Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Beauty and the Liturgical Rite

During the present pontificate I have noted an increased interest in the matter of beauty within the liturgy -- and, of course, here I am thinking of external manifestations as it relates to the liturgical arts. Now let me note, when I say an increased interest I mean this both in a negative and in a positive sense. In the negative sense what I mean is that I have noted some who have become more vocal in the expression of disapproval of this -- interestingly, the topic of sacred vestments often raises their particular ire -- giving varying reasons for their disapproval and why they believe it should be viewed as suspect. From intimations of aestheticism, of it being an unmanly pursuit, or to the view that it is too triumphalist, so the arguments can go at times.

Now to be certain this is by no means new, particularly these past few decades -- and it may even be understood, in some senses at least, as an evolution from the style wars which have been going on in some circles since the turn of the last century -- but I suspect the somewhat increased visibility of this critique today corresponds precisely to the increased interest in, not to mention expression of, beauty within divine worship, particularly amongst younger generations eager to recover their Catholic tradition and identity, and eager to recover a greater and more tangible expression of the liturgy as a reflection of the heavenly. In short, the increased visibility of the one is no doubt linked the increased visibility of the other.

No doubt some Catholics will find themselves in the middle not quite certain of what to think. For that reason I have been particularly gratified by some of the recent articles being run on Zenit which lay out some of the deeper theological reasonings and justifications behind the importance of beauty within the sacred liturgy. We recently featured, for instance, an article by Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, The Noble Simplicity of Liturgical Vestments (see here). Now, in addition, Fr. Mauro Gagliardi has offered a reflection on Beauty and the Liturgical Rite.

In this article, Fr. Gagliardi -- a consultor of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff and professor of theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum -- speaks of the "utilitarian spirit typical of modernity, which is unable to appreciate the value of beautiful things that aren't at the same time useful." Yet as he notes, "...beauty is useful. It is useful precisely when it is gratuitous... when it is the radiation of God", further commenting that "[whoever] does not know how to appreciate the gratuitous value of...liturgical beauty, will not be able to adequately fulfill the act of divine worship."

He continues:

The beauty of the rite, when it is such, corresponds to the sanctifying action itself of the sacred liturgy, which is the work of God and of man, celebration that gives glory to the Creator and Redeemer and sanctifies the redeemed creature. In keeping with man's composite nature, the beauty of the rite must always be physical and spiritual, investment in the visible and the invisible. Otherwise, one falls either into aestheticism that wishes to satisfy taste, or into pragmatism that exceeds the forms in the utopian quest for an "intuitive" contact with the divine...

The risk today is less that of aestheticism, and much more that of informal pragmatism. At present we are in need not so much of simplifying and pruning, but of rediscovering the decorum and majesty of divine worship. The sacred liturgy of the Church will attract those of our time not by wearing more of the everyday gray and anonymous clothing, of which he is already very accustomed, but by putting on the royal mantle of true beauty.

In the course of his article, Fr. Gagliardi gives a number of interesting quotations from Hans urs Von Balthasar related to liturgical beauty, including this one which struck me:

"Whoever, at its mention, wrinkles his lips in a smile, judging it the exotic plaything of a bourgeois past, of him one can be sure that -- secretly or openly -- he is no longer capable of praying and, before long, not even of loving."

Read the entire article on Zenit.

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