In Defense of Beauty

It’s said that the three marks of the divine–that which is transcendent–is beauty, goodness, and truth. That which is beautiful, good, or truthful points towards God. This is why Catholic churches have traditionally been built with rich artwork and soaring architecture.

Modern society is at battle with these marks of transcendence. Not only is popular culture seeking to make goodness and truth relative, it also seeks to destroy beauty in favor of efficiency. We see examples of this with the literal destruction of beauty in Catholic churches across the country: high altars ripped down, intricate altar rails thrown away, detailed stained glass imagery replaced by abstract colors, beautiful vestments replaced by schlocky polyester sheets, and many more examples. Secular life has many examples too; most modern buildings favor high-efficiency materials to produce cookie-cutter strip malls dotting our roads, deep and meaningful music, artwork, and literature exists but seems to be harder and harder to find. Gone are the days when someone who cherished authentic beauty in society is to be regarded civilized.

1710-15_de_matteis_triumph_of_the_immaculate_anagoria

The soul’s longing for beauty may be hard to easily satisfy in today’s world but those who seek to live a counter-cultural, authentic, better and joyful life need to try. One must ask of everything surrounding their life, “does this reflect goodness, truth, or beauty”? It’s not the most efficient way of living, but it does produce better results. This point is reflected over and over by Rod Dreher in his book Crunchy Cons, “beauty is more important than efficiency”:

Appreciation of aesthetic quality–that is, beauty–is not a luxury, but key to the good life

In my now-heightened awareness of the lack of beauty plaguing both our churches and culture, I found the recent article by Paul Krause particularly edifying. He more eloquently states the same point while citing ancient thinkers such as Cicero and Platinus and their impact on classic Christian philosophy. These notions were once obvious to Christians. This unfortunately is no longer.

What’s hopeful, however, is the recent “re-renovations” of previously destroyed churches, the formation of architectural firms specializing in traditional beauty, and priests interested in offering reverent Masses (especially the TLM).

Quoting only parts from A Defense of Beauty and Excellence from the Classical Tradition (emphases mine):

There are many serious problems facing moderns, but one of the most troubling—and worrying—is the loss and degradation of beauty, not just in the arts, but in society as a whole. Classical Greek philosophy, to which Catholic philosophy largely inherited and preserved, maintained that beauty and morality were intertwined with one another. When Christianity began to spread, the Christian encounter with Greek philosophy was largely positive. However, over the last two centuries, the widening chasm between aesthetics and virtue, and the postmodern assertion that aesthetics is oppressive (and therefore needing deconstruction), has brought immeasurable harm to culture and society.

Culture means life. And for life to be truly flourishing in a teleological sense, Greek, Roman, traditional Jewish and Christian philosophy, always affirmed beauty as an integral aspect of the good life. In his masterpiece, Enneads, Plotinus opened his most famous section—on beauty—by writing, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.”

More…

[Plotinus stated] “Then again, all the virtues are a beauty of the soul, a beauty authentic beyond any of these others.”… As Plotinus explains, the ugly lacks a proper cultivation of reason, torn by lust and discord, lashes out and destroys beauty in the process—which also destroys harmony. It is interesting to note that Plotinus associated the ugly soul with the person preoccupied with only material things.

Catholics, best of all, understand the importance of the union of aesthetics with arête. Beauty, itself, demands a value judgement. There is nothing harsh or unfair with proclaiming this truth. That which is beautiful is good, and that which is ugly, as Plotinus recognized, is neither beautiful nor good. There are natural gradations of beauty. As Augustine explained, the gradations of beauty lift one up closer to Heaven and the Supreme Beauty that is God. This follows the insights of both Plato and Plotinus who recognized that the experience of even low beauty awakens an innate desire for greater beauty that drives one to greater excellence in search for beauty.

Cicero equally noted that people in their folly, are prone to destroy things beautiful and admirable. Nihilism is the end result of anti-intellectualism and relativism, not just the mere absence of values but the abject negation—destruction—of beauty and values.

The quote above is great. Relativism of beauty, truth, and goodness has an end result of not just the simple absence of each mark but a destruction of each. What did we see bishops and priests do in the 70’s? They didn’t just simply start making ugly new churches, they quite literally destroyed the beauty of old churches. The “art” that replaced traditional sacred art in many suburban parishes are kitschy felt banners and horrendously cheesy guitar music. Gross.

