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Monday, October 18, 2010

Beauty and Truth

I'm a huge Star Trek fan (original series).  Whether or not the late Gene Rodenberry meant it, sometimes the show, or, at least the episode titles, got downright philosophical.  One such title that struck me came from the show's third and final season:  "Is There in Truth No Beauty?"  In a nutshell, the episode centers around a Medusean ambassador whose appearance causes the beholder to go mad.  It seems as though the only one who can tolerate him is a beautiful young scientist who is blind.

Last month, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjinth, formerly the Secretary to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and now Archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, hosted a liturgical conference for his archdiocese.  Archbishop Ranjinth, who, as Chiesa's online editor Sandro Magister notes, closely follows Pope Benedict's liturgical lead, invited several speakers to the conference, including Antonio Cardinal Canizares Llovera, Prefect of the CDWDS, and Rev. Uwe Michael Lang, a member of the CDWDS and a consultor to the Office for the  Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.  Fr. Lang's topic centered around beauty and the liturgy.

What struck me about the text of Fr. Lang's speech was the keen insights that he offered on the importance of beauty in the Mass.  He notes that:

"In the modern (Western) context, it is precisely the transcendent dimension of beauty as being convertible with truth and goodness that is contested. Beauty has been divested of its ontological significance; it has been "emancipated" from the order of being and has been reduced to an aesthetic experience, or indeed to a matter of "feeling"

One result of this detachment of beauty from being, truth and goodness has been an aesthetic theory and practice that rejects anything beautiful as a deception and holds that only the representation of what is crude, vulgar and low is the truth. Beauty is distrusted - it is considered shallow, superficial, and incapable of disclosing the truth. This school of thought has had an effect on the Catholic liturgy as well as on sacred art and architecture. The great tradition of Catholic art, architecture, language, music and gesture in which the Church's traditional forms of prayer and worship were expressed, are often met, even within the Church, with a similar distrust and suspicion. It has not been a rare thing to hear that beauty is not an appropriate category of the Church's worship. And we know all too well that in Europe in the last forty or so years a considerable part of the Church's cultural and artistic patrimony has been squandered in the name of falsely understood honesty and simplicity. Generally speaking, an iconoclastic attitude seems to be a constant temptation for theologians and it recurs again and again in the history of the Church, not least in the twentieth century.

Of course, the Catholic tradition also knows of a false kind of beauty that does not lift men up towards God and his eternal kingdom, but instead drags them down and stirs disordered desires for power, possession and pleasure.  The book of Genesis makes clear that it was such false beauty that led to original sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden was a delight to the eyes (Genesis 3:6). It only needed the temptation of the serpent to provoke the first couple's rebellion against God."
Beauty and truth go hand in hand.  Beauty and the liturgy must go hand in hand.  The grand, the glorious, the majestic and the beautiful aspects of our Faith, such as ornate churches, sacred music, rich vestments and precious sacred vessels have given way to sterile buildings, folksy, casual music, fashionable vesture and less than ideal sacred vessels.  Modern church architecture, lamentably, resembles the industrial.  Sadly, if one were to drive by such a structure, he wouldn't know he was moving past a Catholic parish unless he looked at the marquee.  Sacred music, especially chant, is hardly heard anymore, giving way, in most cases, to soft pop, folksy tunes and the rock-style of the Praise and Worship genre. Vestments, too, seem to have taken on a more casual style.  It is rare to find Gothic chasubles, even rarer, still, fiddlebacks.    Redemptionis Sacramentum clearly states that using glassware, among other breakable items, as chalices and ciborria is reprobate. Yet, how many parishes still do that? 

Is there in truth, then, no beauty?  Fr. Lang put that question before his audience.  The obvious answer is that there is.  However, we need to open both our physical eyes and our spiritual eyes.   Quoting Pope Benedict's magnum opus, "The Spirit of the Liturgy", Fr. Lang writes:

As a Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger has written of "the struggle - necessary in every generation - for the right understanding and worthy celebration of the sacred liturgy";36 the same holds for sacred art and architecture. And as he has reminded us, at the beginning of this struggle, there must be the realisation that art - like liturgy - "cannot be 'produced', as one contracts out and produces technical equipment. It is always a gift.... Before all things it requires the gift of a new vision. And so it should be worth all our efforts to regain a faith that sees" 37 A "faith that sees" is crucial also for appreciating the immense treasure of beauty, which previous generations have left us in their stupendous works of sacred art and architecture. The great cathedrals and churches all around the world are not just cultural monuments, they are also testimonies of the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict observed in The Spirit of the Liturgy: "The great cultural tradition of the faith is home to a presence of immense power. What in museums is only a monument from the past, an occasion for mere nostalgic admiration, is constantly made present in the liturgy in all its freshness".38
I was chatting online with a facebook friend who was hoping that the local philharmonic chorale and orchestra would perform one of the famed classically composed Masses at our Cathedral in a concert. I asked him, "Why not put this Sacred Music in its proper context, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?"  His response was a question mark.  I explained that these pieces of Sacred Music should not be confined to concert halls because they were never meant for that.  They weren't meant for applause; they were meant for prayer.

The same also holds true for our older, more majestic Church buildings.  A couple of years ago, I was blessed to have been able to make a trek up to St. Louis, MO, for a conference.  During my free time, I was able to visit four of the city's parishes, including its two Cathedral basilicas.  Walking into the newer Cathedral-basilica (as well as the old), there was a real sense of the sacred, of the Other that Pope Benedict so often writes about in his books.  The mosaics of the newer Cathedral-basilica were not mere museum pieces.  They told our story.  They form part of our heritage, from the creation of Adam and Eve to the triumph of the Resurrection.  

The music was mind-blowing.  That the Cathedral-baslica choir is talented there is no doubt, but, more important than the talent was the fact that genuine sacred music was used and prayed.  Sadly, I have not had that experience repeat itself in the two years since my visit.  It's not that our local choirs want for talent.  The talent is there, but, it is wasted on less than stellar music.  

In Truth, there certainly is Beauty, but, like the pearl of great price, we have to go out and find it, and, in some cases, work to restore it in our liturgies.  Only then, will we be able to get that glimpse of heaven. 

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly enough, after I had finished typing this post, I went to one of my favorite blogs, the Hermeneutic of Continuity, and found this little gem that Fr. Finigan linked:

    I didn't know whether or not to laugh or cry, especially with the first photo showing our future Metropolitan Archbishop in a rather interesting (and I write this as charitably as I can) alb. Do not adjust your screens.

    For more on Fr. Finigan's fantastic blog, please visit him at:

    His blog is edifying, educational and downright enjoyable!