Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
As I mentioned earlier this week, I am teaching an undergraduate and graduate level course on liturgical aesthetics (Performing Beauty: Liturgy, Theology, and Aesthetics–see the link for the syllabus). One of the key requirements of the graduate course is that students are required to keep a blog as they go along, enabling their learning to extend beyond our little community. Each week, I hope to feature a short collection of some of the “bests” of these blogs for your own reading. In this way, I hope that the question guiding our class (what is liturgical beauty) generates commentary among our readers here.
What is Beauty?
What is beauty but a moment stopped in time
Standing in awe of the spectacular painted sky
In the early morning to gaze at the glow
Of God’s bidding a kissed color-filled hello
What is beauty but a whiff of a scent
That causes one to turn and bend
The scent of aromatic fragrant care
Of a lilac, God’s gift to sweeten the air
What is beauty but the sound of a child
Stirring in the pew in front of you
Who coyly reaches out with innocent care
A soggy cracker, a treasure for you to share.
What is beauty but a chorus of one voice
The old and the young, the rich and the poor
In full anthem singing God’s glory
In sacred space together reflecting on the Story
What is beauty but a God who forgives
Sharing Christ’s life and love in eternal sacrament
The Son’s body and blood poured out for our salvation
An ever abundant gift, a blessing for every nation…
When learning a new topic in the classroom, it is important to differentiate instruction as much as possible to ensure total engagement. It’s obvious to every teacher that you can’t give up on confused students, but rather try different approaches to reach them. And when participating in different liturgies, it is important to engage as many feasible signs to be as present and transforming as possible. The ideal situation would be a liturgical celebration exploding with signs of beauty. But what if it’s not exploding at first glance or listen? Just as it is usually up to the teacher to differentiate instruction based on the learners in the classroom, it is up to the worshipper to find the beauty in the celebration.
When I was attending Mass in Ghana in a crumbling cinderblock structure with a partially rusted and deteriorating tin roof, convinced the old, warped wood benches would collapse beneath me, it would have been easy to drift off and get distracted because at first glance the beauty couldn’t be seen anywhere! My gaze and wonder may not have been on any statue or monstrance made of Gold. Instead, my focus was swooped up by Christ’s presence in the drumming and the bright kente cloth sewn into the priest’s vestments.Sacrosanctum Concilium explains, “…It is necessary for the faithful [to come to the liturgy] with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace…” (10). Being in the right frame of mind allows the worshipper to find the beauty that is always present.
It is essential to continue learning and continue finding and experiencing the most efficacious way to glorify God (10). As intelligence can be achieved differently, the mystery of Christ can be participated in differently as well. However, because we are discussing God and our innermost desire to be in a loving relationship with Him, we want to participate in the Paschal Mystery with our entire being. From our eyes contemplating the stained glass window to our ears being engulfed with the hymn, the more senses activated and the higher level of activation means the more present we are at the table of the Lord. The importance of experiencing the liturgy as beauty is even more vital than creating a classroom full of learners to a teacher. It may not be noticeable at first, but whether you are teaching or preaching, the beauty is present in the learner and the liturgy. The key is finding the beauty in all things.
Why are there benches in art museums, upon which people may sit and stare? Why, when listening to Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau do I desire to press “repeat” for days on end? Why, in encountering beauty, is there within me the desire to prolong the experience infinitely?
Beauty is that which draws one’s entire being towards contemplation, wonder and a deeper sense of reality. It leads a person beyond the confines of oneself. It provokes the desire to act on what has been seen or heard, to share the experience with another, and to transform one’s very self into something greater, into something more conformed to the beautiful itself. Beauty captivates not just the mind but the heart as well.
How might the beautiful be found in the liturgy? Certainly one might encounter beautiful music, architecture, artwork and stained glass. One may also experience more subtle expressions of beauty—in well-timed silence, in the careful unfolding and placement of a corporal on the altar, in the steady swaying of a thurible and the slow rise of smoke, and at the sight of masses of people simultaneously kneeling towards the elevation of one host.
However, although beauty in the liturgy is certainly possible and even desirable, is it necessary? How might beauty be an intrinsic element of the liturgy of the Church?
Liturgy may be defined as the official public prayer of the Church. The mystical Body of Christ, with Christ as its head and the Church as its members, unite as one flesh in the praise and worship of the Almighty God. Liturgy involves both God’s glorification and the sanctification of the members of Christ’s body (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10).
God’s very nature provides one answer to the question of beauty’s necessity. Encountering one of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty points one towards He who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The presence of beauty in a liturgy can lead to a desire for the Infinite, as well as a desire to know the origin of this beauty. He who is the source of all beauty, the Creator of the universe, is the same He towards which all of liturgy is oriented. Hence, liturgy, which by its definition leads one towards God, ought to involve the true, good, and beautiful, and never their opposites.
One characteristic of beauty is that it draws a person outside of oneself. Liturgy, likewise, has this aim—of transforming self-centeredness into gratitude at the wonder of one’s being and thanksgiving directed towards God. Sacrosanctum Concilium mentions that part of the Church’s very essence is directing the visible to the invisible (2). What is beauty within the liturgy, if not that which, through tangible means, draws the mind and heart towards the invisible God?
The Church, itself a visible sign of God’s presence on earth, is rooted in an incarnational worldview. The externals of our world matter, for God himself became visible in this same world.Sacrosanctum Concilium emphasizes the faithful’s awareness of the liturgy and of their being led to “fully conscious, and active participation…which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (14). How might full awareness of one’s participation—rather than just a bystander’s simple observation—in the mysteries of Christ be promoted? If one’s environment is elevated, if one walks into a liturgy and finds the atmosphere different than a school board meeting or a play, and if one is somehow drawn in and transformed by what is seen and heard, will not observation itself be transformed into participation? A full awareness of what the liturgy is can be promoted through the externals, through one’s surroundings. An elevated environment—one of order and harmony—promotes the elevation of one’s entire being and spurs one to a deeper consciousness of that which is really real. Would not one then want to “actively engage” in this beauty that is directed toward the Beautiful? (SC 11).