Making us Human: Considering the Role of Beauty in the Liturgy

Beauty is necessary.
Beauty makes us more human.
We await the fulfillment of the promise of Beauty.

Imagine a Mass that is so resplendent with Beauty that the very form of the Mass, the behavior and dress of the laity, the setting in which the Mass takes place, the music that is sung or performed, the dress and actions of the Priest, Deacon, and attendants, the prayers that are spoken, perhaps the incense burning, and even the light through the windows, and all those other mysterious things that one senses but cannot quite define, combine to create an experience of the fullness of the glory of God and of the Church.

If such a Mass existed it would overwhelm us. Beauty would surround us, fill us, lift us up in ways that we would struggle to define, but we would know through and through that our souls were being fed by Beauty. And by such a Mass we would also be made more human.

Of course, such a Mass does exist. It is in Heaven. We can read about it in the book of Revelation, chapters 4 and 5.

The premise of this post, while ultimately about promoting Beauty in all that we do, and especially in those Christian activities we deem as worship, is to say this: To the degree a Catholic Mass is resplendent with Beauty is, in part, the degree to which that Mass is able to fulfill its role in making all those present more human. This implies, by degree, that a Mass can either fulfill its role or, in some manner, do the opposite. In other words, though a Mass will certainly fulfill its function in terms of the Priest making the actions of the liturgy in a fitting manner and offering the Eucharist to the baptized, the way the Mass is conducted and how the entire context and setting of the Mass presents the Eucharist may, in fact, be more or less at odds with the true nature of God-centered worship, the Real Presence, and the fulfillment of our humanness that true worship and the Real Presence imply. The question here is what does it mean for that “entire context and setting” to lack Beauty?

Let’s pause a moment. We are using rather vague terms. Beauty is one of the three Transcendentals, along with Truth and Goodness. They are Transcendentals because they are of and from God Himself. God is the source of all that is Good, all that is True, and all that is Beautiful. Like Being itself, God is Goodness itself, Truth itself, and Beauty itself. Fundamentally this means Beauty is a great and profound mystery. So that’s one thing. Another is that being human, and having the characteristics of humanness, is also a great and profound mystery. Being human means being made in the Image of God, being, in some limited but indelible way, an ikon of God, thus having within oneself, or as part of oneself, as one’s very being, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Beauty is also a rather vague term. Perhaps it is sufficient to merely say that Beauty is hard to define, probably impossible, but that we know it when we see it. And yet there are so many people who seem to frequently gravitate toward ugliness that one sometimes wonders. We might also say Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, thus promoting a relativistic view of Beauty. There is no denying the difficulty of defining Beauty, nor the unique personal responses to Beauty we all have. But we can’t go around saying “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty!” like a rallying cry (as some are wont to do) and then say Beauty is neither definable nor objective. However, being one of the three Transcendentals, Beauty is similarly difficult to grasp as is God. Thus Beauty remains a profound mystery.

For the sake of both brevity and sanity I will not try to define Beauty here. I am going to assume we all know what it is. I am also not going to call out specific things or actions as being beautiful. Things and actions can vary greatly from culture to culture and from age to age, and views on what is beautiful can also vary. I am certainly not going to offer a prescription for a beautiful Mass here – that is for another post, and there are many who have done that already. What I want to do is merely draw the connection between the gift of Beauty and our becoming more fully human and the role (if that’s the right word) of Beauty in liturgy.

I know it may be aggravating to charge forward about Beauty without defining it, but let’s just, for now, leave it at this: One sees a beautiful sunset or a grove of redwood trees, or hears a piece of music by Bach or Berlioz, or reads a poem by Milton or Miłosz, and one has a sense of beauty at a level of fullness that is greater than a view of a garbage dump, or a clear-cut forest, or a gray day, or the sound of construction equipment, or an advertisement for toothpaste. And we know that what is beautiful seems to enhance us, make us feel good, draw us towards itself, perhaps even lift us up in ways we can’t quite express. And we know that what is ugly tends to push against us, challenge us, make us defend ourselves, make us feel as though we have to endure it, and perhaps ugliness even degrades us in ways we can’t quite express. We stare at the sunrise, pause by a field of flowers, stop to listen to the musician, but we endure the parking lot, the monochrome office filled with workstations, the strip mall, the concrete-box retail store, the windowless room. We endure because we need something – to shop, to work, to get somewhere.

The same can be true of the Mass. We can endure a lack of Beauty in the setting, the music, the homily, the vestments, etc., because we want something – the Eucharist. We may want more than that, such as fellowship, or the sense of having fulfilled some personal tradition, but without the Eucharist going to church becomes not much different than going to a non-Catholic church.

We live in a world where there is great beauty and great ugliness. Most of the time, however, our immediate lives are somewhere in between, with lots of the somewhat beautiful and lots of the somewhat ugly. (I don’t know if “ugly” is truly the proper antonym of “beauty”, but let’s go with it for now.) Most of the time we do not think of these things. But it is important to realize that Beauty is not only for the artist, or the one sensitive to Beauty. We all, inherently, even without thinking, are fed by Beauty and must endure the ugly. [Let’s be clear, every human being is beautiful. Every one. Every soul is beautiful. But actions can be ugly.]

The question still remains: How does Beauty, and specifically a beautiful liturgy, make one more human? If we begin with the premise that man was made for worship, and that his fulfillment only comes when his worship is fully directed toward God, then we can infer that what draws man to worship, and directs that worship toward God, is what draws man to his fulfillment, that is, towards being a fully realized human. In terms of the beauty of the created order, we read in the book of Wisdom:

For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. (Wisdom 13:5)

This perception of the Creator is the beginning of worship, of the priestly function of man, that began when Adam was given the task to name the animals, and God was watching “to see what he would call them.” Though we were not there, we can assume that Adam learned a great deal about his Creator and the nature of the Creation, including of himself. In fact, that was the purpose of this exercise – to learn what man is, and what male is, and thus the need for the female corresponding to the male in order to be fully human. In other words, God calling us to worship Him is not because God needs our worship; it is because we need to worship Him. God gave us worship as a gift.

Now consider these lines from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The topic is on sacred art, but there is more here than only about art works:

2502 Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,” in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.

2503 For this reason bishops, personally or through delegates, should see to the promotion of sacred art, old and new, in all its forms and, with the same religious care, remove from the liturgy and from places of worship everything which is not in conformity with the truth of faith and the authentic beauty of sacred art.

Notice that there is no particular prescription regarding the form of art. Rather, art is beautiful when it draws men to worship. There is a connection between the spiritual beauty of God (fully realized in Christ, and most fully reflected in the Virgin Mary, the angels, and saints) and the beauty of sacred art. There is also an implication that sacred art can be less than it ought. In that case, such art should be removed and replaced. This is critically important when we consider the way our churches are designed and decorated, and the way the Mass is conducted. By implication, a less than beautiful Mass represents a less than beautiful image of God and of man. It does not call one to worship as it should.

We should care a great deal about the Beauty of the Liturgy, about our churches, and about our worship. If we do not care about Beauty, or think it merely a surface embellishment, or worse, a trap to bedevil us, what does that say about us and our understanding of God and our humanness? Rather, we should see that Beauty is from God, understand it rightly, and encourage it in our lives and in our parishes. The Mass should consistently be one of the most beautiful experiences of our week – drawing us toward God, making us more human.

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