Thursday, August 01, 2013

Why Do We Care About Beautiful Things?

It has long struck me as strange that so many people in the Catholic world seem to consider the love and longing for beauty in the liturgy to be a matter of reproach. The traditional Catholic is written off as, at best, a hopeless romantic, a foppish aesthete, a poorly-adjusted introvert yearning for past glories, and at worst, someone who probably doesn’t care much about the poor or the modern world but who does care a great deal about the ornamentation of the monstrance, the cut and hue of the chasuble, and the precise amount of incense heaped on the coals. The way the term “nostalgia” is used as a pejorative term is quite revealing in this regard.

Yet those who find it easy to dismiss the traditionalists rarely pose the question: Might there be a good reason, even a compelling one, to care passionately about beautiful signs and symbols, beautiful cultural artifacts, customs, and practices, the “smells and bells” that were once so prevalent in Catholic worship that they seemed, to outsiders, to be nearly synonymous with it?

Our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote eloquently on this subject in section 35 of his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, in a passage that deserves to be read and re-read:
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. 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.  
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: 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 45:3) 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 no 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 splendor.

This is the same man who had said, many years earlier in The Ratzinger Report: “A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music, and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they necessarily are reflected in his theology” (p. 130).

What did Ratzinger mean? A person who is not “in tune with the world,” as Josef Pieper would say—one who is not vibrating sympathetically, as it were, with the splendor of God’s artistry in nature, one who feels little or no affinity with the manifestations of His beauty in the works of fine art His grace has inspired across the Christian centuries—will be a person whose theology is monotonous, mechanical, and one-dimensional, the shell of reasoning without the marrow of insight or the burning embers of eros. It will be a blind and deaf theology suited for the deaf and the blind. We know what Our Lord said about unseeing leaders and their sightless followers: they end up in a ditch, that is, in a dark hole where beauty cannot flourish (cf. Lk 6:39).

That is how such a theologian is, in Ratzinger’s surprising phrase, dangerous. His defect can become an impediment to the salvation of men, an encouragement of the philistinism that narrows and distorts reality, a discouragement to those who see or feel more than he. Where Ratzinger says “theologian,” moreover, we may also say “liturgist” or “celebrant,” because it is impossible to think about, talk about, or celebrate the liturgy without drawing upon some theological account of what one is referring to or carrying out. Whether the account is full and harmonious or fragmentary and inconsistent, there must be an operational basis that could be put into words if need be.

How dangerous is this lack of appreciation for the beautiful in the liturgy? Towards the end of his life, Evelyn Waugh wrote in a letter: “Easter used to mean so much to me. Before Pope John and his Council—they destroyed the beauty of the liturgy. I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the Faith doggedly without joy.”

“They destroyed the beauty of the liturgy.” We might quibble with Waugh about whether this destruction can be attributed to the Pope who called the Council or to the Council itself (given that the same Pope promulgated the last edition of the usus antiquior Missal and that the same Council celebrated Mass according to that missal from start to finish), but there can be no doubt that Waugh was permitted to see, towards the end of his life, the beginnings of a systematic dismantling and discarding of many beautiful things in the Mass and in Catholic life that had nourished him just as they had nourished countless others over the centuries. Waugh grasped the bitter cost of all the rationalism, didacticism, experimentation, and thirst for novelty: the beauty that had been lovingly built up over so many generations of believers. This was the outstanding casualty of the reform in the manner in which it was executed almost everywhere. And then we hear that heart-breaking phrase: “I now cling to the Faith doggedly without joy.” Thus did the melancholy author of Brideshead Revisited tersely identify the aftermath of the campaign against beauty: the waning of spiritual joy in the profession of the true Faith.

It has taken over forty years to realize the full magnitude of the sickness unto death, which, as with Lazarus, has ended not in the stark silence of the tomb but in an astonishing resurrection from the dead: the ever-growing restoration of the traditional Roman Rite across the world (in spite of temporary setbacks), accompanied by a slow rediscovery and renewal of its cultural “supports,” the countless beautiful things, great and small, that always accompany Catholic liturgy when lived to the full. If Waugh were alive today, he would see that there is, thanks be to God, matter to rejoice about once more—although we may sincerely hope that he now enjoys unveiled the changeless Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, and no longer has need of such comfort.

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