Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Beauty that Beckons

Some of you may have seen this here before; it came within the context of the glorious usus antiquior Ambrosianus in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. However, I would ask you to watch it again (specifically the first three minutes) this time not to view a particular event, but instead to consider something deeper. Namely, I would ask you to take note of how the various external elements found herein -- from the architecture to the chant, the clouds of the incense to the vestments, the candles, etc. -- all work in harmony, contributing not only to the external splendour of the liturgy itself, but powerfully drawing us, moving us, beckoning us, inward into the depths of divine worship.

Before we get to the video in question, however, I believe the following quotations are relevant to bear in mind:

" is one of mankind's greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like Him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness." (Benedict XVI, Homily at La Sagrada Familia)

"Beauty... has the subtle power of attracting and calling us. The Greeks knew this so well that they named the beautiful to kalon [τň καλόν], from the verb kaleo [καλέω] meaning to call or beckon." (Armand Maurer, About Beauty)

"...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." (Dom Gerard Calvet, Four Benefits of the Liturgy)

"The whole priestly influence is exercised on the members of the Church only by means of sensible, authentic forms, which are its vehicle. Formulas, readings, chants, rites, material elements, in short, all the externals of the Liturgy, are indispensable for sharing in the thoughts, the teachings, the acts of adoration, the sentiments, the graces which Christ and His visible priesthood destine for us. Hence, to minimize this visible contact under the pretext that the soul can then better achieve something interior, or that invisible communion suffices, is at the same time to diminish the priestly influence of the hierarchy and consequently the action of Christ in our souls." (Dom Lambert Beauduin, Liturgy the Life of the Church)

Video Credit: John Sonnen

The point which I am trying to drive home here of course is the powerful and, as Mosebach would say of it, self-evident truth of the importance of all aspects of our divine worship; of the relationship between the visible and the invisible. To put it philosophically, we might say that beauty is a kind of "mover." Denying this not only goes against what we know to be self-evidently true from our incarnate, human experience, it also does a great disservice to divine worship.

Indeed, there is something of a selective distrust or suspicion about beauty in our culture -- I say "selective" because that distrust seems to be reserved primarily to the ecclesiastical sphere for few seem too concerned about it when it appears in the secular domain. That suspicion teaches that beauty is not to be particularly trusted and that seeking after it is surely a sign of shallow aestheticism. Once again I turn to Martin Mosebach:

...whenever there is a debate about the great Catholic liturgical tradition, it only needs someone to utter the accusation of 'aestheticism', and it is all over.


The German vice -- philosophy -- has firmly fixed the idea of a distinction between content and form in the minds of very diverse people. According to this doctrine, the content and form can be separated from one another. What it regards as the authentic reality it calls the content: abstraction, the theoretical abstract. By contrast, it regards bodies of flesh and blood, physical and tangible structures, as mere form, expendable and shadowy images. The idea is that those who occupy themselves with this external form remain at the peripheral level, the level of accidents, whereas those who go beyond the form reach the realm of eternal abstractions and so attain the light of truth. In this view, forms have become something arbitrary... Anyone who perceives the form and takes it seriously is in danger of being deceived. This is the trouble with the aesthete. He looks for truth in the wrong place, that is, in the realm of what can be seen, and he looks for it with the wrong (and forbidden!) means, that is, with his senses, taste, experience and intellect. This philosophical rebellion against everything self-evident has given birth to the basic attitude of our generation, namely, an all-pervading distrust of every kind of beauty and perfection. Nowadays, the most withering condemnation is to say that something is 'merely beautiful'.


The crushing power of this contemporary attitude has inhibited Catholics and made them fearful and uncertain, faced with the task of defending their traditional form of prayer and sacrifice. This form, this mighty architecture composed of language, music, and gesture was too visual, too full of concrete significance: it was bound to provoke the vehement opposition of our contemporaries.


We cannot just laugh this off. It is difficult, if not impossible, to break out from one's time, and sometimes it seems as if there is hardly anyone left unscathed, untouched by this guilt feeling on account of liturgical beauty...

Source: The Heresy of Formlessness, p. 104-6

We need to regain our trust and our self-confidence in the self-evident.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: