Liturgy and Beauty
(©All rights reserved)
by Philip Blosser
C. S. Lewis somewhere distinguishes two different attitudes we may entertain while assisting at liturgy: that of the reverent participant, and that of the detached critic. An attitude of reverence typically allows us to be drawn spontaneously into liturgical worship without undue distraction. The attitude of the critic, however, interferes with worshiping God. The critic is seriously hindered from even finding God at Mass.
The German Catholic author and critic, Martin Mosebach, laments that the jarring liturgical innovations of recent decades have been largely responsible for provoking this kind of a critical attitude among the faithful. Today, he says, we ask questions like:What is absolutely indispensable for genuine liturgy? When are the celebrant’s whims tolerable, and when do they become unacceptable? We have got used to accepting the liturgy on the basis of minimum requirements, whereas the criteria ought to be maximal. And finally, we have started to evaluate liturgy – a monstrous act! We sit in the pews and ask ourselves, was that Holy Mass, or wasn’t it? I go to church to see God and come away like a theatre critic.1One of the most significant factors behind these unfortunate developments, I would argue, is the loss of what I would call ‘liturgical fittingness” – a fittingness, or aptness, or harmony between the external forms of liturgy and the act of worship these forms are meant to express – a fittingness between the art, architecture, vestments, postures, gestures, and actions involved in the liturgy, on the one hand, and the attitudes of reverence, honor, majesty, and adoration due to God as our sovereign Creator and Savior, on the other. Further, I contend, such fittingness is at the heart of what we traditionally call beauty.
Beauty…. What is ‘beauty’? Building on centuries of earlier reflection on the subject, St. Thomas Aquinas answers this question by first observing that beauty is that which pleases upon being seen (id quod visum placet). Certainly that sounds right. Beauty delights us. It enthralls us. It can elevate our souls and fill us with ineffable longing for that which is eternal.
But if this were all that could be said about beauty, we would have a problem. For, if beauty were no more than that which pleases us, it would be purely subjective. It would amount to saying that what makes something beautiful is the fact that we happen to like it. Certainly there are many who would agree with this view. We see it the philistine relativist who says: “Different strokes for different folks.” But relativism about beauty seems to have been an ingrained prejudice even before the advent of postmodern relativism. For example, we find this view affirmed in the old adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Or in the maxim De gustibus non est disputandum (“There is no disputing about taste”).
But if this were true, it would mean that we couldn’t dispute matters of taste and beauty, which is clearly not true. It would mean that fans of the “recent liturgical unpleasantness” of the last half-century were beyond criticism in their preferences. It would mean, for example, that they couldn’t be criticized for claiming that Marty Haugen’s hymns (I use the term loosely) are every bit as ‘beautiful’ as Palestrina’s motets, simply because they happen to like Marty Haugen’s wares, just as some philistines prefer Twinkies or Hostess Cupcakes to fine French or Italian cuisine. (A good book on recent Catholic hymnody is Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing: Catholic Culture and the Triumph of Bad Taste [New York: Crossroad, 1990].)
But thankfully St. Thomas doesn’t stop here. He goes on to say that beauty is characterized by three more properties: (1) Integritas – by which he means integrity, wholeness, completeness, perfection, or what we’ll call unity; (2) Claritas – by which he means clarity, splendor, brilliance, radiance, or what we’ll call brightness; and (3) Consonantia – by which he means a certain consonance, harmony, an apt fitting together, or what we’ll call fittingness. (By ‘fittingness’ here we mean not only the harmony between the parts of a work of art, but also the harmony between the work of art and the values it seeks to express, or, in the case of liturgy, the values appropriate to the worship of God.)
Now what is remarkable about these last three characteristics of beauty is that, unlike the first one mentioned by St. Thomas – namely, that which pleases us, or that which we just happen to like – these last three characteristics are objective. They are properties of the object we’re talking about, rather than of our subjective responses. This is what allows us to say that just as truth is the proper object of right knowing, and good is the proper object of right willing, so beauty is the proper object of right admiration. Knowing the truth assumes that we are able to distinguish between reality and illusion, like the difference between what really happened in the Spanish Inquisition and the revisionist falsehoods attributed to it in popular mythology. Willing the good assumes that we are able to distinguish between real and merely apparent goods, like the difference between growing in virtue and growing in popularity. Admiring the beautiful assumes that we are able to distinguish between what deserves to be called beautiful, like Michelangelo’s Pieta, and what doesn’t but merely happens to please us, like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.
