Volume Three

Number Two

1998
 

Liturgy and Beauty

M. Francis Mannion

 

The theological transcendentals truth, goodness, and beauty represent as useful a scheme as any for analyzing Christian faith in both its profound and comprehensive dimensions. Catholicism lacks no dearth of writing on truth: this is what dogmatics and systematics are about. Moral theology (including its modern expansion in the great social encyclicals, in the authentic elements of liberation theology, and in the general postconciliar emphasis on social justice) has a firm grasp on the importance of the good. Beauty remains, however, the theological Cinderella. The Catechism of the Catholic Church allows it only five paragraphs explicitly (2500- 2503, 2513).

This dearth has begun to be made up for in recent decades by the appearance of works in theological aesthetics or aesthetical theology. In Catholicism the great leader here may well turn out to be the major theologian of the second half of the twentieth century: Hans Urs von Balthasar. The contributions of Aidan Nichols, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and John Saward to the theology of beauty represent a new and welcome turn in Catholic thought. Impressive Anglican and Protestant theologies of beauty have been produced by Frank Burch Brown, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Harries and John Riches. It is a happy complaint that I have currently on my "reading pile" more new material on this topic than I am able to wade through. The influence of Eastern Catholicism and of Orthodoxy is clearly evident in these new developments.

However, I notice something quite extraordinary in all this new writing on beauty: how little the liturgy of the church is referred to and how feebly liturgical considerations enter into the fabric of the new theologies of the aesthetic. An issue of Liturgy Digest in 1996 (vol. 3, no. 1) devoted to liturgical aesthetics points out that the use of aesthetic language about Christian worship "is rarely the object of critical reflection" (4). Indeed, "Treatments of the aesthetic dimensions of the liturgy are still too few to warrant the naming of a sub-discipline as `Liturgical Aesthetics'" (72).

It is a common complaint of liturgists (and in my view a generally justified one) that modern systematic and dogmatic theologies seriously underestimate the liturgy as a theological source. This appears to be the case on a grand scale in treatments of theological aesthetics. The considerable rhetoric about divine glory, majesty, mystery and beauty proceeds page after page, chapter after chapter with few liturgical moorings. Yet this problem may have sources other than the theological myopia of dogmaticians. Perhaps the problem lies in the recent history of Western liturgical life itself.

The liturgy of Eastern Christianity has traditionally accorded far more attention in theory and practice than has the West to the divine beauty of Christian worship. Eastern liturgical history contains striking accounts of liturgical occasions as sacramental encounters with God's beauty. In the late tenth century, we are told, the grand prince Vladimir from what is today the Ukraine was planning to introduce his people into the civilized world. So he sent ambassadors in search of a religion of truth and beauty. The ambassadors came back and reported negatively about Jewish, Moslem and Latin worship. The last they described as without fervor, cold and dead. But of Byzantine worship, they reported that the liturgy was so beautiful that "we did not know if we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such beauty. . . . Only one thing do we know: that God was living there with men, and that their form of worship is the best of all. We cannot forget this beauty" (Nicholas Arseniev, Russian Piety [London: American Orthodox Press, 1964], 85).

It surely could not be said that the liturgy of the West lacks beauty or is unconcerned about beauty although philistinism in liturgical guise is far too readily identifiable today and modern liturgical practice is not generally known for an ethos of beauty, glory and solemnity. Western liturgy has had and continues to have its glorious expressions: Chartres Cathedral, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, the Abbey of Melk, Palestrina, Mozart, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Cranmer's English, and Evensong at King's College in Cambridge. Yet beauty in Western liturgy is all too often regarded as accidental to the liturgy. The truth and greatness of worship are accorded considerable emphasis and expression, but its beauty is not. Insofar as beauty is attended to and nurtured in present-day Western liturgy it is too often through the sentimental and superficial idioms of therapy and entertainment.

Much that is troublesome about Catholic liturgical life today may be regarded as a failure in the art of the beautiful. This includes slapdash ceremonial practice, poor clerical presiding, incompetent lay ministry, uncompelling and disengaged homilizing, texts and prayers that are rationalist and cerebral, functionalist and minimalistic conceptions of the liturgy.

The dearth of the beautiful in Western liturgy has its societal counterpart in recent Western culture generally. What is the cause and effect relationship here is difficult to determine (and beyond of the scope of a brief editorial). Since liturgical beauty continues to be regarded as an accidental, a luxury, a decoration, it should not be surprising that in Western culture beauty is accidental also. Witness everything that has happened since the Industrial Revolution for instance, the modern movement in architecture and urban planning which, in its rationalism and functionalism, has left our cities and our public spaces very unbeautiful indeed. In the West, we imprison beauty in museums and concert halls; we have taken beauty off the streets and out of public places. In the process, popular culture has become severely ugly, superficial and stultifying. In the modern West, we have lost the ability to celebrate, to hold festivals, to be playful in the most profound sense. Our social rituals are increasingly rough and primitive.

Much is written today about the alienation of the arts from the transcendent and the profound crisis art is experiencing in its journey through modernity to postmodernity. It is ironic that theology and liturgy appear to suffer some of the same malaise as both seem to have distanced themselves from artistic conceptions and practices.

Amos Niven Wilder, the late distinguished professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, pleaded some years ago for a new attention to the poetic imagination in Protestantism. The plea is equally applicable to Catholicism since Vatican II. Wilder wrote: "The church today has widely lost and all but forgotten the experience of glory which lies at the heart of Christianity" (Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976], 8). Wilder is keenly aware of the need for glory to find a liturgical foundation: "It is in the area of liturgics the idiom and metaphors of prayer and witness that the main impasse lies today for the Christian" (Ibid., 1). He points out that, "The structures of faith and confession have always rested on hierophonies and images" (Ibid.). "Before the message there must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem" (Ibid.).

I return to my fundamental point: If the liturgy has lost its grasp of glory and beauty, then so will the church generally and theological reflection specifically. Today a severe Calvinist fear of images reigns in Catholicism, most notably in the areas of liturgical art and architecture. Beauty struggles to find its place in such an atmosphere. Theological aesthetics will, as a result, continue to have an air of unreality. The challenge is a new attention to the beautiful and glorious in the liturgy. If the liturgy is the principal manifestation of God's worldly presence, then it is, by that fact, the primordial place of God's glory; it is the sacrament of beauty. The liturgy of the church is at its best an invocation, an embodiment, an anticipation of the beautiful city, the new Jerusalem.

Pope John Paul II has vastly enriched the heritage of the Western church with his magisterial writings. A papal encyclical on the beauty of God, of creation, redemption, the church and Christian life is not likely to appear any time soon; but how welcome it would be to those concerned about such matters! Certainly, the various Vatican congregations and commissions which already have some responsibility in this area (the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church) could attend to this lacuna more assiduously.

The beautiful, the good and the true need each other in the liturgy, as in every other facet of the church's life. Isolated liturgical beauty becomes mere aestheticism; but the ethical and the truthful detached from beauty are simply flat, dry and uncompelling. As the church faces a new millennium with all the sense of excitement this is generating it needs as much as anything a renewal of the Catholic liturgical imagination and the poetic character of Christian life. As Wilder wisely stated, "It is at the level of the imagination that the fateful issues of our new world-experience must first be mastered" (Ibid.).