We’ve all been there. All of us at one time or another has gone forth from Holy Mass “in peace to love and serve the Lord and one another” knowing in our minds as a matter of faith that we just took part in “a foretaste of the Heavenly liturgy (SC 8),” but as it is our hearts and minds were barely elevated beyond the confines of this valley of tears.
Our senses, in other words, were inundated with more distractions than sacred signs, and so the saving action of Christ made present in all its glory at Holy Mass was hidden under the dreadfully ordinary: things like applause, busyness, casualness, common vessels and earthbound music.
I think it’s fair to say that we often lose sight of the fact that our participation in Holy Mass requires something of us — all of us — including our priests. It takes effort and diligence to pray as we ought, to worship as we ought and to “subordinate ourselves to the divine” (SC 2) as we ought.
“In Christian tradition, ‘liturgy’ means the participation of the People of God in ‘the work of God.’” (CCC 1069)
Whether one is a priest, a liturgist, a music director or a congregant, an appropriate response to God’s invitation to participate in His saving work demands something of us. When we think of Holy Mass as a place to express creativity, however, or when we expect the liturgy to be superficially engaging and even worse entertaining, as so often we see to do, effort is the last thing that crosses our minds.
It seems we need to be reminded from time to time of just how important it is for us to consciously strive for sacred beauty in all that we bring to the liturgy.
The Swiss Jesuit theologian, Father Hans Urs von Balthasar — whose work has had great impact on Pope Benedict XVI — explored the depths of sacred beauty in his magnum opus, The Glory of God, a seven volume theological exposition that contemplates the inseparable nature of the good, the beautiful, and the true.
“Before the beautiful – no, not really before but within the beautiful – the whole person quivers. He not only ‘finds’ the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it,” he wrote.
According to Balthasar, beauty has the ability not just to dazzle, but to consume! If we understand, as we should, that beauty is inextricably linked with the presence of Almighty God, this shouldn’t surprise us. What is surprising is how often we settle for the “less-than-beautiful” when it comes to the sacred liturgy.
Before he died in 1988, Balthasar also said, “Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”
What a remarkable quote! Balthasar is telling us that the “bold and the beautiful” really do go together; beauty demands an act of the will on our part and when we are lax with regard to beauty we can kiss truth and goodness goodbye as well.
The Council Fathers concur telling us that our efforts to contribute that which is truly beautiful to the liturgy with respect to sacred art, which of course can be taken to include sacred music, sacred vessels, sacred vestments, sacred buildings, sacred furnishings, etc. are to be “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).
The noblest. The highest. I’d say we often miss the mark, wouldn’t you?
For example, how many times have we participated in Holy Mass and when it comes to singing the cantor simply can’t? (It might even be an entire choir!) I’ve traveled enough to tell you that this is a national phenomenon. And how does it happen?
It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of “active participation” – a topic unto itself to be sure – but without going to far afield consider this contributes to destroying the beauty that we should insist upon:
Agnes wants to sing. In other words, she has volunteered to “actively participate” in “music ministry,” and even though, God love her, she can’t sing a lick, when it’s “her turn” to lead the congregation in sacred song the price of admission for everyone present is astronomical — higher even than that of a front row ticket to the Stones farewell concert — as the entire congregation is unceremoniously tethered to the here-and-now by a chain of sour notes.
Beauty takes effort; it really does, and I’m not suggesting that it would be easy for the pastor to tell Agnes that her talents are better suited for the Rosary Makers Guild, nor do I wish to discount the humility that would be necessary for Agnes to accept his decision in good cheer, but sometimes this is exactly what beauty asks of us.
The “decision” for beauty as Balthasar puts it must apply to everything that we contribute to the liturgy in response to God’s invitation; be it our gestures, our prayers, our music, the priest’s vestments, or even our own dress. Each one of these things are expected to be sacred, and that necessarily means that they should be beautiful.
“All things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world.” (SC 122)
Sacredness and beauty simply go together.
Now before you can say it, allow me to beat you to the punch. “Yes, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder!”
Well, this is wonderful saying has some truth to it, but we need to realize what it really means. It tells us that outward appearances point to a deeper truth, and this is most certainly the case as it relates to the sacred signs found in the liturgy. From that standpoint, the old saying applies, but only if we understand it to mean that “beauty” in the liturgy necessarily draws the eye of the beholder (as well as his heart and his mind) toward the Source of all beauty – the ineffable Lord.
But what it does not mean — what it cannot mean — is that sacred beauty is subjective and can be determined by simple majority rule. Can you even imagine if sacred beauty was anointed by popular vote? One thing we’d have for certain is a liturgy that is the product of man’s creativity alone. We’d have a liturgy that is manufactured not received. In truth, we wouldn’t have liturgy at all.
So, is sacred beauty in the eye of the beholder or not? Is one man’s scribble another man’s sacred art? Is one man’s static another man’s sacred song?
No. The Council tells us that sacred beauty, to borrow the saying, is in the eye of Holy Mother Church.
“The Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use” (SC 122).
This same principal can be extended to everything that we contribute to the liturgy. In other words, just because you, or I, or the liturgy committee, or even an individual pastor or bishop happens to like a particular kind of music, or art, or vessel, or vestment, etc. — even if that opinion is shared by a majority in the parish — that’s not enough to make it “sacred” and fitting for liturgical use.
It’s a hard truth for Americans who are used to casting ballots to accept, but the fact is popular consent doesn’t determine the kind of beauty that is properly called sacred; the kind that “directs and subordinates the human to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek” (SC 2).
In places where a bold effort is being made for sacred beauty in the liturgy, the faithful are far more likely to experience what Balthasar described — because it only here that the whole person is possessed by sacred signs that call him up to Heaven, into the realm of the Divine, into the incredible mystery of God’s love poured forth from the Holy Cross as Christ our Eternal High Priest accomplishes the work of our redemption.