But how can we know what should be judged beautiful and what shouldn’t? St. Thomas already points us toward the answer by listing three objective characteristics that all beautiful things have: unity, brightness, and fittingness. These suggest that our judgments about beauty needn’t be arbitrary, but can be based on objective qualities that a work of art or music or liturgy may have.
Take fittingness. One of the easiest ways of understanding how fittingness works is through metaphor and simile. “My face was red as a beet.” “He had a voice like a foghorn.” “He has guts.” “This is a ticklish problem.” “This is a dark day in American politics.” “The hours dragged on.” “I felt like a dishrag after that.” “His face clouded over.” “She was wearing a loud perfume.” “Harod is a fox.”
The point of interest here is how our meaning spans the gulf between Harod and the fox, for example. Literally it isn’t true that Harod is a fox. Harod is a person. But figuratively we know what the metaphor means, because Harod is sly and cunning like a fox. So the equation is apt. It fits. It is fitting. The way we see this isn’t through intellectual analysis but through imaginative synthesis. We intuitively grasp the fittingness of the putting these two things together.
We also can illustrate fittingness by matching various nursery rhymes with different ways of walking: For example, “Fee, fi, fo fum” goes together with stomping like a heavy-footed giant, whereas “Hi diddle diddle” goes together with light-footed leaping or prancing. We see the same principle in how we call orange a ‘warm’ color or blue a ‘cool’ color; or in the study that showed that most people associate Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the color purple or burgundy, but almost never with yellow or green;2 or in the remarkable phenomenon synesthesia, first noted by Goethe in the 19th century, who noted that music sometimes produced various color impressions in certain people;3 or the fact that tones a seventh apart are almost always associated with restlessness, while tones an octave apart are associated with rest or tranquility.
In one experiment, people were asked to list corresponding terms under the paired terms ‘ping’ and ‘pong’, and the vast majority came up with the following correlations: light/heavy, small/large; ice cream/warm pea soup; pretty girl/matron; trumpet sound/cello sound; Mozart’s music/Beethoven’s music; Matisse’s paintings/Rembrandt’s paintings.4 Likewise, when asked to compare two lines, one sharp and jagged with another soft and undulating, the terms most often correlated with this lines were ‘restlessness’ and ‘tranquility.’
So what’s going on here? First, to test whether such judgments of ‘fittingness’ are arbitrary or culturally relative, a researcher named C.E. Osgood in the 1960s administered tests to English-speaking Americans, Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, Navajos, and Japanese subjects. He found approximately 90% agreement on comparisons that were considered ‘fitting.’5 Furthermore, there’s plenty of evidence to show that joy and hope are almost universally associated with short upward sloping lines, bright colors, and the major key in music, while sadness and despair are associated with long downward sloping lines, dark shades of gray and black, the minor key in music.
Second, a puzzling feature about such comparisons is what serves as the standard of comparison. For example, when we compare two athletes to see which can run the fastest, no question arises as to the commons standard of comparison, which is obviously speed. But when we ask why most people say that loud is more like large than it is like small, what is the standard of comparison? They’re comparing a sound with a size; and they’re saying one kind of sound is more like (or more fittingly expresses) one size than another. How strange! But what Osgood’s study shows is that several relevant factors emerge, such as potency and activity. Loud is more like large than small with respect to potency; whereas fast is more like hot than cold, and a jagged line is more like restlessness than tranquility, with respect to activity.6
What does this tell us? First of all, it tells us that judgments about beauty can have an objective basis. They can be based on qualities that are found in works of art, music, architecture, liturgy, and so on. In other words, such judgments don’t have to be simply arbitrary. They can reference certain characteristics like unity, brightness, and fittingness found in such works of art.
