Monday, January 11, 2016

The Cappa Magna in the Light of Nature, Rationality, and Mystery

I. The Realm of Subrational Nature

God the Creator is often extravagant in the decorations with which He supplies His creatures. Of course, there are plenty of insects and beasts whose humble appearance enables them to hide effortlessly in the mud or among the rocks or vegetation in which they live. This kind of camouflage gives less scope to the artist’s paintbrush. But there are also organisms at the opposite extreme: the ones that are patently designed to be noticed, even marveled at.[1] The zoologist Adolf Portmann has a lot of interesting things to say about such animal forms and patterns.
Marvellous Spatuletail
Peruvian racquet-tailed hummingbird
Frilled coquette hummingbird
Octopus (sorry about the poor resolution)
Blue dragon sea slug
Small spotted genet
The king of the beasts
Examples of such opulent organisms could be easily multiplied. We may take it as a given, therefore, that in the natural order, humble plainness is not the default position; brilliant colors, intricate patterns, and outrageous structures are just as plentiful. They, too, give glory to God by their very outward show. They are the pomp and circumstance of the dumb creation.

II. The Realm of Rational Nature

We see that the human body has an order, complexity, and beauty well suited for the life of a rational animal (as St. Thomas nicely argues in Summa theologiae I, q. 91, a. 3), but it cannot be denied that it is rather plain compared to the vesture of the foregoing creatures. Making use of our reason, we compensate for and transcend our born condition: in addition to our hairstyles, we wear clothes, lots of them, and lots of different styles with varying meanings.

This much is obvious to everyone: special clothes are worn on special occasions. People at weddings spare no effort to look their best. People at funerals still dress respectably, if not as formally and somberly as in the past. The same holds for important meetings with dignitaries, certain office parties and holiday gatherings, and, at least for opening night, classical concerts or operas. I’m sure other examples could be given. The connection between the level of dressing and the perceived importance of the occasion has remained, even in our democratic times.

Clothing has always taken two steps beyond utility: first, from the cheap and practical to the formal and elegant; second, from the formal and elegant to the showy, splendid, unusual, and even extravagant. And it is this last step that I am most interested in. We do not seem to think it objectionable that opera devotees should look not merely well-groomed but even a bit “over-the-top,” as one can see in these examples of the branch of haberdashery known as the opera cape:

Wearing such a cape is rather old-fashioned, I’ll admit, but one might still be able to get away with it in a major city without raising too many eyebrows (indeed, it would probably call forth compliments from those who remember a more civilized time — or who can dream of a civilized future).

When we move into the realm of wedding dresses, however, we are definitely in a realm where excess, ornament, drapery, and a certain extravagance are quite normal and expected, even if we should recognize the sinister influence of a money-hungry wedding industry joining forces with an inflated romanticism that thrives in proportion to society’s loss of religious orientation. The point is, even in modern Western culture a wedding is usually (and rightly) seen as a most special day, and the bride and bridegroom dress to the hilt for it, particularly the bride.

III. The Realm of Supernatural Symbolism

Now, it seems to me that it’s not a large step from capes, trains, and other “lyrebird” habiliments to the more colorful and even hyperbolic ecclesiastical clothing characteristic of Catholic tradition. This is not a matter of strutting and showing off, as the ignorant say. It is a simple matter of dressing in accord with one’s metaphysical dignity and as a manifestation of the spiritual beauty of one’s office — let us say, that of a priest, who bears the sacramental character of Christ the High Priest, or that of a bishop, who rules in the name of God over His People, or that of a cardinal, who ministers directly to the pope and gives the Church her pope when the need arises; dressing for the noble occasion, let us say a solemn Pontifical Mass, where the faithful behold an image of the courts of the heavenly Jerusalem; dressing for the One to be honored, Our Lord Himself, the King of kings and Lord of lords, fairest of the sons of men, awesome, wondrous, and superabundant in grace, and all His company of angels and saints, who deserve far greater reverence, external and internal, than all the kings, queens, and great ones of the earth from the dawn of time until the day of judgment.

With the foregoing in mind, it is easy to see that the cappa magna — a garment about which some progressive Catholics make such a ruckus — is a perfectly reasonable and fitting development of a deeply human tendency, intensified by the high accomplishments of European culture, and fully consistent with the logic of creation, the Incarnation, and the grammar of worship as the most special of all special occasions.

(Just had to throw this one in for fun.)

As Catholics, we rejoice in the natural beauty of colors and forms; we rejoice in the rational capacity to highlight personal dignity, elevated office, and earnest ritual; we rejoice in the supernatural symbolism that draws our minds beyond this earthly realm to the heavenly kingdom and its majestic Sovereign. It is a perfect example of the harmony of nature and grace — the hidden depths of visible nature and the sensible signs of invisible grace.


[1] I do not deny that certain animal forms and patterns have utilitarian benefits, too, but I concur with Portmann that the most important value is precisely their "presentation value," namely, what they convey to other organisms. They are meant to be seen and appreciated, to convey something to others, whether friend or foe. It is an irrational likeness of rational discourse.

UPDATE (1/11/16 at 6:22 EST)

A reader drew my attention to this pertinent passage in the Prophet Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. (Is 6:1-4)

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