The Importance of Liturgical Beauty

Author Martin Mosebach and Ss. Trinita Dei Pellingrini, Rome.
Photo: © Stefano dal Pozzolo (KNA) (Source)
In modern times it is not uncommon -- though, mercifully, it perhaps less common than it was even a decade ago -- that anyone who might suggest that the aesthetic dimensions of the sacred liturgy are important and worthy of attention, that beauty matters and therefore the beautiful should be pursued, shouldn't be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion or even the outright suggestion of shallowness and misguided priorities. Often there are intimations (if not direct accusations) of being a mere aesthete whose concern is merely for "pomp" and "show." Others might simply suggest it a matter of misplaced priorities; focusing upon accidentals rather than that which "really matters." This very matter is spoken to by Martin Mosebach in his excellent liturgical work, The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy, published by Ignatius Press. In it Mosebach writes:
In Germany, whenever there is a debate about the great Catholic liturgical tradition, it only needs someone to utter the accusation of 'aestheticism', and it is all over. [...] The German vice -- philosophy -- has firmly fixed the idea of a distinction between content and form in the minds of very diverse people. According to this doctrine, the content and form can be separated from one another. What it regards as the authentic reality it calls the content: abstraction, the theoretical abstract. By contrast, it regards bodies of flesh and blood, physical and tangible structures, as mere form, expendable and shadowy images. The idea is that those who occupy themselves with this external form remain at the peripheral level, the level of accidents, whereas those who go beyond the form reach the realm of eternal abstractions and so attain the light of truth. In this view, forms have become something arbitrary... Anyone who perceives the form and takes it seriously is in danger of being deceived. This is the trouble with the aesthete. He looks for truth in the wrong place, that is, in the realm of what can be seen, and he looks for it with the wrong (and forbidden!) means, that is, with his senses, taste, experience and intellect. This philosophical rebellion against everything self-evident has given birth to the basic attitude of our generation, namely, an all-pervading distrust of every kind of beauty and perfection. Nowadays, the most withering condemnation is to say that something is 'merely beautiful'.  [...]  The crushing power of this contemporary attitude has inhibited Catholics and made them fearful and uncertain, faced with the task of defending their traditional form of prayer and sacrifice. This form, this mighty architecture composed of language, music, and gesture was too visual, too full of concrete significance: it was bound to provoke the vehement opposition of our contemporaries. [...] We cannot just laugh this off. It is difficult, if not impossible, to break out from one's time, and sometimes it seems as if there is hardly anyone left unscathed, untouched by this guilt feeling on account of liturgical beauty...

-- The Heresy of Formlessness, p. 104-6
Of course statements can be found from various modern day authors about the importance of liturgical beauty, not least of which by one of the founding fathers of the Liturgical Movement, Dom Lambert Beauduin, OSB, who suggests that "all the externals of the Liturgy are indispensable" from its plastic elements to the rites and ceremonies themselves, or Dom Gerard Calvet, OSB, who famously spoke of the "two doors" of intelligence and beauty by which people enter the Church -- the door of beauty being that which is most accessible and impactful of all.

However, while we can indeed find authoritative voices who speak to the importance of beauty, this ideological tendency of attacking beauty is only too common. Now obviously it is possible that some might hold to a shallow form of aestheticism but it is by no means a matter of necessity and a skewed view of the external aspects of the Church and her liturgy cuts in two different directions. The way of the true (which is to say shallow) aesthete, yes,  but on the opposite end of the spectrum those who fail to recognize or acknowledge the import and influence of these things, seeing them as unimportant, shallow or even a danger.

In either case we have a problem and the shared root is the divorce of the interior and exterior aspects; a 'schism' that fails not only to recognize the very existence of a relationship, but which also fails to sufficiently acknowledge how external aspects have a profound influence upon us and are doorways to the internal. Such a divorce could be understood to amount to a kind of liturgical dualism because it places a division where there is not properly one. Of course, not all who object to a consideration of externals are, strictly speaking, suggesting there is no relationship whatsoever, but they are perhaps not giving sufficient weight to that relationship and thus there is something of a dualistic tendency that is arguably present to some greater or lesser degree.

However, if one accepts the reality of this fundamental relationship, that the outer aspects are a "gateway" to the inner aspects, the visible pointing to the invisible, then the concern as to whether this is or is not a misplaced emphasis should quickly be resolved with our only remaining concern being to ensure that we avoid the aforementioned extremes.

That our experiences, actions and other external dimensions of life generally have a profound influence upon us, forming us, moving us and so forth, is really a matter of common sense and experience. We are creatures founded in both of these aspects and we live and respond accordingly. What is true of life in general is also true of the liturgical and ecclesiastical life. To thus deny or minimize beauty's relevance and importance, even in the face of our lived-experience which speaks so poignantly to its influence upon us in so many regards, is, to paraphrase Mosebach, to rebel against what is self-evident.
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