At some point, we’ve probably all faced the accusation that Catholics can’t claim to serve the poor while building expansive (not to mention expensive!) cathedrals. While our bishops are dressed in fine clothes and golden jewelry. If we would truly follow Jesus’ command and sell all that we have, we could feed the poor. And in our own lives, should we really justify our own use of gold or silver?
On the surface level, it’s a fair assessment. It can feel impossible to talk about Corporal Works of Mercy when we are standing in the midst of what seems to be the pure opulence and overindulgence of cathedrals throughout the world. Or even within our own lives. I certainly encounter this as a Catholic jeweler. But I think the question of building cathedrals—literal or figurative—actually goes much deeper.
A Scriptural History of Extravagance
There are a few Scripture verses that may come to mind in thinking about the role of extravagance: the golden calf, serving two masters, a camel passing through the eye of a needle.
However, worshipping wealth is one thing. Understanding the inherent value of something is another thing altogether.
The reality is that Scripture overflows with references to gold, silver, and gemstones of every kind. Exodus is filled with details on the creation of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant out of gold, silver, and bronze. In fact, gold and silver are mentioned approximately 200 times in the Old Testament each.
In Exodus we also find:
And they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. -Exodus 24:10
Imagine the beauty of a sapphire. The facets of light that capture our imagination. We experience the same childlike awe at a beautiful gemstone as we experience at a sunset, because it’s an incredible representation of God’s artistry. It’s important that the comparison is not only to something beautiful but also to something that is prized and expensive – heaven is more than just a beautiful place but also a prize that exceeds all the money in the world. How expensive is a pavement of sapphires? Even just one square foot would range in the millions of dollars.
The references to diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, gold, silver occupy the pages of Scripture. God inspired these references for a reason. The inherent value of certain physical materials is part of God’s vocabulary of creation. Formed deep within the mantle of Earth under extreme temperatures and pressure, diamonds are raised to the surface by deep-source volcanic eruptions. God is really telling us something important when it comes to His creation of gemstones. It speaks to our own value in the eyes of God more than most other things found on earth. We are His gemstones.
Throughout Church History
Think of another example in the history of our Faith. One of the most famous jewelry purchases in the history of the world was St. Catherine Laboure commissioning the famed goldsmith Adrien Vachette to create the Miraculous Medal. Why would Our Lady request this piece of jewelry if purchasing gold or silver is at odds with serving the poor? And let us be honest here. Commissioning the original piece would have come at some cost. The labor of a highly-respected artisan and the materials themselves would not have been a “cheap” order.
In this vision of Our Blessed Mother, Mary would not lead us astray. Instead, she shows us that outward expressions of our faith can lead us to new graces. Mary is not asking us to superstitiously put our trust in a medal; rather, she is asking us to use this medal to remind us daily of our Faith and also to share our Faith with the world.
Some Things are Precious
Think of wedding rings. Although alternative materials are available, most couples continue to be drawn towards rings of gold or platinum. I don’t think this is vanity. It is born from the unspoken belief that some things are more precious than others.
When we gaze upon the monstrance, we are not surprised to see it crafted out of precious metals. In fact, we would be surprised to see Our Lord hosted in any other way. While nothing can come close to being valuable enough to host our Lord, we certainly would feel shock at a monstrance made of cheap plastic. Likewise, I think a silicone wedding band strikes us as unfitting for the weight and importance of sacramental marriage.
This is not about stretching ourselves to spend more than we ought on jewelry or about being overfocused on the status we might gain through fine jewelry. It’s about understanding that God regularly uses the language of created materials to speak to us.
The Beauty of Cathedrals
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our most beautiful cathedrals are overflowing with this: gold paint, bronze statues, gemstone shapes. These things are beautiful and beauty brings our hearts to God. He is beauty itself-the source of all that is good, true, and beautiful. We can worship anywhere we find the Eucharist. But just as we learn better in a classroom than in a crowded bar, the beauty and splendor of cathedrals prime our hearts to connect on a deeper level, using a language that can’t be spoken in words but only through the experience of precious art.
If you’ve traveled anywhere in the world with a magnificent cathedral, you know that it’s a language that speaks to the faithful and non-faithful alike. Lines form around the buildings to get a taste of what God has to offer.
Money Isn’t the Problem
I spent the last 10+ years of my career as a nonprofit executive before returning to the family business of jewelry. And, as anyone in nonprofit will tell you, money is not the problem. Yes, nonprofits need money to do their good works. Money plays a role. But all the money in the world won’t solve the underlying issues that most nonprofits are working to resolve.
Hunger isn’t just about buying more food. It’s about access, generational poverty, physical geography, and a number of other complicated issues.
As with so much else, it’s about issues of the heart and about issues of sin on a larger scale. So should you sell your possessions and give to the poor? Maybe. That isn’t my question to answer. It’s a personal conversation between you and God. But I will venture to say eschewing all our precious items and deciding to stop the construction of cathedrals it isn’t “The Answer” to helping the poor. That answer is found in community, in prayers to heal our hardened hearts, and in sharing the Good News to others. I personally feel we do best to share the truth about God when we begin with beauty. Pope Emeritus Benedict says it best:
True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality.
When we see something beautiful, it wounds us. We cannot be the same (at least not in that moment) and we must acknowledge there is something true beneath it.
I say we build more cathedrals, we create and share more beautiful Catholic art, and we create a pathway of sapphires to lead people to God.More Precious Than Gold #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Angie Ross is a convert to the faith and a consecrated artist. She and her husband are regularly refining gold, silver, and themselves in the crucible while raising their four children in Orlando, FL. You can find out more about her here.