“Beauty is indeed a good gift of God” – St. Augustine, City of God, Chapter 22
Beauty is an integral and essential part of the Catholic liturgy. It is indeed a gift from God, as St. Augustine points out. But is much more than a fleeting stimulus to the senses. Beauty is an enduring, tangible, and necessary indication of the Lord. When beauty has been allowed to wither, the liturgy and the faithful are moved away, however unintentionally, from the divine presence.
My argument hinges on one simple question: do absolutes exist? If they do (and one would assume that anyone acknowledging the existence of God would concede that God would be an absolute), then one way of understanding God is through the aspects of His nature which may be perceived within the earthly realm. If absolutes do not exist, the whole point is moot, everything is relative, and there seems little need for any notion of the divine.
If we proceed with the assumption that absolutes do exist, and that perfection is possible, we certainly would have a hard time looking around and finding evidence to support that claim. Despite many centuries of attempts, Man has not been able to perfect much of anything. But our earthly realm is certainly not the entirety of Creation. The realm of absolutes, the place where everything can, and has been, perfected, lies in Heaven. Contrary to the laws of entropy, Man is driven to admire and to strive for perfection, and has been given the perception to understand that it is possible, but has been denied the possibility of achieving it during this lifetime.
And yet the understanding that Nature can be perfected is an incredible gift. For it enables us to perceive God within the earthly realm. If we make a list of several virtues, and contemplate their absolute perfection, are we not describing God? Perfect Truth, Love, Mercy, Faith, Power, Knowledge, Order… Have these descriptions not been used to describe the Heavenly Father? And when considered together, that God is not merely perfect Truth, but perfect Truth, Love, Mercy, and so on, does that not begin to describe the magnificence of the Lord?
To this list, I must add Beauty. Beauty has long been important to the Church throughout the centuries, as an appropriate setting for the Mass. But it has been marginalized in recent memory, under the assumption that it serves merely as a display of Man’s earthly wealth and arrogance. Beauty has been intentionally and systematically removed from the Church, to the point where many have felt the void. Why has Beauty been cast aside? There are three reasons:
First is a misinterpretation of the results of the Second Vatican Council. In the final documents from Vatican II, the changes to the Mass and to churches were far more incremental and subtle than those actually made. The Council served as justification for a widespread purge of beauty from churches, driven by the notion that beauty is expensive, and that churches should not outwardly express wealth. Had there been a better understanding of the theological importance of beauty, perhaps this would not have happened to so great an extent.
Second, our society is one which attempts to define everything in relative terms. Absolutes, not only in the Church, but in such places as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are no longer popular ideas. The phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has been used to deny the idea that there could be such a thing as true beauty.
The third reason is one of atrophy. As artists and architects were no longer asked to design and appoint beautiful Churches, the skills to do so well have become harder to find. Many feeble attempts at beauty by the untrained have missed the mark, allowing the quest for beauty to be dismissed as unachievable and unrewarding.
So to address each in turn:
Beauty is the single aspect of God which can be expressed physically within the earthly realm. It is critical to the setting of the Mass. God is present at the Mass, in the Eucharist. The church stands as the dwelling place of the Lord on Earth, and a “reflects the Church dwelling in Heaven” (Built of Living Stones, #17). Beauty is not merely Man’s arrogance or a waste of resources which could be directed to the poor. Beautiful settings, artwork, music, and liturgy are appropriate and necessary aspects of God’s everlasting mystical presence before Mankind.
As far as the relativity argument is concerned, if everything is indeed relative, there are no absolutes, and not only does beauty not exist, but there is little purpose for God, either. One would never use the phrase “Truth is in the eye of the beholder”. (Then again, one might, but that is beyond the scope of this article.)
And the final point is one of supply and demand. If the marketplace, which is a crude way of lumping together all those who commission liturgical art and architecture, is demanding mediocrity, then that is what will be produced. Artists, architects, and craftsmen are always willing to go beyond, but need the encouragement, training, and resources to allow them to do so.
The wonderful news is that within the last decade there has been a strong resurgence in the appreciation, use, and creation of beauty within the Church. The desire for beautiful churches, artwork, music, and vestments is growing stronger every day. This can be attributed to the understanding that beauty is truly a means of perceiving and understanding the nature of God.
This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.