[This is a continuation of some of our reprints. One thing I have noted recently is quite a bit of (for lack of a better term) "anti-aesthetic" commentary on blogs and websites as regards the forms of the sacred liturgy; one might call it a distrust of beauty. This temptation to see externals as mere, inconsequential fluff has been around for some while and we have written on the subject many times here. This particular article was originally written on February 16, 2009.]
The matter is spoken to by Martin Mosebach in The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy:
In Germany, whenever there is a debate about the great Catholic liturgical tradition, it only needs someone to utter the accusation of 'aestheticism', and it is all over.
The German vice -- philosophy -- has firmly fixed the idea of a distinction between content and form in the minds of very diverse people. According to this doctrine, the content and form can be separated from one another. What it regards as the authentic reality it calls the content: abstraction, the theoretical abstract. By contrast, it regards bodies of flesh and blood, physical and tangible structures, as mere form, expendable and shadowy images. The idea is that those who occupy themselves with this external form remain at the peripheral level, the level of accidents, whereas those who go beyond the form reach the realm of eternal abstractions and so attain the light of truth. In this view, forms have become something arbitrary... Anyone who perceives the form and takes it seriously is in danger of being deceived. This is the trouble with the aesthete. He looks for truth in the wrong place, that is, in the realm of what can be seen, and he looks for it with the wrong (and forbidden!) means, that is, with his senses, taste, experience and intellect. This philosophical rebellion against everything self-evident has given birth to the basic attitude of our generation, namely, an all-pervading distrust of every kind of beauty and perfection. Nowadays, the most withering condemnation is to say that something is 'merely beautiful'.
The crushing power of this contemporary attitude has inhibited Catholics and made them fearful and uncertain, faced with the task of defending their traditional form of prayer and sacrifice. This form, this mighty architecture composed of language, music, and gesture was too visual, too full of concrete significance: it was bound to provoke the vehement opposition of our contemporaries.
We cannot just laugh this off. It is difficult, if not impossible, to break out from one's time, and sometimes it seems as if there is hardly anyone left unscathed, untouched by this guilt feeling on account of liturgical beauty...
-- The Heresy of Formlessness, p. 104-6
Another quote which is pertinent to our consideration, found via a paper of Dr. Alcuin Reid, comes from Dom Lambert Beauduin, OSB, one of the "founding fathers" of the original Liturgical Movement. He wrote early in the 20th century:
The whole priestly influence is exercised on the members of the Church only by means of sensible, authentic forms, which are its vehicle. Formulas, readings, chants, rites, material elements, in short, all the externals of the Liturgy, are indispensable for sharing in the thoughts, the teachings, the acts of adoration, the sentiments, the graces which Christ and His visible priesthood destine for us. Hence, to minimize this visible contact under the pretext that the soul can then better achieve something interior, or that invisible communion suffices, is at the same time to diminish the priestly influence of the hierarchy and consequently the action of Christ in our souls.
-- Liturgy the Life of the Church, p. 17
Of course, many more such statements could be culled from innumerable authors. However, the issue here is not to provide an exhaustive series of quotations on the subject, but rather to invoke reflection upon one of the issues we face in the Church today: the problematic tendency to view valuation of these things, or to give them any practical concern, with suspicion and generally to view these aspects in a diminutive way; and as regards those who hold them, of being a mere aesthete, of only being concerned for show and pomp, or of having misplaced priorities in the face of the "more serious business" of the day. But these suggestions are both too general (since there is no such necessity) and also fail to understand or give sufficient weight to the serious business that is the sacred liturgy -- a business, let's recall, that particularly touches and forms all of the faithful, day by day and week by week, including our future priests and bishops -- and it most certainly fails to consider the sacred liturgy in all its parts and aspects; parts and aspects that are intimately woven together.
Ironically, it is a problem which seems to have heightened precisely at the time of (and possibly, in some cases, in response to) the pontificate of Benedict XVI, a Pope who in both practice and discourse, evidently understands the importance of both aspects, as well as the central importance of the liturgy generally.
Let's be fair though. Could someone hold a skewed view of these things? Absolutely. But let's remember that the skewed view of the outer aspects of the liturgy can cut two ways. The way of the aesthete, yes indeed, who intentionally pushes aside what the outer things relate to. This is wrong. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, those who fail to recognize or acknowledge the influence of these things and diminish their value and relevance, seeing them as unimportant and shallow, ironically, because they are looking at the matter itself far too shallowly. That too is wrong.
In both cases, we have a problem, and the common root is an improper divorce of the interior and exterior dimensions of the Faith which fails to recognize not only that there is an intimate relationship, but which perhaps fails to comprehend how the outer aspects, even down to its details, have a profound influence upon us and are a gateway to the inner aspects -- aspects that they wish to (rightly) give importance. (For those who would debate the issue of details, one must ask themselves why the Church legislates on these matters if they are inconsequential, shallow, or without importance and influence? One specific example to consider in this regard is how the Church mandates the use of "precious" and "noble" materials for a chalice. This is not only for pragmatic reasons -- less possibility of breakage -- but also because the noble materials both befit and visually speak to the invisible mystery contained within: the Precious Blood. Many other similar examples can be cited.)
Such a divorce between the outer and inner aspects could be understood to amount to a kind of liturgical dualism, because it places a division where there is not properly one, and where instead there is an intimate, intertwined relationship. Of course, not all who object to a consideration of externals are, strictly speaking, suggesting there is no relationship whatsoever, but they are perhaps not giving sufficient weight to that relationship, and thus there is something of a dualistic tendency that is arguably present to some greater or lesser degree -- to what degree could only be evaluated on a case by case, argument by argument basis. However, if one accepts the reality of this fundamental relationship, that the outer aspects are a "gateway" to the inner aspects, the visible speaking to the invisible, which in turn reaches back out to and influences the other aspects of the practice of our Christian life, then the concern as to whether this is not a misplaced emphasis should quickly be resolved, with our only concern being to ensure that, in our pursuit of these projects (which should be pursued), we concurrently work against any form of liturgical reductionism, including mere, narcissitic aestheticism on the one hand, and liturgical minimalism on the other.
That our experiences, actions and other external dimensions of life generally have a profound influence upon us, forming us, moving us and so forth, is really a matter of common sense and our lived experience. We are creatures both of body and soul; material and spiritual. We live accordingly and respond accordingly. What is true in life is also true in liturgical and ecclesiastical life. To thus deny or minimize their relevance and importance, even in the face of our lived-experience which speaks so poignantly to their influence upon us in so many regards, is, to paraphrase Mosebach, to rebel against the self-evident.