What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
For most of us, these familiar words of the prophet Isaiah repeated by St. Paul to the Corinthians conjure up ethereal images of the indescribable beauty of heaven, and they are commonly read at funerals as a result. Lately, however, I have been thinking of them more in terms of the here and now; the “heaven on earth” that is accessible to “those who love Him” – not just following physical death – but this very day .
Stop and think about that for a minute… In the midst of all of our worries and concerns we can actually encounter heaven right now . Sounds too good to be true, I know, but according to the Council Fathers, “heaven on earth” is exactly what takes place in the Holy Mass.
“In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory” (Sacrosanctum Concilium – 8).
How many of us can honestly say that Mass as it is celebrated in our home parish truly reflects what the Council described? How many of us consistently enter the sanctuary consciously disposed for being called up into the glory of heaven? How many of us “go forth in peace” from Holy Mass imbued with the lingering sense of the sacred that one should expect following such an incredible journey?
Whatever that number of people is; it is far too small – not simply because too few “know” that Mass is heaven on earth, but because so few of us actually experience it. It occurs to me that the missing ingredient in many places can largely be boiled down to one word, “beauty.”
If we as a people – from parish liturgy committees to bishops’ conferences – would expend just a fraction of the energy that has already been devoted toward promoting active participation, understandable liturgical texts, and a sense of community, etc., on making sure that the liturgy is truly beautiful , many more Catholics would have a sense by virtue of their experience that Holy Mass is indeed heaven on earth.
Now before you dismiss this notion as overly simplistic and hopelessly subjective, consider that beauty within the created order is capable of no less than communicating the Divine presence. The Council tells us that “God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality” (DV 6). It is the beauty of created things that points to the Creator, and the way in which man uses them can determine the degree to which the reality of heaven can perceptibly shine forth.
With regard to the Mass, the beauty of which I speak is unlike any other; it is a sacred beauty – meaning, it flows forth from things that are set apart from the ordinary and ordered specifically toward worship of the Father through with and in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a beauty that goes beyond the earthly thereby calling hearts and minds toward the heavenly reality in our midst; that we may know – even if we cannot fully comprehend – that in Holy Mass “we receive not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is of God: that we may know the things that are given us from God” (cf 1 Cor. 2:12).
Sacred beauty in the context of the liturgy, while pointing toward heaven and the reality of the Mass as an action of Christ, is not a mere byproduct of the Divine presence that is accomplished apart from a “co-responding” human effort; rather it is best understood as a “response” to the grace that is offered. In fact, apart from an effort toward true beauty, we can actually obscure the sacredness of the liturgy to the point where “heaven on earth” is about the last thing one might say of the experience. That is why it is so important for us to consciously strive for sacred beauty in the liturgy, and I dare say that a critical lack of such an effort is discernable in far too many places.
The Council spoke about the act of striving for sacred beauty in its treatment of sacred art, but the same can be said of everything that we contribute to the liturgy as a response to God’s grace; be it in our gestures, our prayers, our music, our buildings and their furnishings, etc. Our efforts to contribute that which is truly beautiful to the liturgy are “the noblest activities of man’s genius… the highest achievement of which is oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray” (cf SC 122).
“All things set apart for use in divine worship,” the Council Fathers continue, “should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world” (ibid.) .
Turning once again to the prophet Isaiah’s treatment of heaven, three things stand out as significant concerning our experience of the liturgy as heaven on earth and our responsibilities to contribute rightly therein; sight, sound and the resulting impact these have on perception.
Here are just a few observations that are very common to my own experience; perhaps they describe yours as well:
Where elegantly purposeful ritual has given way to a utilitarian series of actions; where the noble beauty of sacred vestments has given way to the mundane; where the sweet smoke of incense has given way to rounds of applause; where the magnificent splendor of the pipe organ has given way to the strumming of guitars; where Gregorian chant has given way to a banality reminiscent of show tunes; where virtuosity has given way to those who sing or read regardless of actual talent… in all of these places, heaven is being obscured.
In short, where a great effort is not being made to strive for sacred beauty in the liturgy, the faithful are hard pressed to experience the reality of what is being given – heaven on earth; a gift not conceived in human hearts yet nevertheless perceptible to the inner man, if only we do our part.