93. The Beauty of Liturgy, Part 1

The Middle Ages perceived beauty as the radiance of truth, “splendor veritatis.”1 For us in the post-Enlightenment era, truth is primarily a left-brain phenomenon; it is propositional and logical. Medieval people believed beauty in art, literature, and poetry served as a powerful tool to express truth. It was the intellect and emotions working in concert.

The medieval person believed the beauty of the Catholic Mass, the liturgy, to be the ultimate expression of all truth. It was here that heaven and earth met. God came to meet intimately with his people. Worship was like the hub of a wheel, from which all spokes radiated. The proper ordering of society hinges on a correct liturgy and an honoring God. The beauty expressed in liturgy would flow into every nook and cranny of society, creating fertile soil from which truth would work itself out through the beauty of art, literature, architecture, and poetry.

This beauty also evangelized the culture that, in many ways, did not interact much with propositional truth. This same beauty can win the hearts of people today back to God by being the gateway to truth. At the end of this article, I conclude with the fascinating story of Bree Solstad, a former adult filmmaker and producer who left the industry to embrace Catholicism. The beauty of Catholic art and architecture partly influenced her conversion. Bree’s experience is not an anomaly, but I predict that art and architecture will become increasingly important means of evangelism.

We live in an ugly time. Strip malls and wind turbines dot the landscape. Instead of cathedrals with spires reaching heavenward, we have skyscrapers that egotistically draw attention to their ugly selves. If the center of a culture is God, then all things will be beatified, even factories and places of commerce. However, if the centre of a culture is economic or political, then the architecture produced will reflect the barren inner lives of its inhabitants.

The contrasting images below show that the 18th Rhode Island textile mill (left) from a past Christian culture is more beautiful than a modern church that the surrounding secular culture has influenced.

The West’s current problems stem directly from abandoning traditional religious practices. Conversely, if we were to recover that in its fullness, we would eventually see a diminution of the numerous problems that plague us today, from the dissolution of the nuclear family to the loneliness and alienation so rampant today.

The Purpose of Freedom is Worship

In his groundbreaking book, The Spirit of Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, draws some penetrating insights from the Old Testament Exodus story. Almost everyone sees that story in terms of freeing a people from oppressive slavery, so much so that Marxists have used that same story to develop what is termed liberation theology. They make a moral equivalence between freeing people from physical slavery and freeing people from the economic slavery of capitalism.

Aside from this extreme example, the point is that the focus of the Exodus, for most, is the body, freeing the body. While bodily freedom is essential, it is missing the most crucial aspect of the Exodus, the freedom of the soul. Even those who have read the Exodus account need to pay more attention to the passage that discusses this. According to Ratzinger, the Exodus did indeed have the purpose of freedom from slavery and eventual settlement in the Promised Land. Still, indeed, it had an even more significant, overarching purpose.

When God commanded Moses to go to Pharaoh, he instructed him to say the following:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.

-Exodus 8:1

The primary reason why God wanted to free the Israelites was so they could worship Him away from the encumbrances of Egypt. Exodus repeats three times in meetings between Moses and Pharaoh, 9:1, 9:13, and 10:3, where negotiations occur between the two parties.

Liturgy Originates From God

Pharaoh’s first response was to have the Israelites worship within the land. Moses says that this is unacceptable. The proper place for liturgy is in the wilderness. Pharaoh then responded that only men could go, which was the custom of worship in Egypt. Moses refuses this compromise, asserting that true worship of God cannot be established through political bargaining. The rituals of God’s worship are not up for negotiation.

At a subsequent meeting, Pharaoh stated that men, women, and children could go into the wilderness to liturgy but must leave their livestock behind. Moses again says no, saying that the entire community must go, including the animals. Ratzinger gives an essential insight along these lines:

In all this, the issue is not the Promised Land: the only goal of the Exodus is shown to be worship, which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise.3

The takeaway here is that the central purpose of man is to worship God and that the actual liturgy of God does not originate from man’s will but from God’s directives. This is important in an age where Christians construct worship based on what they want, not what God commands.

The place of worship should be central to the community.

True Life is found in Worship

According to Ratzinger, this juxtaposition of land and liturgy as purposes of the Exodus is a false dichotomy. God did not give the Israelites the land as a final destination but as a tool for a greater purpose: to establish a place where they could worship him freely. After all, we are physical creatures; therefore, we need physical structures to worship God, body and soul. Christians need a church building to worship. We can look at it this way. Since we are body and soul, the land and the worship were two sides of the same coin.

Israel needed the land to worship, but according to the Old Covenant stipulations on Mt. Sinai after the Exodus, remaining in the land was contingent on maintaining the proper devotion to God in the ways He instructed them. That is really what the Pentateuch is all about: instructions for appropriate liturgy and the conditions for remaining in the land. Their inhabiting the land was conditional on them fulfilling the terms of the covenant. They were merely tenants; if they did keep their end of the bargain, they could and would be evicted.

