A Thing of Beauty
(The following is a homily of the Reverend Father Franklyn Martin McAfee, D.D., Pastor Emeritus of the Church of Saint John the Beloved, McLean, Virginia. It was delivered at the Solemn High Mass on the 26th of September, 2009, in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in conjunction with the 2009 CMAA Gregorian Chant Pilgrimage. -- DLA)
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases;
It will never pass into nothingness;
-- John Keats
When the envoys of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev returned from attending the Divine Liturgy at the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, in Constantinople in the late tenth century, they gave this report; “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget the beauty”!
President John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, told of a visit to a “Romish Chapel”, it said it part; “The music was consisting of an organ and a choir of singers, went all the Afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted-most sweetly and exquisitely. Here is every thing which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell”.
St. Teresa of Avilla declared, “I am always shaken by the grandeur of the ceremonies of the Church. The love of beauty and its expression…for the work of art is not itself beauty but its expression is homage to God because, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “beauty is one of the names of God”. Thus the church, when she is summoned to celebrate the Divine Mystery, utilizes all of the arts appealing to the senses because the beautiful is “id quod visum placet” ‘vision of which’ when beheld is pleasing. The soberness of the chant, the splendor of the instruments, the festivity of the vestments, the pageantry of the incense, the candles, the vessels, the holy water – all of these aid us in our worship of the Triune God who created beauty, sustains beauty, redeemed beauty and is Beauty itself.
The Church has traditionally clothed the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with mystery. Using the goods of creation, the Church in her transcendent earthiness leads her children to God and God through the same means descends to them. The Church at times has forgotten this. Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) lamented, “Since the (Second) Vatican Council the Church has turned its back on beauty.” Just a few years ago the Pontifical council of culture in Rome issued this plea “give beauty back to ecclesiastical buildings, give beauty back to the liturgical objects”! Not only has the Church turned her back on beauty, she seems to be embarrassed by it. She who was once the patroness of the arts.
We have been impoverished. We are, to use a phrase of Paul Claudel’s, “we live in an age of starved imagination”. According to the philosopher Plotinus “the soul must climb the ladder of the beautiful before it can encounter the vision of First Beauty. But what happens when they remove the rungs of the ladder?
Scientists tell us that the left side of the brain specializes in mathematics, analysis, science and so on. It is the right side of the brain is incurably romantic its province is poetry, love, art, music. It is the right side of the brain that is called into play by a high form of Liturgy. One author has said, “During a more de-ritualized example of the vernacular Mass the right brain, that miniature Homer or Shakespeare in all of us, is smothered to death”.
H. L. Menken who wrote for a Baltimore paper, and was no friend of religion, found himself admiring the Catholic Church as he said in 1923; "The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem.... Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry of Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry - for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, of the liturgy itself." "A solemn High Mass," he concluded, "must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top... in the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.”
Listen to the enemies of the Church. They tremble at every swing of incense and each and every genuflection. In 1888 a Seventh Day Adventist published a book about the Whore of Babylon. When Judge Clarence Thomas was named to the Supreme Court the book was reissued. Here the author remarks about Catholic Worship…remember this was in the 19th century. “Many Protestants suppose that the Catholic religion is unattractive and that its worship is a dull, meaningless round of ceremony. Here they mistake. While Romanism is based upon deception, it is not a coarse and clumsy imposture. The religious service of the Roman Church is a most impressive ceremonial. Its gorgeous display and solemn rites fascinate the senses of the people and silence the voice of reason and of conscience. The eye is charmed. Magnificent churches, imposing processions, golden altars, jeweled shrines, choice paintings, and exquisite sculpture appeal to the love of beauty. The ear also is captivated. The music is unsurpassed. The rich notes of the deep-toned organ, blending with the melody of many voices as it swells through the lofty domes and pillared aisles of her grand cathedrals, cannot fail to impress the mind with awe and reverence. The pomp and ceremony of the Catholic Worship has the seductive, bewitching power by which many are deceived; and they come to look upon the Roman Church as the very gate of Heaven.”
In this way, many hearts hardened to the Church and her teachings, have been melted; as was the case of the “decadents”, who were Baudelaire, Verlaine, Aubrey, Oscar Wilde and others. “Beauty can then be fittingly called evangelical, evangelical beauty, via pulchritudinis, can open the pathway for the search for God and “dispose the heart and spirit to meet Christ who is the beauty of Holiness Incarnate offered by God to man for their salvation.”
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, for something to be considered beautiful it must have three qualities, integrity, harmony, clarity or radiance. When the radiance breaks through and the teachings of the Church are made manifest and the Catholic Church is recognized as the place where the truth abides and the home of beauty. This was the case with the decadents. Urs von Balthasar has written, that when “the good has lost its power of attraction, when proofs have lost their conclusive character; then the beautiful will empower”.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his telling of the visit of the delegates of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Constantinople said that the delegation and the prince accepted the truth of Christianity not by the cogency of its theological augmentations but by the beauty of the mystery of its Liturgy.
The poet Baudelaire, one of the decadents wrote; “It is at once through poetry and across poetry, through and across music, that the soul glimpses the splendor situated beyond the grave; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes these tears are not proof of excessive joy. They are the testimony of an irritated melancholy, a demand of the nerves, of a nature exiled in the imperfect, and now desiring to take possession of his world.”
Baudelaire was significantly influenced on his idea of beauty by an American writer he much admired, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe states of beauty: “We still have a thirst unquenchable, the thirst belonging to the immortality of man. He is at once a consequence and an indication of this perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the stars. It is no mere appreciation of the beauty before us, but veiled effort to reach the beauty above.”
Why then must the Liturgy be beautiful? Because beauty provides a vehicle to transcend our present lives and to touch the skirts of heaven. When we encounter finite beauty there is engendered a more passionate longing for absolute immortal beauty of which the earthly, temporal, beauty is but an ephemeral epiphany.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ is called the leiturgos, the Liturgist who presides over all our rituals, who Himself offers the Liturgy. Since Christ is the leiturgos and Christ is Beauty Incarnate, all beauty must reflect him and all beauty must flow from Him in the Liturgy.
Christ the Word Made Flesh is the greatest masterpiece. Christ is the most perfect symphony. Christ is the loveliest painting. Christ is the cosmic beat in the everlasting poem.
St. John of the Cross said; “God passes through the thickets of the world and wherever His glance falls, he turns all things to beauty”.
St. Paul wrote to Timothy; “He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He does possess immortality dwelling in unapproachable light”. Yet in the Divine Liturgy of the Mass we make bold to approach Him who lives in unapproachable light.
How can I describe the Liturgy? I can describe the Liturgy with one word. In the courts of heaven, amid the chorus of angels, there is but one word spoken, one solitary word which the cherubim and seraphim utter before the majesty of the cosmic liturgy of the glorified Lamb once slain but now risen, and that word is ...
That simple word ...
That glorious word ...
That triumphant word is ...
(CREDITS: Photos by Miss Sarah Campbell, from the Solemn High Mass for Palm Sunday 2009, at the Church of St John the Beloved, McLean, Virginia. Video clips of the Solemn High Mass at the National Shrine produced and directed by John Schultz of NetStrategies.)