Monday, May 22, 2017

Sacred Music, the Need for Beauty, and the Beatific Vision

A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Fr. Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory deliver a lecture on beauty and the ars celebrandi in liturgy, with special reference to sacred music. Not one to spare his audience a pessimistic opening, Fr. Robinson argued that today the whole question of beauty has become increasingly irrelevant for many people. To Our Lord, Pilate cynically replied: “What is truth?”; today’s Christians could as easily say to their Master: “What is beauty?” Instead of being revered as an ancient witness to the awesome mysteries of Christ as well as their perennial adorable presence in our midst, liturgy is treated as a vehicle for acting out and celebrating a particular priest’s or community’s version of Christianity, usually in the form of moralistic therapeutic deism. Sincerity has replaced “making according to a rule” (the classical view of an art or skill). The results are plain for all to see and hear: verbosity, superficiality, sentimentalism, boredom, and randomness.

Art is a skilled performance; ars celebrandi refers to a skilled action done according to a true rule. No amount of distress for the poor, or openness to the world, or sincerity of opinion, can substitute for the lack of a true ars celebrandi, any more than a poet's good will and winsome personality can substitute for the discipline of learning how to write verse in rhyme and meter. This is what makes a celebrant do his work and do it well, and without it, the liturgy, as a human exercise and experience, becomes something between an embarrassment and a mockery. Because the liturgy is an exercise of the virtue of religion through which we offer fitting worship to God, and because it gives expression to our faith, mere sacramental validity can never make up for defective liturgical rites or for the lack of art in performing them.

If we were looking to capture post-modernity in a single word, we might choose “pluralism.” In the universities, in the fine arts, in religious practice, in every aspect of culture, there is an ever-increasing multiplication of choices, ways of life, identities, now even “genders,” without any axis or center around which they revolve and to which they might be tethered. Pluralism in liturgy, too, is connected with the post-modern view that there is no greater reality outside ourselves to which we must submit, and to which an appropriate response must be made: the response of the creature to the Creator, of the sinner to the Savior, of the child to the Father, of the adorer to the Holy One.

In spite of this inhospitable environment, the beautiful retains certain special qualities of its own. Beauty points beyond itself to something which is not reducible to the “true” or the “good.” When we ask whether something is true, we want to know if it corresponds to reality; when we ask whether something is good, we want to know if it is an object of desire or love. But when we ask whether something is beautiful, we are looking to its immediate captivating quality, its radiance in our eyes, its resounding in our ears. Beauty is disinterested, existing for its own sake, and needs no further justification. We delight in it because it simply is delightful. That which is beautiful exists to be seen or heard, and we rejoice in it just because of its splendor. This is why beauty reflects God, who exists for His own sake, and whom to see is to be blessed. Without beauty, the good loses its very attractiveness. Beauty is like a mask that guards, veils, and presents the face of the true and the good. They cannot stand on their own feet. Whoever banishes beauty will end up no longer being able to pray, nor, finally, to love. The beautiful cannot be banished without drawing into exile, sooner or later, the true and the good.

Do men, generally speaking, fall in love with ugly women? No — unless they find an invisible beauty that calls to the heart in a different way. It is always the beautiful that appeals and attracts, that awakens desire, that causes one to stop thinking of oneself and to be preoccupied with the other. The same is true for “modern man” and the liturgy of the Church. If the liturgy is ugly, it will not attract us, awaken our desire, or cause us to go out of ourselves and be caught up in the divine, so that we may become a Christian who is ready to go out of himself for the sake of others. This is why bad liturgy is, sooner or later, always connected with bad ethics. Bad liturgy is the single greatest cause of the collapse of the Church’s missionary and charitable activities, in the same way that the sinking or rotting or shifting of a building’s foundations compromises the entire structure.

My experience with priests formed in the 1970s is that they consider music in a purely utilitarian way: it is just a means to some further end, usually “active participation” understood in a reductive sense. It has no intrinsic value; it is not a holy thing; it is not “a moving image of eternity.” It is just something you do in order to be doing something religious together. This is why the music does not have to be of a high artistic quality. In fact, music of such quality would tend rather to thwart the end of general involvement than to promote it.[1] The implicit lesson of utility music is that liturgy is a pragmatic service to oneself, rather than a losing of oneself in something higher, greater, stranger, more demanding, and ultimately more wonderful than anything we can invent out of our immediate resources.

On a final exam, a student of mine wrote these words: “Sacred music … does not convey life on earth, it takes us into the afterlife. It makes us focus on the things of God. We meditate on Christ’s Incarnation, his earthly life, and His Passion and Death. We are brought to the angels in heaven and have a brief glimpse of the idea of a beatific vision.” This student has captured a key truth with admirable directness and childlike candor. The beauty of sacred music is a foretaste of the beatific vision in which we will rest in the fullest possible activity of gazing on the unveiled face of God, in whom is all our delight, to whom we will rapturously submit ourselves in a freedom that knows no limits, and whom we will love with all the power of our being because He is all-lovable and all-beautiful. Good liturgy initiates us — step by step, symbol by symbol, veiled glimpse by veiled glimpse — into this fearful and fascinating, stirring and stilling vision.

[1] Sacro-pop music cannot truthfully be said to have achieved that “We Are the World” level of cooperative singing that was its sole justification. Meanwhile, we have had to suffer battery and siege on our eardrums, while the Muses scurried away for cover. We can be consoled at least by the inevitable operation of a divinely revealed law: the fashion of this world is passing away, and all that is conformed to this world will also pass away.

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