The Role of Beauty in the Liturgy

By McAfee, Franklyn M. | Sacred Music, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Role of Beauty in the Liturgy


McAfee, Franklyn M., Sacred Music


[This sermon was delivered at the extraordinary form Mass following the Chant Pilgrimage, September 26, 2009, National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.] A thing of beauty is a joy forever

Its loveliness increases; It will never pass into nothingness.

--John Keats

When the envoys of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev returned from attending the Divine Liturgy at the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople in the late tenth century, they gave this report; "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget the beauty!"

President John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, told of a visit to a "Romish Chapel." It said in part: "The music was consisting of an organ and a choir of singers, went all the afternoon, excepting sermon time, and the assembly chanted--most sweetly and exquisitely. Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell."

St. Teresa of Avila declared, "I am always shaken by the grandeur of the ceremonies of the church." The love of beauty and its expression for the work of art is not itself beauty but its expression is homage to God because, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, "beauty is one of the names of God." Thus the church, when she is summoned to celebrate the Divine Mysteries, utilizes all of the arts appealing to the senses because the beautiful is "id quod visum placet" (vision of which) when beheld is pleasing. The soberness of the chant, the splendor of the instruments, the festivity of the vestments, the pageantry of the incense, the candles, the vessels, the holy water--all of these aid us in our worship of the Triune God who created beauty, sustains beauty, redeemed beauty, and is Beauty itself.

The church has traditionally clothed the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with mystery. Using the goods of creation, the church in her transcendent earthiness leads her children to God and God through the same means descends to them. The church at times has forgotten this. Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) lamented, "Since the [Second] Vatican Council the church has turned its back on beauty." Just a few years ago the Pontifical Council of Culture in Rome issued this plea: "give beauty back to ecclesiastical buildings, give beauty back to the liturgical objects!" Not only has the church turned her back on beauty, she seems to be embarrassed by it. She who was once the patroness of the arts.

We have been impoverished. To use a phrase of Paul Claudel, "we live in an age of starved imagination." According to the philosopher Plotinus, "the soul must climb the ladder of the beautiful before it can encounter the vision of First Beauty." But what happens when they remove the rungs of the ladder?

Scientists tell us that the left side of the brain specializes in mathematics, analysis, science, and so on. It is the right side of the brain that is incurably romantic. Its province is poetry, love, art, music. It is the right side of the brain that is called into play by a high form of liturgy. One author has said, "During a more de-ritualized example of the vernacular Mass, the right brain, that miniature Homer or Shakespeare in all of us, is smothered to death."

H. L. Menken, who wrote for a Baltimore paper, and was no friend of religion, found himself admiring the Catholic Church as he said in 1923: "The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem.... Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry of Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry--for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, of the liturgy itself. …

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