The Bold and the Beautiful

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.

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  • elkabrikir

    St John of the Cross wouldn’t even allow people with improper rectitude to be given copies of his work. I feel the same about your piece and its inspiration, the work of Von Balthasar.

    “Let he who has ears, hear.”

    The perenial question for philosophers: what is the true, good, and beautiful, is incapable of being answered by a culture that rushes from one diversion and distraction to another. Pascal was clear in his Penses that people turn to sex, violence, and other diversions to keep from pondering the ineffable mystery that is God: Truth, Beauty, Goodness.

    Perhaps Pascal’s thoughts explain why parishes persist in allowing the illiterate to proclaim the Word.

    Prayer, combined with excellent catechesis, such as this article’s citations, can help the “Agnes'” of the world hear the truth and then repsond with silence.

  • laurak

    What an absolutely excellent article. The Mass is Holy. It is the Holiest, hour of our lives each week. The mass is an oasis of beauty that anchors our lives in Jesus Christ amidst all the storms that blow through our lives. Jesus is the peaceful waters that we all crave. A balm for our troubled souls that strengthens us for the week ahead. The outside world is kept at bay for one hour a week, so we can come together as one family to receive Jesus in Holy Communion. This beauty, the beauty of the mass should be preserved at all costs. Jesus Christ Himself should be the focus of everything that occurs during the mass. All that we do should point to Him and only Him. The mass is where we come to know and love Jesus, a little more every week. How can we come to know Him and love Him, if other things distracts us from experiencing His love for us? The mass is not ours, or our pastors or bishops either. The mass belongs to Jesus Christ. It is His gift to us. And our presence at mass each week is our gift to Him. We come to mass to tell Jesus we love Him and to experience His love for us. The mass enkindles the fire of love within us so that we can then leave the church and share it with the rest of the world. Distractions, like small gusts of wind, should never be allowed to blow out that flame of Christ’s love for us or our love for Him.

    But, we are all imperfect human beings and if someone sings off key in the choir, the pastor should mention it and maybe next time she won’t sing quite so loud. I love to stand by someone at mass who can sing good, because then, no one notices that I can’t carry a tune! I never knew I couldn’t carry a tune until I moved to a new parish and they don’t sing quite as loud. Now my voice sticks out like a sore thumb, but it didn’t before because the whole parish sang their hearts out and nobody noticed who could or could not sing at mass.

  • lkeebler

    Going to midnight Mass we miscalculated how early we should arrive and the church was already packed. An usher caught sight of us and hurried us up where we were squeezed into the very front row. We were relieved just to have a seat. When it came time for communion, we were one of the first to take Christ’s precious Body and Blood, and as I knelt there contemplating Christ’s beautiful Body brought into this world for us, I could hear the Priest say plainly over and over, hundreds of times over, “The Body of Christ, the Body of Christ…”. It was the most beautiful sound in the world, the most beautiful Christmas… I will never forget.

  • slbute

    We belonged to a very small parish. There was an older lady with a very poor voice who would courageously lend her “talents” to the responses at Mass. No one else in the parish with talent would step forward to serve as cantor. This is sometimes the reality in a small parish with inactive parishoners. I believe God blesses this woman’s efforts, “unbeautiful” as they may be.


    I agree with the general concepts of this story-the Mass in and of itself is beautiful-the angels, saints, and of course Jesus Himself present on the altar praising and adoring God. We, the Body of Christ on Earth are so privledged to be in this close communion and truly become One in Him and through Him- this is of course absolute beauty- the central part of our lives. Yes, I agree we must “work” sometimes at Mass to recognize what is taking place. As St. Thomas wrote, “Faith for all defects supplying,Where the feeble senses fail”. Yes, I concede that it is frustrating when a lector reads poorly, a cantor sings off key, or even as is the case in our parish when a foreign born priest (Thanks be to God since we have so few vocations from American men) has a difficult to understand accent. But these are all secondary to the real beauty of the Mass, Christ Himself once more being sacrificed in a bloddless way. I honestly do not understand the authors point about the Church “approving” certain forms of beauty? As a Universal Church, I have seen especially during Papal Masses, many forms of music and art indiginous to that culture. I respect the point being made that music at Mass is not to entertain us, but to help us focus and help us in the “work” that is required for our partcipation at Mass. One last point, it sometimes helps me when I am distracted at Mass by the eartly realm, to just speak to God and say-I’m sorry Lord for these distractions interfering in my worship; You of all people, know what our human frailities are-I am here with You doing my best and I offer it to you now.

  • noelfitz

    I read here “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.”

    This may be ambiguous since the Mass works “ex opere operato”, that is it does not depend on the sanctity or good intentions (or even the ability to sing) of the participants. Even if the priest and all present are in serious sin a Mass is still the sacrifice in which Christ offers Himself as a victim to God.