Beauty and the Liturgical Rite

An Answer to the Utilitarian Spirit of Modernity

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By Father Mauro Gagliardi

ROME, DEC. 13, 2010 ( In the introduction to the first volume of his monumental «Herrlichkeit» (The Glory of the Lord), in which he developed a systematic theology centered on the transcendentalism of the beautiful, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes:
«Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word that both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.

«No more loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face, which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.

«Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance» (H.U. von Balthasar, «The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics,» Volume 1, «Seeing the Form,» T&T Clark, Edinburgh 1982, p. 18).
These are words of condemnation by a very modern theologian of that utilitarian spirit typical of modernity, which is unable to appreciate the value of beautiful things that aren’t at the same time useful.

How can the utilitarian spirit understand the value of minute details — such as the work of painters to decorate the vaults of innumerable churches? Those paintings, which are not readily seen from the nave, are considered useless.

Or, how can the work of mosaic masters who spent days in placing tiles in non-visible places of the Medieval cathedrals, be justified? If the human eye will never see the painting or the mosaic, what was the purpose of so much work? Does not the beautiful in this case imply the waste of time and energies?

And again, what is the purpose of the beauty of vestments and sacred vessels, if the poor man dies of hunger or does not have what it takes to cover his nakedness? Does that beauty not subtract from the resources to care for the needy?

Radiation of God

Yet beauty is useful. It is useful precisely when it is gratuitous, when it does not seek an immediate use, when it is the radiation of God.

Benedict XVI states: «This relationship between creed and worship is evidenced in a particular way by the rich theological and liturgical category of beauty. Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is ‘veritatis splendor.’ The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. […]

«The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. […] Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendor» («Sacramentum Caritatis,» No. 35).
Whoever does not know how to appreciate the gratuitous value of beauty and, in particular, of liturgical beauty, will not be able to adequately fulfill the act of divine worship. Von Balthasar continues: «Whoever, at its mention, wrinkles his lips in a smile, judging it the exotic plaything of a bourgeois past, of him one can be sure that — secretly or openly — he is no longer capable of praying and, before long, not even of loving.»
The beauty of the rite, when it is such, corresponds to the sanctifying action itself of the sacred liturgy, which is the work of God and of man, celebration that gives glory to the Creator and Redeemer and sanctifies the redeemed creature. In keeping with man’s composite nature, the beauty of the rite must always be physical and spiritual, investment in the visible and the invisible. Otherwise, one falls either into aestheticism that wishes to satisfy taste, or into pragmatism that exceeds the forms in the utopian quest for an «intuitive» contact with the divine. At bottom, in both cases one falls from spirituality to emotiveness.
The risk today is less that of aestheticism, and much more that of informal pragmatism. At present we are in need not so much of simplifying and pruning, but of rediscovering the decorum and majesty of divine worship. The sacred liturgy of the Church will attract those of our time not by wearing more of the everyday gray and anonymous clothing, of which he is already very accustomed, but by putting on the royal mantle of true beauty. The liturgy of today needs ever new and young clothing, which will make it perceived as a window open to heaven, as point of contact with the One and Triune God, to whose adoration it is ordered, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, High and Eternal Priest.
 [Translation by ZENIT]

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Father Mauro Gagliardi is a consultor of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff and professor of theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum of Rome.

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