Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Sarum Use Vespers and Liturgical Art – Heaven on Earth

Some NLM readers will already be aware of the Sarum Use Vespers and Benediction that took place on March 1 at the Princeton University Chapel. Here, I present an account of a talk I gave before the event about the art used in the ceremony, which was commissioned especially for the occasion, explaining the choice of content and style, and how it harmonises with the activity of worship.  

I don’t think I have ever seen a more complete harmony of words, music, art, architecture, and action in the liturgy. The music by 16th-century English composers Thomas Tallis and Robert White was sung magnificently by Gabriel Crouch and the Gallicantus early music group. The spectacular Magnificat by White can be heard at the 39-minute mark in the video below, which I give you now in case you missed it the first time. 

The second video is of the three short talks given before the service. The first, by James Griffin of the Durandus Institute, explained the history of the Sarum Use. I gave the second one about sacred art as a part of worship. In my capacity as Artist-in-Residence of the Scala Foundation - a co-sponsor of the event - I was invited to choose the art which was commissioned especially for this occasion. The third was by Gabriel Crouch, the Director of Choral Activities at Princeton University and the Musical Director of the choir Gallicantus, who spoke about the history of music and its composers. 

Peter Carter, who founded The Catholic Sacred Music Project and is the music director for The Aquinas Institute at Princeton University, was a strong driving force behind the evening. In large part, thanks to his vision and hard work, an estimated 1,000 people attended this incredible event at the Princeton University Chapel, built in the 1930s. I wonder whether so many people have ever knelt in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in this magnificent space. Here is the video of Vespers and Benediction.
...and here is the video of the talks...
The following is what I prepared prior to the occasion, and is a combination of what I said and what appeared in the program:
Choosing Contemporary Art for Sarum Use Vespers Today
St Chad and the Holy Face of Christ were painted by a young artist named Ander Scharbach (https://www.ander-scharbach.com/), from Baltimore, Maryland. The Crucifixion and the Mother of God are painted by an established artist, Ioana Belcea (IoanaBelcea.com), based in Princeton, New Jersey. Their work is for sale, and they take commissions.

St Chad by Ander Scharbach
The Crucifixion and St Chad were painted especially for this occasion. Each artist was asked to draw personal inspiration from the English Gothic style of the 13th century School of St Albans, a period when the Sarum Use Liturgy was at its height. This tradition of sacred art is characterized by the description of form with the elegant flow of line, a limited palette with muted colour, and by having ornate, patterned borders.

The results are contemporary yet traditional. No artist would have painted like this in 13th-century England. Still, everyone in 13th-century England would have been able to relate to the images every bit as much as the worshipers in 21st-century America, who excitedly mobbed the artists after the Vespers were over, to ask about the beautiful icons they had seen. This is because the art conforms to traditional principles of liturgical art, which are universal.

Crucifixion by Ioana Belcea, based on the 12th century Winchester Psalter
Sacred art shows us what we do not see with our eyes in the here and now. It portrays the saints and angels praying with us in heaven eternally. It illuminates the truths behind the actions of the liturgy and focuses our attention on what is important at any given time in the course of our worship.

There is a reason that we follow tradition. The art we chose conforms to a style developed gradually over generations and centuries, going back to the early Church, to fulfil its purpose well, which is to aid us in a deep participation in the worship of God. How would one measure such a thing? It is not primarily by whether people like it, or how we respond emotionally. Instead, the Church, in her wisdom, observes the fruits of that worship. Does the art incline people to go out and serve the Lord and love our neighbors as ourselves? Does it lead to lives of greater virtue? While we always hope that all will like the art and wonder at its beauty, there are other goals than this. The purpose of this art is to influence the lives of Christian worshipers so that they become better Christians. Getting this right takes patience and careful observation of many iterations of style and so once we get it right we mess with traditional forms at our peril. If we arbitrarily change things for no good reason, we are playing with people’s souls.

The sanctuary and altar, with the images forming a temporary rood screen,
in the traditional pre-Reformation Catholic manner
The choice of images
Following tradition, we have placed three images at the core of our schema today. Together, they symbolize the broad themes of salvation history and the mysteries of the Faith made present every time we worship God. In addition, we have added St Chad of Mercia (died A.D. 672), the great evangelist of western England and the Midlands, whom we remember today. May we imitate his Christian faith and good works in our lives.

The three core images are:On the left: the Mother of God with her Son. This image symbolizes the life of the historical Jesus and his human nature, which he received from Mary, and we share with Him.
Center: the suffering Christ on the cross. This image portrays the sacrifice he made for us, his suffering, and his death. It reminds us of our spiritual deaths in baptism. This image gives meaning to our suffering in this life, particularly when placed next to the image of the Risen Christ because it reinforces the message that there is always hope in the Resurrection. Christian hope transcends suffering just as the Light overcomes the darkness.

Right: the Holy Face of the Risen Christ in Glory. The halo of supernatural, uncreated light around his head is prominent, constituting the whole background, which is commonly considered ‘negative’ space but here becomes heavenly ‘positive’ space. This tells us visually that we are looking at a heavenly vision of the Saviour. This image speaks of his Resurrection and victory over death, by death. Through the Church, we ‘put on Christ’ (to use St Paul’s words) and rise with him supernaturally, partaking of the divine nature through participation in the sacraments of confirmation and communion.

