‘There is no more important issue in our culture – sacred or secular – than the restoration of beauty.’ – Dana Gioia
At the beginning of his novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos’ main character, a sickly and inexperienced priest, makes this observation about the state of his new parish:
My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it … the world is eaten up by boredom. To perceive this needs a little preliminary thought: you can’t see it all at once. It is like dust … But stand still for an instant and there it is, coating your face and hands. To shake off this drizzle of ashes you must be forever on the go. And so, people are always “on the go”.’
This boredom the priest is talking about is acedia: the famous (or infamous) sin of sloth. We tend to associate sloth with laziness but it’s much deeper than that. It’s a spiritual apathy, a numbness, a deadness inside that feels like a weight on our soul. It can manifest in physical laziness (it can manifest in a lot of ways), but in the context of the modern world this numbness is hidden beneath constant activity. Work is everything and leisure is rarely contemplative or edifying. If anything it is fleeting, over before we’ve had the chance to enjoy it. The new week comes sooner than we’d like.
Bernanos published this novel in 1936. If the priest’s observation held true then, how much truer does it hold now?
In his book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (2017), Walter Brueggemann suggests that the whole point of the Sabbath in the Bible was to restore the people of God to wholeness through rest; rest from the way they normally lived life (the life of work and debt and payment and labour). In a society that is constantly “on the go”, Brueggemann argues that it’s more important than ever to tap into this spiritual resource.
Since liturgy is such an integral part of what the Sabbath means, asking some deep questions about the way we celebrate the Eucharist might shed some light on how the liturgy can be a remedy to this spiritual boredom and hopefully restore people to wholeness.
The poet Dana Gioia says that ‘the absence of beauty as a positive concept has left a hole in our thinking.’ Well, arguably it has left a hole in our worship as well.
One of the reasons many people were heartbroken over Pope Francis’ recent restrictions on the Latin Mass is because of the beauty this liturgy bears. A common experience people have is walking away from Mass thinking that it wasn’t a beautiful experience. It was an experience just as noisy, just as restless, and with just as many screens as the rest of their life. Perhaps it is a spiritually thin experience in an ugly building not worthy of the name “church”.
The Church has always believed that beauty belonged in the liturgy. This is because there is something important that happens when we encounter real beauty: we slow down. We contemplate. For a brief period of time, we encounter something mysterious outside of ourselves.
In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera writes that ‘the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.’ When we’re recollecting something, for example, we slow down. When we want to forget something, we speed up and shake it off, not wanting to think about it anymore. The liturgy of the Church is a profound act of “remembrance”, but if that “remembrance” is going to mean anything then it demands a liturgy that slows us down, compels us to shed our restlessness and enter into the mystery.
And that’s another thing beauty does: it “enchants”; it lifts our hearts (the Latin phrase for that is sursum corda). The German moral philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand says this:
It is not true that this beauty distracts us from God … it contains a summons; in it there dwells a sursum corda; it awakens awe in us; it elevates us above that which is base; it fills our hearts with a longing for the eternal beauty of God’ (Beauty in the Light of the Redemption, 2019).
The modern world has already been described as one that is “disenchanted”, a world in which people are suffocating spiritually because they don’t sense any transcendent meaning to their life. The least we could do in our worship is reenchant them; introduce them to a beauty that moves them in the right direction: towards God.
Even in the desert, God cared about beauty and liturgy. In his book Broken Signposts (2020), biblical scholar N.T. Wright makes the case that the second half of the book of Exodus is, in a sense, ‘all about beauty’, and the beauty of their worship would have been ‘all the more striking in the midst of a barren desert.’ Despite the fact that God’s people were now nomads, chapters 25-40 go into great detail about a whole host of, what is to us, unexpected things: the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, the vestments of the priests and the use of incense, evoking sight and sound and smell in how they were to worship. Perhaps it was because they were in the desert that the Israelites needed this all the more. It wasn’t God being fussy: this portion of the Bible reveals something deeply human about us, about the way in which liturgy and ritual affects our hearts and minds and emotions.
Interestingly, N.T. Wright says, the ancient Hebrews didn’t have a specific or clear definition of “beauty”, but it was woven into a number of other ideas: ones like “glory” and “majesty”. This was true to such a degree that when the Bible talks about the “glory” of God we can also talk about the “beauty” of God. And since the New Testament associates Jesus with the “divine glory” (John 1:14), we can also talk about Jesus revealing to us, in a strange way, the “divine beauty”.
Following this idea, David Bentley Hart says that Christian morality is, in a sense,
seeking the beautiful as [God] has taught us to recognize it in Christ’ (Theological Territories, 2020).
This is why the Church cares about beauty in the liturgy. When we’re in the desert, which we are until the day we die, we need liturgy. We need ritual. We need the slowness and beauty that comes with it, lest we fall into restlessness and lethargy and, maybe, forgetfulness. This isn’t a fault on our part, either. It’s not something we can overcome by being spiritually “strong” individuals. It’s just how we’ve been created. It’s part of having a body, having senses, having a heart.
The Second Vatican Council cared about beauty, too. It most certainly did not want us to do away with it. In talking about the arts, Sacrosanctum Concilium says:
These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God's praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men's minds devoutly toward God’ (§122).
Even though the Council recommended a ‘noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display’, the document also said that art should be removed if ‘by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretence’ it was an affront to the dignity of the liturgy (§124).
The question is: do we still have a sense for beauty and artistic worth?
The word “liturgy”, roughly translated, means “the work of the people”, or “public work”. In the wake of Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio there has been a flurry of opinions and commentary, and no doubt that will continue. In the meantime, maybe we can use this as an opportunity to think more deeply about this sacrificial “work” we are engaging in so that it becomes a work that reverences and glorifies God. Fundamentally, the liturgy is God’s work: it’s his sacrifice, his transformative grace on offer. But since we are invited to participate in it, doing justice to the beauty God has revealed in Christ means caring about how we worship so that it is a reverent, beautiful experience.
One of the other things von Hildebrand said was that the opposite of beauty was ugliness, triviality and boringness (Aesthetics Volume One, 2016). If our worship reflects any of those things, then it's time to take a step back and look deeply at who we are and why we are here. And perhaps, then, it can become time to restore beauty to its rightful place in worship.