Tuesday, June 22, 2010

True Beauty versus Aestheticism


Romano Guardini's Vom Geist der Liturgie was published in 1918, and Ratzinger said it "inaugurated the Liturgical Movement in Germany". Ratzinger's own liturgical work, published in 1999 was inspired by Guardini's work, and its English title, The Spirit of the Liturgy, makes this explicit.

In moving towards a new liturgical movement, it may be helpful to recall Guardini's words, and to understand again what we mean by beauty with regard to the Sacred Liturgy.

Guardini's reflections are soundly based on the Scholastic tradition concerning beauty as one of the three 'transcendentals', along with truth and goodness. As such, it looks at the metaphysical basis of beauty, which thus avoids mere aestheticism.

"Those who aspire to a life of beauty must, in the first place, strive to be truthful and good. If life is true it will automatically become beautiful, just as light shines forth when flame is enkindled. But if they seek after beauty in the first place... in the end everything will become nauseating and loathsome.


Beauty eludes those who pursue it for its own sake, and their life and work are ruined because they have sinned against the fundamental order of values. If a man, however, desires to live for truth alone, to be truthful in himself and to speak the truth, and if he keeps his soul open, beauty - in the shape of richness, purity, and vitality of form - will come to meet him, unsought and unexpected.

What profound penetration and insight was shown by Plato, the master of aesthetics, in his warnings against the dangers of excessive worship of beauty! We need a new artist-seer to convince the young people of our day, who bend the knee in idolatrous homage before art and beauty, what must be the fruit of such perversion of the highest spiritual laws.

We must now refer what has already been propounded to the liturgy. There is a danger that in the liturgical sphere as well aestheticism may spread; that the liturgy will first be the subject of general eulogy, then gradually its various treasures will be estimated at their aesthetic value, until finally the sacred beauty of the House of God comes to provide a delicate morsel for the connoisseur. Until, that is, the 'house of prayer' becomes once more, in a different way, a 'den of thieves'. But for the sake of Him who dwells there and for that of our own souls, this must not be tolerated.

The Church has not built up the Opus Dei for the pleasure of forming beautiful symbols, choice language, and graceful, stately gestures, but he has done it - in so far as it is not completely devoted to the worship of God - for the sake of our desperate spiritual need. It is to give expression to the events of the Christian's inner life: the assimilation, through the Holy Ghost, of the life of the creature to the life of God in Christ; the actual and genuine rebirth of the creature into a new existence; the development and nourishment of this life; its stretching forth from God in the Blessed Sacrament and the means of grace, towards God in prayer and sacrifice; and all this in the continual mystic renewal of Christ's life in the course of the ecclesiastical year. The fulfillment of all these processes by the set forms of language, gesture, and instruments, their revelation, teaching, accomplishment and acceptance by the faithful, together constitute the liturgy. We see, then, that it is primarily concerned with reality, with the approach of a real creature to a real God, and with the profoundly real and serious matter of redemption. There is here no question of creating beauty, but of finding salvation for sin-stricken humanity. Here truth is at stake, and the fate of the soul, and real - yes, ultimately the only real - life. All this it is which must be revealed, expressed, sought after, found and imparted by every possible means and method; and when this is accomplised, lo! it is turned into beauty."

(New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1998 - 20th ed., 1930 trans., pp.81-83)

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