To reiterate, the original goal of the land was not political autonomy but to allow the Israelites to experience authentic life in God by worshipping Him and living according to His commands. As Ratzinger states:

Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its forms from looking toward God. Cult (religious rites) exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.4

Worship, Law, and Morality

After three months of journeying in the wilderness, the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai, where they came face-to-face with God. There, God established a covenant with them through the agency of Moses. The heart of the covenant was the Ten Commandments, the first three having to do with the proper liturgy of God. They were to keep the Ten Commandments with all their ethical implications as a condition for remaining in the land. Of course, provisions were made for failing to do this perfectly through the sacrificial system that was also a part of the Law of God.

God gave explicit and detailed instructions on how He was to be worshipped. He determined that it was not the Israelites. Any false liturgy or the worship of false gods was also a condition of expulsion from the land. One could summarise all of this by saying that the actual life of man is found in the proper worship of God and, by extension, living rightly according to his commands. Ratzinger states that the three—worship, law, and ethics—are inevitably bound up with one another as a unity.

The Result of Worship is Freedom

This brings me back to contemporary times and my original point concerning beauty. We tend to look at many of the problems today, especially in the West, as impossible, whether it be drug addiction, gender confusion, perpetual war, the dissolution of the traditional family, selfish politicians, or economic struggle, especially among young people.

On one hand, this is true. These problems are not solvable through human will or ingenuity alone. The present state of affairs proves my point. On the other hand, and at the risk of sounding pollyannaish, these problems are solvable, but not directly. I am convinced that if, as a society, we would return to the proper worship of God as instituted by Christ through the Catholic Church, then God would, through his grace, give us the wisdom and power to do the seemingly impossible. We could see things turning around.

God’s Light from Heaven

In addition to proper worship, which is equivalent to laying a proper foundation, we must also live rightly before God according to his commandments, which involve repenting of things like sexual immorality, infant murder, greed, and the self-will to run our own lives morally according in ways that are contrary to God. We think that true freedom lies in doing what we want, regardless of what anyone else says, whereas true liberation is found in the proper worship of God and living according to His commands. Ironically, by not doing these things, we become enslaved to our selfish desires in a bondage worse than what the Israelites experienced under Pharaoh. We lose our dignity when we live contrary to God.

Ratzinger states that Sinai was not about the external promise of the land but more about an internal disposition. God commanded that their hearts be changed. Unfortunately for them, this internal change never occurred, and they became obsessively focused on the land as time went on while continuing to grow in their disobedience to God in worship and morality. Eventually, they were exiled from their land because of this. As Ratzinger states:

Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours. In this sense, worship has the character of anticipation. It lays hold in advance of a more perfect life and, in so doing, gives our present life its proper measure. A life withoug such anticipation, a life no longer opened up to heaven, would be an empty, leaden life.5

Back to Beauty

Except for the remnants of Western Christendom and medieval through the 18th century, you have probably noticed that modern, post-Enlightenment society is characterized by ugliness. Why is this? Well, the answer has to do with what I just stated above. The three transcendentals on which Western Civilization was built—truth, goodness, and beauty—cannot be separated. The result of abandoning truth and goodness is ugliness. Beauty is directly tied to God. When we leave Him, we lose our ability to maintain a beautiful culture. This ties in with what Ratzinger said above about proper worship being central.

Not only that, but instead of striving for beauty, we uphold ugliness as something good. We make our buildings ugly through ugly architecture, and we make ourselves purposely ugly. Rather than architects striving to express transcendent beauty in their creations, they have abandoned the concept of transcendent beauty altogether. By abandoning God, we have turned inward upon ourselves. Architecture, and all art, has become simply the means of the artist’s self-expression with no regard for loftier ideals.

As such, what becomes important is what the artist feels—a legacy of Romanticism and not expressing divine truth. Architects who think otherwise are becoming increasingly frustrated with the state of architecture today, many saying that they were taught that there is no such thing as objective beauty. Of course, beauty has both an objective and subjective element, but the objective has been abandoned, leaving man to his own devices. Because of this, there is a movement, even a backlash, as people seek to beautify culture again. Whether this will be successful remains to be seen.

Despite what architects and academics think and teach, people innately know what is beautiful and ugly. They know something is wrong when they are forced to look at a nasty architectural horror and say it is good. People vote with their feet. Tourists will spend thousands of dollars and travel halfway around the world to visit Gothic cathedrals. How many will do the same to see a nationwide or other corporate skyscraper in any given city? People visit beautiful shopping centres in Milan, but how many will travel the same distance to see an ugly strip mall?

Gothic Greatness

Part of recovering past greatness in the arts and architecture is to find out what made the past great. Otherwise, if we only seek to imitate what has come before us woodenly, we will do nothing more than create a pastiche. This is not to denigrate any “neo-” movements by any means, such as the Neoclassicalism or Neorenaissance movements. I welcome things like that and think they are perfect for society.

My point is that we should seek a more permanent transformation rather than just a movement, and to accomplish this, we need to know not just what the past masters did but why. An excellent place to start is Gothic architecture, because Gothic architecture is a true expression of the high point of Christian civilization and God-honoring worship. It would do us well to try to think as they thought, and this starts not with architecture per se but with mediaeval theology and philosophy.

