinkling laugh in Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night.

I cannot draw or sculpt or construct plays like O’Neill, though the urge to replicate beauty, according to Elaine Scarry, is in all of us. In her book On Beauty and Being Just, Scarry, who is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard University, remarked that Walter Pater’s essay on the art of Leonardo da Vinci “replicates ‘it’ in sentences,” thus participating in da Vinci’s creations. All I have are words, and I hope that they are good and true and replicate the beauty I have known. My words sometimes spill on the page as luridly as the rococo painting in Fr. Kersting’s gilded church, but it comes as second nature to this ex-Catholic. Blame it on the Virgin in her niche high above the main altar with her halo of tiny white lights and gilded stars in a bright blue sky. Harold Ross would object both to my spilling of words and my admiration for everything in the old Catholic ritual, but I am as plain an American as he is. Still, when I daydream while mowing my lawn, I dream in the catholic, universal world of Palestrina, Verdi, El Greco, and O’Neill.

I implied perhaps that when those German priests goaded their relatively poor parishioners into building a huge edifice with their pennies that they had been thoughtless and unjust—arrogant men wasting resources better spent, some would say, on the poor. It is an old but specious argument. Beauty is never wasted. Despite the manure, the flies, the 100-degree heat of summer and 20-below-zero weather of Wisconsin winters, the men who came to church in their black and navy blue suits and the women in their feathered hats and print dresses also needed to participate in replicating beauty. They, and especially my father, had developed spiritual lives through their religion. It was the net that prevented the unending drudgery of subsistence farming from drowning them. St. Augustine described beauty as “a plank amid the waves of the sea.” The Latin Mass was my family’s “plank” in a sea of mud, snow, drought, flood, and exhaustion.

Tragically, St. Mary’s disappeared. I was stunned when I returned home for a visit a few years back and couldn’t find the steeple on the horizon as I drove into town. That which is beautiful is the most fragile, again according to Scarry, and though the yellow-brick walls seemed as sturdy as the Great Pyramid, they could not withstand a fire, when the church was struck by lightning. A smoldering blaze began in the roof and eventually consumed the entire building and its contents: the stained glass, the organ, the gold leaf, the bells—melted, cremated, dissolved.

The church has been reconstructed, and although it could never be exactly the same, the parishioners have erected an edifice that resembles the original as closely as modern materials allow (see cover photograph). Their efforts overcame a minority movement to build something plainer and less costly. Of course the Latin liturgy also disappeared. As an ex-Catholic, I have no place in the argument over the liturgy, which I now understand has intensified in the wake of Pope Benedict’s efforts to broaden access to the Tridentine Mass. I confess that on this question I think the pope has a point. I have often wondered why the reformed liturgy could not be made more beautiful. To me the Novus Ordo seems perfunctory (it rushes from one thing to another), and the accompanying music is usually pallid. Also, I’ve noticed that the architecture of new Catholic churches is often utilitarian at best.

All of this leads me to believe that, even before Vatican II, and particularly in the United States, the church was embarrassed by beauty—much like Harold Ross. Or, to put it another way, John XXIII’s council strove for truth and goodness, two of the three transcendental virtues, but somehow forgot about beauty and left it behind. It gives the traditionalists a powerful argument. Both Thomas Aquinas and Augustine taught that goodness, truth, and beauty were just different aspects of the same object, and that the reflection of beauty illuminated goodness and truth. It should be used to illuminate the Mass. Are there no Palestrinas or Carravagios, no craftsman architects left in the church? And would it be sinful to intermingle some of the old with the new, as Benedict has suggested? Chartres contains Romanesque crypts. Stravinsky harks back to Mozart. Something as inherently glorious as the soprano birdsong in Greek of Kyrie eleison, answered by the deep-throated tenor and bass response of Christe eleison, should not be tossed aside.

I write this partly to rescue the old traditions from conservatives who use them as a symbol in their resistance to any reform. And also for those liberals who are just as adamant that concern about aesthetics is somehow suspect. Yes, I know the liturgy is not fundamentally a drama or theater but a ritual, a rite—it is worship, not spectacle. And I know that the council’s reforms were an effort to engage Catholics as participants in the Mass rather than as spectators closed off from each other in private devotion. And I know that my youthful liturgical experience at St. Mary’s was perhaps exceptional. The old rite was not always beautifully or even reverently done. But I still find it tragic that the unplowed and fallow fields of today’s Catholic youth no longer soak up the nutrients of two thousand years, composted from the dead language of the Romans and the poetic drama of the Greeks, with a heavy leavening of Gothic romanticism. Thank God—I say it now without irony—that Roman Catholic architecture, murals, sculpture, paintings, music, and the theater of the traditional services were there to nourish my soul, exactly as my father believed they would.

Photo by Leroy P. Kolacinski

Published in the 2010-11-19 issue: 

Paul J. Schaefer, a retired magazine editor, lives in Clinton Corners, New York.

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