Beauty and the Church

Near the end of the 19th century, Dostoevsky perceived that the frameworks of human society were crumbling. Church, state, the family, academia, the sciences — all of them would lose their authority with future generations.

What Does Beauty Have to Do With Salvation?

With prophetic clarity he wrote that as all other conduits of meaning lost their power, “Beauty will save the world.” Why? We must figure this out, because the answer will give us the energy to make the sacrifices that the restoration of beauty in the Church will demand. What does beauty have to do with salvation, and what should it mean to the Church’s composers, musicians, artists and pastors?

In his great fable Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis includes a haunting passage that tries to get at the way beauty feels in us. The young princess, Psyche, tells her sister that beauty fills her soul with something that is both happy and sad. She says, “It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on the happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine… where we couldn’t see the village or the palace. Do you remember? The color and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, ‘Psyche, come!’”

This kind of longing is itself a religious experience. The Holy Father noted in his 1999 Letter to Artists, that the yearning that that proceeds from an encounter with beauty is the unique source of a vital and saving “enthusiasm.” This sense of enthusiasm comes from the original Greek meaning of the word for moments in which the gods literally took possession of certain people, empowering, energizing and animating them with a divine vision. The pope notes, “People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the critical challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, every time it loses its way, humanity will be able to lift itself up again and set out on the right path.”

There is a desperate need in the Church for works of art that can summon and foster this kind of holy longing and saving enthusiasm. From the hymns that we sing, to the homilies that are preached, to the environment around the worshipping community, all of these should be evaluated from an aesthetic standard, as well as from theological and canonical ones. The arts can connect people to God and each other with a potency that excels theological or catechetical study. Woe to us as a Church if we fail to harness their power.

Beauty Is in the Old and the New

Finally, beauty is not necessarily just found in old things, but many old things are beautiful. The best notion is from the Scriptures, “Blessed is he who can bring forth from his storehouse, both the old and the new.” We absolutely need to identify, train and patronize a new generation of Christian artists to give form and expression to our faith today. But we also want them to reach back for us and connect us to the beautiful heritage that we have in our ecclesial “storehouse.”

In my years with the nuns, we used to have the custom at the Motherhouse of saying the rosary outside together from May to October. Altogether, we would be about a hundred nuns, walking in rows around the convent’s grounds. We’d end by chanting the Litany of Mary in the main garden. I used to love it best in the Latin (I had studied Latin for two years so it was more than just the texture and the sounds, it was the meanings too.) I will never forget the power of those times of prayer: the coolness of the summer evenings, the colorful flowers in the garden out of which rose the life-size marble statue of the Madonna; the voices of the sisters, some of them adding spontaneous harmony. I used to feel my heart swelling like the psalmist, “How good it is for us to be here!”

I imagine that if it was photographed, the image of the group of us, all looking the same in our habits and chanting the same old words, would be horrific to some people. It would smack of the loss of individuality and spontaneity. But I didn’t find that ritual diminishing. I found it comforting. There was something so steadying in the knowledge that for fifty years, our sisters had been singing like that together, on a hill outside of Boston, calling down God’s love and mercy on all the hordes of people of the city and of the world. Some old things are very, very good.

Barbara R. Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood program. You may email her at [email protected].

(This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register and is used by permission.)

What Beauty Requires

A commitment to beauty is meaningless without a requisite commitment to the things that beauty demands. If we are ever going to have beautiful things in the Church again, we have to change a number of things in the way we operate. The Church will not be the patron of the arts again without a bit of elitism and sacrifice.

Beauty is rare and exclusive. And the next conclusion is unavoidable: The people who can produce beautiful art are also rare. Artistic talent has nothing to do with the qualities of a person’s heart, or the level of his devotion. For most pastors the most difficult aspect of leading the movement to restore beauty in the Church won’t be writing checks, but it will be in confronting those very nice people who should never be allowed anywhere within one hundred miles of an open microphone.

Inside the Passion of the ChristI once lived in a parish that for years was tortured weekly by two of the nicest Catholic folks you might ever meet. “Tone deaf Charlie” and “Tempo-free Doris” had been cheerfully strumming their guitars, banging their tambourines and trilling dreadfully at the Sunday morning liturgy for as long as anyone could remember. In my nightmares, I still hear Doris chiding all of us wide-eyed sufferers, “Come on now, you all know this song: ‘Awaaaaaaaaaake from your slumber! Ariiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiise from your sleeeeeeeeeeep!’” They were quite awful. Finally, a group of us parishioners recruited a sponsor and a few music grad students from the local university to stop the insanity, and bring some beauty to our Sunday Mass. But when we brought the fully-funded proposal to our pastor, he killed it. “I would never want to offend Charlie and Doris. Maybe their voices aren’t that good, but their hearts are pleasing to God.” This was nothing but cowardice wearing a mask of charity. It isn’t charity to spare the feelings of two people, while flaying the sensibilities and pastoral needs of hundreds of others.

Beauty is in the harmonious selection of details. In a liturgical sense, it means things like getting the lighting just right, having flowers that are alive, and tastefully arranged. It means vestments that are cleaned and ironed, and vessels that are polished. It means all the elements should be coordinated to be either beautiful in themselves, or at least so well-ordered that they will not attract any attention from the beautiful things going on at the heart of the liturgy. This is why hi-tops and wrinkled vestments on the altar servers is not acceptable. These things, in their inappropriateness, have a jarring effect that take the people out of the liturgical moment.

Beauty is expensive to produce. “You get what you pay for,” is nowhere more true than in the choir lofts of most parish churches. My sister is a professional opera singer. She gets $100 a week to cantor at the local Episcopalian church which has an endowed chair for a mezzo soprano. At our parish church, they want her to sing for free, and as she has said to me with a shrug, “They want me to sing crap.” The music in our churches will continue to be abysmal until we make paying for it as much a reflex as paying for the lights and heat. It’s a matter of adopting a new priority. There will never be beautiful music at Mass by accident or coincidence.

But even having talented people is not enough. Beauty requires lavish investments in time and patience too. There is only one way to deliver a homily that will work on people as a powerful piece of oratory. There is only one way for a lector to get to the point of proclaiming the Word of God so that the hearers can absorb its deepest meanings. There is only way for an organist to be able to deliver a haunting melody, and a singer to trill the right note in the right tempo. Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. We have to get it through our head that we aren’t just paying our artists to perform at the 10 o’clock Mass. We are paying them for all the time they need to invest to perform at the 10 o’clock Mass. Again, a rethinking is required.

In terms of liturgical environment, a commitment to beauty will mean the overall setting for the liturgy tends to help the people get past their distractions, and enter into a climate of prayer. Admittedly, this will be nearly impossible in the church-in-the-round buildings that have proliferated in the last thirty years. In its buildings, the church could at least take a cue from the secular side. There’s a reason the best theaters and opera houses aren’t built in the round. The point is to gather the audience’s attention toward the action for which they are paying. No one who goes to see Shakespeare wants to be distracted by somebody else in the audience. How much more people who come to encounter the Divine?

We need to be clear that the People of God do not attend the liturgy as people going to watch a performance. They are not the audience, but rather the players. The members of the community who are responsible to organize the liturgy are simply and humbly serving the Work of Art which is the joint creation of the People of God. The goals of their efforts are to rouse the assembly to reverence plus compunction.

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