Second, this also tells us that there are certain objective characteristics in a liturgy that make it beautiful because they are fitting with respect to such qualities as reverence, holiness, majesty, and awe. Church architecture that is fitting to such qualities will exhibit characteristics of permanence, unity and verticality, as Michael Rose has shown.7 Vestments, postures, gestures, and actions will likewise fittingly reflect these qualities. It’s true that soldiers in the field may celebrate Mass with muddied boots in the jungles of Vietnam or in the sand-swept wastes of Afghanistan with nothing more than the hood of a jeep to serve as an altar. But even there, they attempt to salvage whatever bits of beauty and dignity they can: a white altar cloth is laid; the soldiers kneel, etc. The exception thus proves the rule: what is most apt and most fitting for divine worship is clean shoes, clean vestments, and a church with a high altar and incense and a vaulted ceiling that bespeaks transcendence and awe. What is never fitting at Mass is comportment, dress, postures, gestures, music and ambience that bespeak the carefree nonchalance of a beach party. In the presence of our Lord and Savior, our Creator and our King, what is called for is a studied solemnity, reserve, decorum, and postures, gestures, music and ambience befitting transcendence, awe, reverence and honor.
Once I was at St. Josephat for a Monday evening low Mass nearly a decade ago, and there I noticed that one thing I really like about the extraordinary form is that nothing in it distracts us from the focus of the liturgy upon our Lord. On the contrary, everything – each part of the liturgy, every carefully-prescribed gesture of the servers and priest, their ad orientem disposition, their attentiveness and reverence toward the altar and the Tabernacle and crucifix at its center, and even the silence – seem to conspire to draw our attention toward the Lord. Not one gesture by priest or servers draws attention to itself, saying "Here, look at me!" but rather draws attention to what is going on at the altar in this great mystery of Redemption. Even the long reverent silences of the Canon, far from reducing us to passive spectators, conduces to concentrate our attentiveness to what is transpiring, and so to promote – in the truest sense – our active participation in the liturgy. Here is fittingness. Here is beauty, ever ancient, ever new.
- Martin Mosebach, The Heresy of Formlessness (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), p. 25. [back]
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 97. [back]
- Lawrence E. Marks, “On Colored-Hearing Synesthesia: Cross-modal Translation of Sensory Dimensions,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 83, No. 3 (1975), pp. 303-331; Theodore F. Karwoski and H.S. Ogbert, “Color Music” in Psychological Monographs, Vol. 50 (1938), pp. 1-60; M. Collins, “a Case of Synesthesia,” in Journal of General Psychology, Vol. 2 (1929), pp. 12-27; Lorrin A. Riggs and Theodore Karwoski, “Synesthesia,” in British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 25 (1934), pp. 29-41. [back]
- Ernst H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), pp. 370-371. My list of terms is taken from the modified schematic based on Gombrich offered by Wolterstorff, Art in Action, p. 97. [back]
- “Cross-Cultural Generality of Visual-Verbal Synesthetic Tendencies,” in J.G. Snider and C.E. Osgood, eds, Semantic Differential Technique (Chicago: Aldine, 1969), pp. 561-584. [back]
- C.E. Osgood, “Generality of Affective Meaning Systems” in American Psychology, 17 (1962), pp. 19-21; but cf. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action, pp. 108-110, for a critique of Osgood’s psychologistic attempt to explain these patterns, not as direct similarities among the various qualities of reality, but as similarities of affective responses to those qualities. [back]
- Michael Rose, “The Three Natural Laws of Catholic Church Architecture,” New Oxford Review (September 2009), pp. 28-34; cf. Michael Rose, Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We can Change Them Back Again (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001). [back]
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Note: What follows is an essay based on a presentation I delivered recently to the Oakland County Latin Mass Association at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills, MI, on October 16, 2016. It is posted here temporarily at the request of some in the audience and for the benefit of anyone else interested in the presentation who could not attend it. The material in it is drawn from research done for a course in aesthetics I used to teach at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina, and is distilled here, often with little more than a passing suggestion as to how to 'connect the dots' mentioned; but hopefully it will be sufficiently accessible to tickle the reader's fancy and suggest some fruitful ways of thinking about things like liturgy and beauty.