This post is the first of hopefully several, but not consecutively, that I plan to write about as I unfold these ideas. In essence, I argue that true artistic and architectural beauty arises from a correct orientation towards and worship of God. The mediaeval artists believed this, so they produced meaningful works that still resonate with us today. They resonate with us because they have tapped into the divine. Therefore, the divine imbues us with a nature that reflects its own sacred essence. It is ironic but not surprising that no other creation of a past civilization so different than our own has become such an integral part of contemporary life as the Gothic Cathedral

The Gothic Cathedral

In future essays, I plan to unpack more about the marvellous secrets hidden within the Gothic cathedrals. But, I want to end with a few salient points along these lines.

Descartes, Newton, and Hume are to blame for trapping modern people in a dead-end of mechanistic materialism. It would be enlightening for us to view the world like the mediaeval people did, from the intellectuals to the ordinary people. Recreating mediaeval society should be something other than a goal, for that would be impossible and counterproductive. Our goal is to learn from the past and use those lessons to improve our present. We shouldn’t simply admire or criticize entire historical eras, but rather understand their nuances.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to learn from those who came before. I want to end with three points. Firstly, the mediaeval people looked at the world around them symbolically. It was bursting with the meaning of the divine and transcendent. Where we only saw the physical, they saw the spiritual in everything they beheld.7 Everything, even though real, was a symbol that pointed to something beyond what they could learn from. For example, mediaeval people did not just see a tree and break it down into its parts as we do, but when they looked at a tree, they imagined the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden or even the Cross of Christ.

Building on the first point, scholars have also referred to the Gothic age as the “age of vision.” They believed in and expected to receive divine illumination from above through the created, natural order, or the church’s sacramental life. Everything functioned in a sacramental sense, whether it be an official sacrament such as baptism or nature through which God revealed Himself.

Thirdly, they brought all of these ideas together when considering church architecture. Architecture is an art form that does not imitate anything specific, like a portrait. If done correctly, though, it does “imitate” transcendence and the beauty found therein. The architect becomes a conduit for such expression rather than the origin of such expression himself. The Gothic architect thus viewed the cathedral as the house of God on earth. Because of that, every detail, both externally and internally, had to properly reflect some aspect of the divine so that when worshippers entered the sanctuary, they were entering the heavenly sanctuary itself.

Within the cathedral, the spheres of heaven and the earthly sphere overlapped and became one. God was truly dwelling with his people on earth.

Gothic Cathedral

Beauty, the New Evangelism

We live in an age where people do not want to hear propositional truth; instead, they seek experiences that do not necessarily have to be wrong. Rather than dry facts alone, beauty will draw people in and make them receptive to truth. If so, as Catholics, we must seek to create a culture of beauty again.

I recently came across a story of a former adult film star, Bree Solstad, who had a remarkable “life-altering conversion” to Catholicism and a subsequent decision to leave sex work.8 She talks about what influenced her to convert when she visited Italy, not least the beauty of the art and architecture. Her testimony is as follows:

About a year ago, I had an opportunity to go to Italy and spent months preparing. The majority of the places I wanted to visit were churches, because in Italy that is where all the great art is located. But once inside these beautiful old basilicas, cathedrals, and churches, something changed in me and I began to appreciate the art and the churches themselves for the theology they expressed. My heart was being pierced by beauty and I began to notice more than just the beauty of the art. 

Unlike any Protestant church I had ever gone to as a child, the crucifix was always right there. His gift to us was always plain to see as soon as I entered a church. For reasons I still can’t explain, I found myself getting down on one knee to cross myself when I entered and exited the churches. In Sorrento and Rome, I remember seeing the Virgin Mary on street corners all over the place. I noticed her in side chapels of churches and even on my barista’s bracelet. 

It was a surreal experience, but I really felt like Mary was calling me. Each time I entered a church, I felt compelled to seek her out. I wanted to greet her and ask her to help me with the effects of the tragedy that had previously occurred in my life. 

-Bree Solstad

There is a lot here, but notice how her testimony comports with what I have been saying about beauty and truth. The beauty pierced his heart as she began to “notice more than just the beauty of the art.”. She began to appreciate the art and churches for the theology they expressed. In other words, truth expresses itself through beauty, art and architecture that capture the divine essence will reconnect this generation with God more than just rational discourse.

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Deo Gratias!

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Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Simson, Otto von, The Gothic Cathedral, Princeton University Press, 1962, 1988, p. xx
  2. Ratzinger, Cardinal Joseph, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, 2020, p. 29
  3. Ibid., p. 30
  4. Ibid., p. 32
  5. Ibid., p. 35
  6. Simson, Otto von, The Gothic Cathedral, Princeton University Press, 1962, 1988, p. xvii
  7. Ibid., p. xix
  8. CatholicVote.org, “How the Virgin Mary, St Clare of Assisi, and Italian architecture brought about the conversion of ‘Mistress B’”

Further Reading:

Ratzinger, Cardinal Joseph, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, 2020, ISBN-13: 978-1621644293

Simson, Otto von, The Gothic Cathedral, Princeton University Press, 1962, 1988, ISBN-13 978-0691018676

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