To understand beauty through definition seems to me a rather stiff or brusque way to a deep knowing or full comprehension of beauty. In order to come to know the meaning of beauty one must fully emmerse oneself into an experience, perhaps an artistic rendering would best present its essence. My attempt to dabble at poetry will seek to illustrate its meaning to the best of my ability:
What is Beauty?
What is beauty but a moment stopped in time
Standing in awe of the spectacular painted sky
In the early morning to gaze at the glow
Of God’s bidding a kissed color-filled hello
What is beauty but a whiff of a scent
That causes one to turn and bend
The scent of aromatic fragrant care
Of a lilac, God’s gift to sweeten the air
What is beauty but the sound of a child
Stirring in the pew in front of you
Who coyly reaches out with innocent care
A soggy cracker, a treasure for you to share.
What is beauty but a chorus of one voice
The old and the young, the rich and the poor
In full anthem singing God’s glory
In sacred space together reflecting on the Story
What is beauty but a God who forgives
Sharing Christ’s life and love in eternal sacrament
The Son’s body and blood poured out for our salvation
An ever abundant gift, a blessing for every nation
Liturgical beauty (aesthetics) and its relationship to ascetics is not something that I had previously pondered too deeply. Until rather recently I had agreed with the move made after Vatican II to simplify the churches taking down all the statues and removing much of the lavish artwork. How tragic that must have been to the worshippers! Reading through the Sacrosanctum Concilium I commented in the forum about the various images of the Church that were mentioned in the first twenty points: ie) Church as the Body of Christ, Church as the Bride of Christ or Church as the Mother.
All those images are magnificent, and I can understand why the physical structure of the Church took on such beautiful artistic representation in the physical structure including the use of statues and paintings. In later centuries as the liturgy began to be celebrated solely in Latin with prayers no longer in the vernacular, the imagery surrounding the laity told the story.
The treasures experienced through the eyes must have been delightful. I imagine the beauty in the surroundings and the sounds of the sacred language must have mysteriously transformed the laity to a higher realm. Stripping all of this away from the laity would have been a shock, and I believe we’re still experiencing this today.
To an undiscerning eye it would seem that many Catholics at mass just stand or sit or kneel and do nothing else. Personally I have observed many who do not even respond to the prayers let alone sing any songs. I offer blessings in my heart for them and am saddened. Why do those who never participate come to mass? What is it they are seeking? What is it they are offering? Perhaps everything. I do not judge, for how could I possibly know what is going on their world?
Someone who comes to mass and appears to be a robot may have just lost a close family member or suffering some other untold trauma. A church that would be filled with mystical beauty may transport someone who needs such beauty to heal their heart. As one who practices prison ministry I have had a woman inmate share with me her story of what drew her to the Catholic Church. Latasha, whom I just spoke again with yesterday in jail, lived in the Heartside of Grand Rapids, a very low-income inner city neighborhood that surrounds St. Andrew’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is open during the day and Latasha would go into the Cathedral and just sit gazing at the beauty around her. She mentioned that she was respectful and would “curtsy” before she sat down. She is Southern Baptist and is not familiar with Catholic ritual.
The Church spoke to her. She mentioned how she loves looking at the stained glass windows and the images of Jesus carved in the walls. The Cathedral has beautiful imagery carved in stone (see above) of the Stations of the Cross. Latasha’s life was a mess, but she came into the Cathedral for solace. She wouldn’t know the prayers or the hymns, but maybe she would be one of the people I mentioned previously. She would appear as a robot and might just “curtsy” before she enters the pew. Never has anyone ever taught how her how to genuflect.
I remember as a child, in 1st or 2nd grade, looking upon the enormous crucifix during mass. It always seemed that Jesus was peering into my soul. There was a gaping wound in his side. I could feel his pain. My heart would feel like it was breaking. Even to this day as I write this I can feel the pain. I would begin to sob during mass and my teacher and students never understood. The beauty of the crucifix still is vivid in my imagination decades later. As it is stated in SC, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.”
Having been physically standing at a summit there are no words to express the mystical experience. The beauty is majestic and unspeakable. As one considers the physical beauty of a Church and concern for asceticism how do you weigh what might be most contributing to one’s experience of the “summit” of the liturgy? This is conundrum. Some worshippers are drawn to simplicity; therefore the liturgy is found to be the summit experience within the beauty of the simplest surroundings. Other faithful worshippers are inspired by aesthetics and the ornate. Somehow as Church we must live in the tension.