The importance of beauty in the Liturgy

The importance of beauty in the Liturgy

Christopher Pearson

Christopher Pearson, who is an Adelaide journalist and columnist with 'The Weekend Australian', examines the case for a stronger emphasis on beauty in the Liturgy in the light of its absence from many of today's liturgical celebrations.

This article - here edited - originally appeared in 'The Weekend Australian' and is published with the author's permission.

Dominican priest from Sydney, Fr Ephraem Chifley, commented recently on "the weakness of the progressive position on liturgy - a radical incomprehension of culture or beauty" which resulted in "verbose, self-conscious rites". It was not surprising, he said, "that the younger generation finds them deeply unappealing."

A fellow-Dominican, Fr Peter Knowles, who is an expert on Eastern Rite liturgies, added: "Aesthetic appeal and conversion cannot be placed at war with one another ... the beauty of the churches' solemnities invites the individual to conversion." But it was, he added, "many a long day" since beauty had been part of the debate - "even remarked on, much less weighed and discussed" in local church circles.

It was an allusion to the philistine provincialism which has long held sway within Australian Catholicism. Elsewhere aesthetic issues can be discussed without apology.

Take for example Hans Urs von Balthasar, the 20th century's most notable writer on the theology of beauty. He said: "We can be sure that whoever sneers at Beauty's name, as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past - whether he admits it or not - can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love" (Preface to The Glory of the Lord.)

It should be stressed that von Balthasar is talking about beauty seen as "a transcendental property of being" - along with goodness, truth and unity - rather than something that could be simply reduced to a matter of differing tastes in church haberdashery. Even so, it's clear what he thinks of wilful philistinism and its numbing consequences.

Can the consequences of a marked preference for the ugly really be as serious as von Balthasar suggests? Outside church circles, does it matter a damn anyhow?

The answer to the first two questions lies in the effects of Vatican II reform - as it was widely implemented - on the Catholic Church, and parallel changes in the Anglican Communion.

Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, summed up the present state of the Church: "A collapse of faith and practice unequalled for hundreds of years ... the departure of many priests and religious, the collapse in vocations, the decline in churchgoing and the spread of doctrinal and moral confusion." Outside of the fundamentalist Sydney diocese, the Anglican experience has been a comparable catastrophe.

Plainly, not all the woes of the churches can be explained in terms of their cack-handed vernacular liturgies. Other forces, from the pill, the sexual revolution, rock music and consumerism to the rise of New Age and occult substitutes, played their part. Yet liturgy was the main point of contact between churchgoers and the churches and fewer and fewer are attending regularly.

Continuity in worship

It is instructive to look at the Orthodox and Lutheran churches by way of comparison. Distinguished sociologists such as Mary Douglas and Peter Berger had been warning anyone who cared to listen in the 1960s that a period of upheaval was precisely the time to emphasise continuity in forms of worship rather than radical changes. The more conservative Lutherans and the Eastern churches were in any case averse to change and justly proud of their own traditions.

Progressive liturgists and ecclesiastical bureaucrats generally need to confront the fact that these churches have remained relatively immune to the Zeitgeist.

It is hard to think of an oxymoron that epitomises the churches' attempts to accommodate modernity more aptly than a Rock Mass. For rock'n'roll is essentially about sex and the Mass is about the Mass, and between them is a great gulf fixed. Trendy priests who hoped to harness rock music to their own ends were deluding themselves.

One is reminded of Dean Inge's line: "He who marries the Spirit of the Age will soon find himself a widower."

The virtual collapse of most forms of mainstream Christianity is a matter which deserves to be taken seriously well beyond the circles where it is most immediately apparent. Politicians and police say they often ponder the question: without religion to underpin public morality, what is left apart from fear of the law to prevent people doing what ever they like? The common answer is nothing much, beyond the feel-good factor in "doing the right thing".

On that reckoning, the social fabric is a fragile construct and road rage a foretaste of far worse to come.

Beyond pragmatic considerations of order and the maintenance of a civil society, there are other reasons why institutional Christianity will be missed.

The popular triumph of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, which even temporarily succeeded in swelling Easter congregations, is suggestive. There is still a surprising, deep-seated hunger for what the churches once had to offer. Neither the use of Aramaic and Latin nor the medieval, Grunewaldian representation of suffering deterred most of the (often youthful) audiences.

In fact, avoiding the distraction of American-accented English broadened its appeal and the use of archaic languages was often said to universalise its themes. The film, like its maker, is also quite explicitly a product of the Tridentine Mass.

That unexpected box-office surge of longing for the numinous is a terrible reproach to the Churches.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.