Saturday, November 22, 2008

Beauty, the Liturgy and Liturgical Practice: It's Centrality and Teaching Value (And Why it is Not Aestheticism)

The following video is from St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brampton, Canada and explains quite well, through the lens of the Eastern Christian Byzantine tradition, much that is also shared with the Latin West in relation to beauty and the liturgy and how this relates to and teaches of the heavenly realities. It is well worth taking the time to watch.

I would encourage you to do so before reading on.

In a related way, this put me to mind that in the Latin West, even amongst many of our faithful Catholics, there is much confusion about the place of the liturgy, the role and importance of its forms (and the other forms that surround it, such as the art and architecture) and what importance or weight these matters should be given. Many a Latin rite Catholic today is unfortunately inclined to be suspicious of this as a kind of empty aestheticism or phariseeism devoid of spiritual substance, or at least to think it is a case of a mistaken sense of priorities.

Ultimately what we see at root in all this, I propose, is a lack of understanding of the importance and connections of the liturgy in all its aspects, which teach and move the human heart and mind; a lack of understanding that the liturgy, including in its external aspects, are manifestations of the worship of God and help move us interiorly toward that very attitude and disposition of worship which further contributes to our sanctification. In some cases the problem might be a kind of abstraction or intellectualization of the Faith which doesn't give enough priority to the fact that humanity is not merely an intellectual creature, but also an experiential one where "practice" and "experience" are important teachers to children and adults alike.

(Photo credit: Michela Gobbi)

In this vein, I was providentially sent this quote today which comes from Pope Pius XI, and which speaks to this basic point I think:

... people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year - in fact, forever. The church's teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man's nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God's teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life.

-- "Quas Primas", Pope Pius XI

This same sense and understanding is also put forward in beautiful terms in Four Benefits of the Liturgy by Dom Gerard Calvet, the now deceased Abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Le Barroux in France: enters the Church by two doors: the door of the intelligence and the door of beauty. The narrow door... is that of intelligence; it is open to intellectuals and scholars. The wider door is that of beauty. Henri Charlier said, in the same vein, "It is necessary to lose the illusion that truth can communicate itself fruitfully without that splendour that is of one nature with it and which is called beauty." (L'Art et la Pensee).

The Church in her impenetrable mystery as the bride of Christ, the Kyrios of Glory, has need of an earthly epiphany (ie. manifestation) accessible to all: this is the majesty of her temples, the splendour of her liturgy and the sweetness of her chants.

Take a group of Japanese tourists visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. They look at the height of the stained-glass windows, the harmony of the proportions. Suppose that at that moment, sacred ministers dressed in orphried velvet copes enter in process for solemn Vespers. The visitors watch in silence; they are entranced: beauty has opened its doors to them. Now the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas and Notre Dame in Paris are products of the same era. They say the same thing. But who among the visitors has read the Summa of St. Thomas? The same phenomenon is found at all levels. The tourists who visit the Acropolis in Athens are confronted with a civilisation of beauty. But who among them can understand Aristotle?

And so it is with the beauty of the liturgy. More than anything else it deserves to be called the splendour of the truth. It opens to the small and the great alike the treasures of its magnificence: the beauty of psalmody, sacred chants and texts, candles, harmony of movement and dignity of bearing. With sovereign art the liturgy exercises a truly seductive influence on souls, who it touches directly, even before the spirit perceives its influence.

Of course, none of this is to deride the importance of the intellectual life within the Church and the pursuance of doctrinal forms of catechesis. These are most certainly necessary. Would we not be impoverished without the Summa, the Catechism, and so on? We would indeed.

But what it is to say is that, on an intellectual level, we must begin again to understand and teach of the fundamental importance of the liturgy in the life of the Church and the faithful. Further, we must again appreciate the value of the sacred liturgy in all its aspects, interior and exterior, re-connecting again the threads of the experiential and the intellectual, recognizing the fundamental relationship that exists between the two; re-connecting again that what we do within the sacred liturgy is substantial, and not merely narcisstic aestheticism, because it is all for the worship and glory of God, teaching us and inculcating the Faith within us. We must begin anew to appreciate that there is an importance and value to these things, as assuredly as there is also an importance to the Catechism.

Practically, this must be expressed in our giving a priority to the pursuance of liturgical excellence, beauty, fullness and reverence, to the very best of our ability -- which also means trying to expand and stretch those abilities over time. This implies not "settling" or being liturgically minimalistic -- something which not only affects modern parish liturgy let's recall, but can even affect some usus antiquior communities. (One is put to mind of Ratzinger's critique of the prevalence of the Low Mass prior to the Council for instance.)

In all regards then, we must reclaim our sense of this simple and profound truth: that the liturgy, in all its aspects, matters.

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