Saturday, October 22, 2011

Beauty Is Truth, And Truth Beauty -- No, Really!

Any time I argue in favor of Gregorian chant at Mass, there always seems to be somebody around -- somebody, that is, of the Haugen-Haas mindset -- to inform me that my preference for chant is purely a matter of taste, and that other people have different tastes and opinions.  What never gets explained is why, if liturgical music is purely a matter of taste and opinion, their opinion always deserves to prevail over mine.  The answer, of course, is that where no one acknowledges universal standards, the party that prevails is always the one with the most power.  Thus, the ultimate end of relativism masquerading as "liberalism" or "tolerance" or "progressivism" is that might makes right.

Fortunately, however, there are universal standards; and even more fortunately, there are some in authority who stand up for them.  Bishop Robert C. Morlino of the Diocese of Madison in Wisconsin is one such, and his recent column in the diocesan organ, the Catholic Herald, addresses precisely the question of beauty and the liturgy.  The liturgy, he declares, "always requires beauty in its celebrations."  Imagine a bishop coming out with the following just 15 or 20 years ago:
Since the frequently mistaken implementation of Vatican II (almost 50 years ago), many liturgies have taken place which are, at least, less than beautiful. To this statement, our country and our culture would respond immediately, "but beauty is in the eye of the beholder," or, "everything is beautiful, in its own way." Just as our culture has sought to relativize everything important to human nobility, asserting that it is human nature not to have a nature, so too is this the case with beauty itself.
But Bishop Morlino does not simply lob hydrogen bombs and then run for cover.  He goes on to spell out the universal standards for what is beautiful:
Beauty is not, in fact, simply in the eye of the beholder, from the viewpoint of reason. For reason tells us that beautiful, good, true, and one are interchangeable; therefore, whatever is beautiful is also good and true, and expresses unity and harmony.
In order to understand what beauty is, it is useful to understand what it is not:
Beautiful can never be mistaken as an indicator of what pleases some majority of people somewhere. The fact that our parish likes to sing a particular song at the liturgy cannot, of itself, make that song beautiful. To be beautiful, indeed, is to be good and is to be true. As much as some people may enjoy the musical antics of Lady Gaga, these cannot honestly be described as beautiful.
We must never forget that, being wounded by original sin, it is possible for us to take as good that which is not good.  We are not only capable of loving what is unworthy but also of rationalizing it.  Consider, for example, the ancient Roman taste for gladiatorial games, under the guise of admiring the combatants' skill and prowess.  Of course, the need to rationalize a taste for violence, or overt sexual displays, or low company, or other forms of spiritual trash, at least shows that the person caught in those snares still realizes, deep in his core, that these things are wrong.  Eventually, however, if we wallow long enough in baseness, that spark of conscience will be smothered and we will no longer see a need to rationalize.

Bishop Morlino goes on to explain his thesis, picking, as a particular example, on a selection from the Oregon Catholic Press repertoire:
Beautiful means, in the first place, embodying the truth. Some of the songs that we sing at liturgy contain lyrics which clearly are not true — for example, the song “All Are Welcome.” As a matter of fact, the liturgy takes place mystically in the heavenly sanctuary. All are welcome at the liturgy who truly seek salvation in and through Jesus Christ, by following God’s Will, as spelled out through His Son’s very Body, the Church. People who have little interest in doing God’s Will don’t fit at the liturgy. And certainly, by their own choosing, the poor souls who suffer in Hell for all eternity are not welcome. Those are simple, but true facts. Thus the song, “All Are Welcome,” gives an impression that the choice for the Will of Jesus Christ, as it comes to us through the Church, makes no difference; and nothing could be further from the truth. It could therefore be concluded that the song, “All are Welcome,” is not beautiful so as to be appropriate-for-liturgical-use. Being true is necessary before anything can be beautiful.
To become inured to such as "All Are Welcome" has serious consequences.  Set to an (appropriately) insignificant melody, the sentiments as expressed in "All Are Welcome" rise only from the nonsensical to the sophomoric ("Let us build a house where love can dwell/And all can safely live,/A place where saints and children tell/How hearts learn to forgive."), and the doctrine stinks ("Let us build a house where love is found/In water, wine and wheat:/A banquet hall on holy ground/Where peace and justice meet.").  Yet, for years, we have preferred this diet of spiritual Spam to the prime rib that is our birthright and heritage; and, as a result, we no longer know what is good.

Bishop Morlino goes on to explain that that which is beautiful appeals to our dignity and nobility as rational creatures made in the image and likeness of God:
But, it is equally important for something to be good so that it also might be judged beautiful. The truth, which is clothed by beauty, must be such as to ennoble the human person in terms of bringing out his or her very best, both of intellect and of will. The beautiful must embody that which is true, but also ennobling to our human nature as made in the image and likeness of God. Whatever is beautiful must fix our minds and our hearts on the things above, according to St. Paul (Phil 4).
Beauty, then, is a taste of the supernatural.  The last sentence in this paragraph contains a good rule for determining whether we are in the presence of beauty: to what does this thing I am considering direct my mind?  It must be admitted that the 20th century could be described as an age of the exaltation of the ugly, whether in art, literature, cinema, drama, architecture or music; and even the Church bears its scars.  When I enter a church built during the last century, do I feel as though I am in the portico of heaven?  Or do I feel like I'm in an airplane hangar?  Does the music make me feel as though I am at the foot of the Cross, or in the audience at a Broadway musical?  If I were an alien from the Andromeda Galaxy observing the sacred liturgy, would I guess by the vessels used at Mass that they contain Something precious?

I will give Bishop Morlino the last word:
When one realizes that to be authentically beautiful, something must be both true and ennobling of our human nature, that tells us a great deal about what exactly is appropriate at the liturgy. Because it is the source and the summit of our lives as followers of Christ, the liturgy must never be anything less than beautiful, beautiful in such wise as to evoke the correct sacramental attitude of reverence, beautiful as befitting our communion at the liturgy with all the angels and saints.
H/T Fr. Z.

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