Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Speaking About Beauty within the Sacred Liturgy

Often the point arises in the course of discussions that one should be precise and considered in the terms one employs for the simple reason that words and ideas do matter; they can carry certain baggage, be influenced by certain principles and can themselves have an influence -- whether intended or not. Good examples in the liturgical sphere are speaking about "the Latin Mass"; that designator has oftentimes been used to refer to the usus antiquior specifically but as we know, it can be understood as implying something contrary to the use of Latin within the modern Roman liturgy -- an implication which is not of course correct. Likewise, when speaking about ad orientem we would tend to reject those who describe this as "the priest having his back to the people", not because the people aren't behind the priest in a physical sense, but because this phrasing diminishes or ignores the greater spiritual and communal reality and substance of this posture, and by consequence, mischaracterizes it. The consideration of these sorts of matters were particularly (and rightly) heightened as the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum came into being and we saw much public discussion surrounding the more ancient form of the Roman liturgy, its history and its practices. Today, I wished to bring forward another example which sees some popular usage, but which I think merits some re-consideration on our part.

Particularly online, it is not uncommon these days, when presented with some manifestation of liturgical beauty, to hear people express sentiments of it being good "eye-candy". We hear this amongst our friends, colleagues and other like-minded individuals; good people who are all working toward the same goals. Indeed, those who use this turn of phrase typically use it with all good intent of course, and even in fun as a catchy way to express their delight in something. Insofar as they are delighting in and appreciating these things, it is a wonderful thing. But similar to our consideration of the aforementioned phrases, I have pondered whether using a descriptor such as eye-candy in reference to the sacred liturgy may, in point of fact, have quite another, unintended effect and message; one which may unwittingly reinforce another message which is rather popular -- and has been particularly so these last decades -- but which we need to correct. (More on that momentarily.)

To understand why I suggest this, we need to first recall that this expression, eye-candy, already has a fairly established popular meaning; one which is not particularly flattering. In that sense, it comes with some baggage and brings with it various implications. Wikipedia, for example, explains the sense of "eye-candy" as follows: "The implication is that they are eye-catching in a superficial fashion, for example due to adding an element of sexuality. Like actual "candy", this addition is seen to be neither nutritious nor substantial..."

Another online dictionary defines it as follows: "1. a person or people considered highly attractive to look at, often implying that they are lacking in intelligence or depth. 2. something intended to be attractive to the eye without being demanding or contributing anything essential."

Still another defines it as "a person or thing that is visually pleasing or superficially attractive and lacking depth of intellect or meaning."

That being the case, what might be suggested when we use this expression in relation to the sacred liturgy? Obviously, the intent of those using it is simply the expression of approval, but it can likewise send an unintended message which reinforces an already too popular belief; namely, that the externals of the sacred liturgy are ultimately rather shallow things; "tasty" perhaps, but ultimately not of any substance; superficially attractive, lacking depth and meaning, and ultimately non-essential.

Evidently this is not the reality of course. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in paragraph 35 of the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, "Beauty... is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation."

When we are speaking of "liturgical eye-candy" then, we are really speaking about the aspect of beauty; beauty within the liturgy. By comparison, the concept of beauty is something which carries a meaning and implication which is far more substantial, having a greater depth and a much different sense, better speaking to the reality and essentiality of the matter. Expressing our appreciation for the beautiful and noble as it relates to the sacred liturgy, just as it would with a person, is certainly much more in keeping with both the dignity of the sacred liturgy and the fundamental importance of beauty within and around the liturgical rites -- a point which the Holy Father has addressed more than once, and one which was also recently highlighted in a document from the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

Let me be clear: I do not think we need to micro-analyze every term that we use. That would be both tiring and unnecessary. Some are just convenient ways to categorize quickly and others are just plain catchy and fun. In point of fact as well, many terms, if analyzed, will be found to have some sort of weakness or lack -- including one which I use rather routinely, the "Benedictine arrangement". However, when we are dealing with a point of liturgical significance where there are already principles at work or a predisposition toward a certain way of thinking that is contrary to that point (such as a rejection of the applicability of Latin in the post-conciliar Church, an incorrect understanding of the focal point of the liturgy in relation to the priest and the people, or in this instance, a suspicion or rejection of beauty as an essential aspect of the sacred liturgy) then it becomes much more important to consider the expressions we might use, and whether, if by using them, we aren't inadvertently reinforcing, rather than correcting, these problematic principles and predispositions.

Certainly the intent here is not to cast aspersions on those good people out there who use this term in a spirit of appreciation. In reality, I wish to simply proffer this as a consideration amongst friends and like-minded individuals. Given the well-established popular meaning of this phrase, and given the extant problem in our midst which sees these aspects of the liturgy with suspicion, or misunderstands them as superficial and a mere aestheticism, it strikes me that it might be better to speak of and express our appreciation for beauty (or some other, similar term), and not eye-candy, within the sacred liturgy.

* * *

Up to this point I have been speaking to those who already understand the importance of beauty within the liturgy, but I would like to conclude by turning to the more basic apologetic for that very point, as read through these words of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI:

Beauty and the liturgy

35. This relationship between creed and worship is evidenced in a particular way by the rich theological and liturgical category of beauty. Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is veritatis splendor. The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. As Saint Bonaventure would say, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendour at their source. (106) This is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God's love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love. (107) God allows himself to be glimpsed first in creation, in the beauty and harmony of the cosmos (cf. Wis 13:5; Rom 1:19- 20). In the Old Testament we see many signs of the grandeur of God's power as he manifests his glory in his wondrous deeds among the Chosen People (cf. Ex 14; 16:10; 24:12-18; Num 14:20- 23). In the New Testament this epiphany of beauty reaches definitive fulfilment in God's revelation in Jesus Christ: (108) Christ is the full manifestation of the glory of God. In the glorification of the Son, the Father's glory shines forth and is communicated (cf. Jn 1:14; 8:54; 12:28; 17:1). Yet this beauty is not simply a harmony of proportion and form; "the fairest of the sons of men" (Ps 45[44]:3) is also, mysteriously, the one "who had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Is 53:2). Jesus Christ shows us how the truth of love can transform even the dark mystery of death into the radiant light of the resurrection. Here the splendour of God's glory surpasses all worldly beauty. The truest beauty is the love of God, who definitively revealed himself to us in the paschal mystery.

The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God's glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. The memorial of Jesus' redemptive sacrifice contains something of that beauty which Peter, James and John beheld when the Master, making his way to Jerusalem, was transfigured before their eyes (cf. Mk 9:2). Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour.

-- Sacramentum Caritatis

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: