Under Archbishop Laud (1589–1645) there was a strong move towards greater ceremonial dignity in the church. As the house of God it was to be fitted out accordingly with the finest of human artistry, and its functions were to be conducted in a spirit of deepest reverence. The liturgy, the music, the sacred vessels, the very fabric of the building, all were to serve and make manifest the beauty of holiness. This phrase, which we find invoked time and again both by writers of the period and, later, by historians, derives from Psalm 96: “O sing unto the Lord a new song… O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” (Paul Hillier and Tõnu Tormis, On Pärt [Copenhagen: Edition Samfundet, 2005], p. 61)Laud was Anglican, of course, but it is no more than ecumenical common sense to recognize that we Roman Catholics could learn a thing or two from his devout attitude. (Need I mention the sincere hope of many Roman Catholics that the Anglican Ordinariates, by modeling that Laudian attitude and approach, will become a force of renewal for the rest of us?)
Do we not need “greater ceremonial dignity in the church”? Why are our processions in church so slapdash, casual, and quick, almost as if we’re embarrassed to be engaged in divine worship? Why are there so few processions outside of church? We could certainly use “a spirit of deepest reverence” in conducting our services. Less of the informal greetings, smiles, and handshakes—more of the reverent fear of the Lord that brings us to our knees in homage to the great King of all the earth, begging for His mercy. We need music, vessels, and architecture that “make manifest the beauty of holiness.” (In particular, we’ve all heard music that seems neither beautiful nor holy; its mawkish sentimentality, circus-like tunes, predictably syncopated rhythms, and simpering lyrics are an appalling combination from which beauty must hide her fair head while holiness flees to the mountains to bewail her virginity.)
But why must we seek to do such laudable things? For one simple reason: because God, the greatest and best, deserves the greatest and best from us. And there is a corollary: we human beings, created in His image and likeness, need to be able to offer “the finest of human artistry” to Him, lifting up our minds and hearts by means of it. If only we knew ourselves, we would see that we have a longing to give the best of ourselves to Him, not what is mediocre, humdrum, worldly, or two-faced. Doesn't an artist who takes pride in his work want to give the best to his patron? Don't lovers with noble intentions long to give the best of themselves to one another? God has given us the ability and the calling to reach out to His transcendent holiness with works of beauty that carry us along with them, past the realm of the profane into the sanctuary of divinity. As St. Thomas says, we worship God not to give Him something He does not already have, but to bring ourselves closer to Him by yielding what we owe Him. In this way we draw nearer to His goodness and grow in likeness to Him.
This explanation will always hold true for all human beings at all times. But we can say something more specifically Catholic. The whole thrust of Catholic tradition and teaching on the dignity and beauty befitting the temple of God rests on the truth that the Body and Blood of Jesus, really present, are offered in sacrifice in this building, on this altar, enacted by these rituals, sung in this music. Whatsoever we do to the least of His symbols and ceremonies, prayers and chants, that we do unto Him. This is not so much a fearful vision of the danger of making mistakes as it is a joyful awareness of how many ways, little and great, He lavishes upon us to pay Him homage and to adore Him as well as we can. But it does remind us that we are dealing with the Lord of life and death, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is, who was, and who is to come—and (to borrow from another Anglican) He is not a tame lion.
This is why it matters, crucially, what we are doing, what we are endeavoring to do, when we worship God in public prayer. If we have got quite the wrong idea about it, we may well do that which is seriously unfitting, unworthy, and displeasing to the Lord, whom it is our great privilege to serve and to please. If we follow the lead of the Church’s Tradition and the requirements or counsels of the Magisterium, we can be certain of giving glory to God and aiding, over time, the sanctification of His people.
I remember reading about the holy Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, that he starved himself on potatoes, but spared no expense for the embellishment of the sanctuary. He knew, like Archbishop Laud, and like faithful Christians of every age, what came first and what came second. The same was true of St. Francis, pace the falsification of his legacy by hippies who groove on Nature rather than adoring the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, Franciscan churches are some of the most beautiful in Europe, magnificently decorated—even those that were built in periods when the friars themselves were dirt-poor beggars who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, except that the Lord would surely provide. They knew what came first; they knew that when it is God who is to be honored, the work calls forth everything in us, everything great and glorious we can muster, for His sake. This is why the Catholics of old never built cheap churches, if they could help it, and, at least on special occasions if not more often, brought together the best musical forces they could find, to provide the most glorious music they knew.
Let no excuses be made; it should not be any different for us. Take Americans: we are a wealthy and industrious country. If we had a proper religious formation combined with some education in virtue and nobility, the trite ditties of our hymnals would evaporate and our churches would be filled with music of artistic merit. We would insist that it happen; we would make it happen through personal sacrifices; we would absorb its fruits with gratitude as we let these heavenly harmonies penetrate and shape our very souls. The same would be true of the churches we build.
As is well known, Pope Benedict XVI offered theological support for this exultant and sacrificial attitude in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis as well as many other writings pre-papal and papal. No different was the message of John Paul II’s final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, where we read:
Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no “extravagance,” devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room,” she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. … [T]he faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated. (Emphasis in original)That the liturgy should be done with splendor and solemnity, in surroundings as magnificent as can be, evoking the transcendence, holiness, and glory of God, is not a “debatable question” but a plain given as far as Holy Mother Church is concerned. This is why she has always striven for and sponsored the finest of human artistry—and why the poor have always contributed to the building of churches of which they are rightfully proud. Such an unequivocal dedication to the sacred liturgy does not, of course, substitute for personal prayer, works of charity outside the church doors, or energetic efforts of evangelization. But neither can it be replaced by them; it serves as their final end, from which they derive their very meaning. Most simply, this is what we owe to God, and He comes first.