It is the inheritance of the classical marriage of aesthetics and moral excellence that had historically been a cornerstone of not just Catholic philosophy, but Western philosophy more generally—inspiring all aspects of culture: art, music, engineering, and literature, to reflect the highest excellence demanded of beauty itself. And in that beauty there exists an irresistible draw for the virtuous to defend all that is beautiful. The compulsion to defend the beautiful, itself, reflects the moral excellence of the person.

…in Confessions, Augustine stated that reading Virgil and Cicero had brought him to belief in God. Beauty is the brilliance of truth, and as Augustine said, “All truth belongs to God.” And we know where that road ultimately ends.

We all should start discerning what is beautiful in our homes and lives. Then we should slowly start surrounding our minds, bodies, and souls not only with what is truthful and good but also is beautiful. ☩

Pope Francis: “Renewal” of Sacred Music needed after decades of “Mediocrity”

Choir for the papal general audience Nov. 14, 2012, in Paul VI Hall.
Don’t they want more bongo drums in St. Peter’s Basilica?

Ahhhhh, some comments out of the Vatican that don’t require peeking between fingers clenching your face as you read. Speaking to a conference on the 50th anniversary of the document concerning liturgical music following the Second Vatican Council, Musicam Sacramthe Holy Father “recognized that sacred music had often suffered since the Council. Isn’t he right!

Quoting from the Register further:

The instruction set out four types of sacred music: “Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms, both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.”

In his remarks, Pope Francis highlighted that sacred music has suffered in modernity: “At times, a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations.”

Musicians, composers, conductors and singers in scholae cantorum, he said, “can make a precious contribution to the renewal” of sacred music, he said, while also highlighting the need for “appropriate musical formation” of the faithful, including seminarians, to accompany their contributions.

::golf clap::

Yes, many parishes with…modern…leaning music directors wrongly assume that for their “ministry” to be “relevant” in today’s culture they must imitate either popular music (to horrible and cringeworthy results) or regurgitate protestant hymns frozen in the 70s. Holy Mass is known for inspiring the music of Mozart, Beethovan, and so much more. So why do parishes so rarely use the treasures of our history and Tradition: classical chant, polyphony and instrumentals? It’s like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC only displaying Calvin & Hobbes comic strips…actually, no, it would be like displaying comic strips that no one outside of the museum would ever want to read in on their own time. Show me guitars, maracas, and On Eagles Wings and I will show you a dwindling and unenthusiastic congregation. Show me authentically sacred music, and you will likely find a vibrant congregation full of people of all ages.

Thank you Pope Francis from making even a tiny comment about this issue. ☩

Eric Clapton & Pavarotti Blow Down Doors for Mary

‘Christian Rock’ is a genre of music I typically avoid. Aside from the term alone having a strong stench of cheesy American protestantism, the music typically flat out sucks. As a true lover of all kinds of music, especially rock, I typically state that ‘Christian rock’ doesn’t make Christianity better, it makes rock worse.

However, when authentic Christian themes are built into fantastic instrumentals, led by extremely talented musicians (let alone a guitar god), the results can be stunning on both the musical and spiritual level.

Dr. Taylor Marshall posted today on Eric Clapton and The Princess Bride. He included a video of a live performance of Clapton’s Marian ballad “Holy Mother”. Sitting in was opera legend Luciano Pavarotti. The combination of Clapton’s confident swagger on guitar with Pavarotti’s powerful vocals isn’t to be missed. As the song leaves the typically composed lyrical section, Clapton takes the lead by lacing the vocal refrain of Pavarotti with some stunning guitar work. Check it out:

Another great song to check out is “Presence of the Lord” with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood (not to mention Derrick Trucks, a personal favorite). Halfway through the song, the composition changes tempo from a slower ballad to a heavy blues-rock jam, with Clapton laying on the wah pedal, highlighting his darting leads before mellowing back into its ballad format. What a great way to start the week, enjoy!

The Church’s Apparent Problem with Beauty

This weekend I attended Mass at a beautiful cathedral. My family and I were out of town and we acted on a suggestion from a friend. The architecture, murals, and statues all worked to fix our gaze upward to heaven, helping achieve the proper disposition for Mass. Sure, they removed nearly all of the gorgeous communion rails (there were tiny four-foot segments left on each end) and the wall altar was replaced with a very bland backdrop to the Tabernacle, but it seemed like most of the church weathered the 60’s and 70’s pretty well.