We are all people loved by God. Each human life is a unique story that simultaneously and paradoxically mirrors the pattern of the life of Christ and the pattern of the whole of salvation history, the story of the people of God. We share in the life, the suffering, the death of Christ and, as Christians, in His resurrection, partaking in the divine nature. This is a supernatural transformation, a great gift, and is our joy as Christians in this life and the next.

Gabriel Crouch and Gallicantus are on the left
How to pray with the sacred art
The worship of God, which we are participating in at Vespers, is the worship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. Scripture tells us that the Son is the image of the Father, and no one comes to the Father except through the Son. Accordingly, it is a traditional practice to pray to the Father through the Son, who is the image of the Father. This establishes the legitimate principle of praying to a person through their image.

So, each time a prayer is addressed to the Father, let the Holy Spirit draw you in and pray to the Father through the image of Christ. Look at the face in the image and imagine you are speaking to him as he stands before you.

We can use the image of the Son to pray directly to both the Son a much as the Father. So, each time a prayer is addressed to the Son, again, turn to the image and pray to Him through the image. Similarly, each time a prayer is addressed to Mary or St. Chad or is invoking their memory, turn and face their holy icons as the words are sung or recited.

The Magnificat, which the Church sings at every Vespers, is the great hymn of Mary taken from the Gospel of Luke. At this moment, we pray with her, using her words as recounted in Scripture, and it is appropriate to look at Mary’s image when we do so. All the images are incensed during the singing of the Magnificat to draw our attention to them at this heightened moment of prayer.

The censing of the images during the Magnificat
We do not pray to or worship the image itself, as that would be idolatry. Rather, when we pray to anyone other than God, such as Mary or St. Chad, we ask them to join in our prayers and to intercede to God for us, just as we might ask any friend or family member to pray for us.

St Augustine said famously that those who sing their prayers pray twice. In this Vespers, our prayer is not simply two-fold, but multi-faceted: music, art, and incense engage the senses, helping to direct the posture, intellect and will. The heart is the human center of gravity, so to speak, the place where we are, as a person at any moment – the vector sum of our thoughts, feelings and actions. The hope is always that through this multi-faceted engagement, we raise up our hearts to the Lord.

The beauty of the art, the architecture and the music participates in the beauty of the cosmos, which bears the thumbprint of the Creator. This transforming beauty harmonises with the poetic language of the psalms, and of the hymns and the prayers of the liturgy so that the worship stimulates our spiritual imaginations and impresses the pattern of Christ upon our souls. Then we go out and contribute, gracefully and beautifully, in all that we do to the pattern of human life in society. By this, we establish once more a beautiful culture that, like the cosmos, bears the mark of Christ, who did not create it directly but inspired its creation by people.

The Scala Foundation has a mission of transforming American and, hence, Western culture through beauty in education and worship so that we are formed by grace to change society, one personal relationship at a time. To the degree that each of us contributes to this ideal, we will help to create culture of beauty that speaks of the Christian Faith and Western values.

Some may wonder how much an ancient English liturgy such as this might be relevant to Americans in Princeton today. The answer is: a great deal! The American nation emerged out of English culture and the values it incarnated and which were formed by its pre-Reformation liturgy and faith, primarily the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite. It is a truth that worship is the wellspring of culture. These values of English culture were preserved in America subsequently through the liturgical cousins and liturgical descendants of the Sarum Use, and their associated churches formed by them. These are as well as the Catholic Church, the Anglican, Episcopalian and all Christian churches which routinely sang the psalms especially those that used the psalter from the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer developed directly from the Sarum liturgy.

The practice of praying the psalms can, it occurs to me, be a principle of unity for the American nation today. I speak with such hope, and as one who was born and grew up in England and recently became an American citizen. The hope is that the beauty and the dignity of the worship we participate in tonight, may be simultaneously grounding and elevating for us.

On the one hand, it will establish in us in the desire for humble prayer in the home that mirrors, in spirit at least, tonight’s Vespers. We can pray the psalms in the domestic Church. We may not be able to match the great skill and sublime beauty of this occasion, but in our own humble way, we can daily participate in the ideal it presents. This grounding, humble prayer can be elevating in that it inclines us to cooperated with grace and inspire us in our daily activities, contributing to a noble and accesible culture of beauty. Humble prayer and high culture! That is the motto we bring to you.

Tonight we can raise our hearts to heaven in yet another way. It is a participation in something yet more beautiful, the heavenly liturgy in which the saints and angels worship God, who is Beauty itself. This is our destiny as Christians. Every time there is a pause in the singing, you will hear a faint echo enriched by harmonics and resonance created by the acoustics of the majestic gothic architecture of Princeton University Chapel. At these moments, imagine that the angels and saints singing with us in heaven and worshiping God in the perpetual heavenly liturgy are whispering in your ear, urging you to join in with their worship, in which they accept the love of God and return it to Him in the perpetual song of praise.

I pray that we may all be inspired to pray humbly and to love God and our neighbor.

The celebrants and 1,000 people were on their knees before the Blessed Sacrament during Benediction. I wonder if Princeton University Chapel – built for Presbyterians – has ever seen this before.

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