The problem isn’t that the church lacked beauty, the problem is that the liturgy simply didn’t match. It begs the question, why do so many in the Catholic Church seemingly have a problem with beauty–sometimes it’s a bland and ugly modern church that lacks beauty, sometime’s it’s the prayers (or lack-thereof) used by a priest, sometimes it’s vestments, sometimes it’s art, and sometimes it’s music. Beauty, historically, was something the Church embraced. The architecture of old churches reflects not only the beauty we revered but showcases the talent and sacrifice of the faithful. The Church gave birth to some of the most beautiful music (beyond liturgical) the world has seen. Catholic art through the centuries has always been cherished by Catholics and secularists alike who respect the qualitative ways the human mind is able to capture its relationship to both the natural and supernatural worlds. For most of the Church’s existence, the liturgy was seen as the centerpiece of the Kingdom on Earth, handled with the respect it rightfully is due. What changed? There’s truth to the joke among Anglicans (who, as a group, still take the liturgy seriously) that when someone gets the “Roman itch”, the cure is attending Mass. Ouch.

cathsj32_1
The very non-beautiful modern interior (and against the Vatican’s request) of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee.

Of course there’s pockets within the American Church that are an exception to this rule, but this is not common for a typical American Catholic. The typical American Catholic encounters a Church on Sunday that oozes with cheesiness and a lost sense of purpose. The typical American Catholic cringes at most “church music” either because of the musicians’ musical shortcomings or because of the Here I am Lord hymns. The typical American Catholic is used to frumpy and purposeless altar servers (in contrast to altar boys). And sometimes this frumpiness is matched only by the celebrant of the Mass, the priest. Avoiding any sort of traditional cassocks or vestments, the typical American Catholic assumes the garments have always been akin to a ghost costume from 1979’s Halloween. The typical American Catholic thinks all priests give homilies that lack any sort of mental or spiritual stimulation, secretly pondering if the priest is even all that intelligent–it’s no wonder many are quick to deem the Church being anti-intellectual. The typical American Catholic sees being Catholic as just a part of their life rather than their life being part of being Catholic.

Altar
Believe it or not, you still can find parishes with very serious and well-trained altar boys who take pride in what they do.

This brings be back to Mass at this beautiful cathedral with the liturgy that didn’t match its surroundings. It was jarring to see altar girls waltz up to the altar in ill-fitting white robes followed by a priest in a purple sheet (that very well could have been from Bed, Bath, and Beyond) and an infomercial-style mic wrapped around his cheekbone. It was also jarring when the church is long and narrow but they still feel the need for seven “Eucharistic ministers” beyond the priest, especially when the “mini Communion” on the altar for the “ministers” lasts nearly as long as Communion to the other parishioners.

Catholicism that doesn’t stimulate our minds, bodies, or souls will work against the Faith. Many cradle Catholics will inevitably waver in their faith and the liturgy must exist to bear witness to the unworldly mystery that takes place at Mass rather than something that so reeks of a man-made event. If the Church fails to prove itself unique to the wavering, the wavering will begin to wonder why they take an hour out of the week to attend such a schlocky event. And, certainly, protestants or non-religious who find themselves in a typical American Catholic church see nothing special going on. These people we want to bring into the Faith see no reason to. Honestly, think for a moment about the most standard, milquetoast, cheesy Catholic parish you have been to recently. Then think about witnessing that as an outsider. What would be going through your head?

The Church has a very serious problem right now. Luckily, millions of young Catholics are working now to bring beauty back to the Faith either by fixing the issues handed to us with the Ordinary Form liturgy or embracing and spreading the Extraordinary Form.

The focal point of our Faith, our Church, and our lives is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is like a diamond. Would the typical American put a diamond in a cheap wooden band? Would we put a diamond in a lanyard necklace? Of course not. We put diamonds in beautiful, rich settings to highlight and showcase its value and meaning to us. The liturgy (and architecture, art, music) that surrounds our diamond, the Eucharist, should be the beautiful, serious, and intellectual setting such a treasure deserves.