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Beauty Will Save the World, But How? Part III: Liturgy

June 1, 2021


We continue our to look at how we identify and understand beauty in all its forms,  featuring Denis McNamara, the director of Benedictine College’s Center for Beauty and Culture. In Part II, McNamara noted that historically, what we perceive as beautiful can be proved as beautiful when we can can identify within it the truth and goodness with which beauty must travel. His conversation with Robert Mixa, the Word on Fire Institute’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Fellow for Catholic Education, now turns to the liturgy.

Robert Mixa:

Let’s look into the liturgy, because liturgy is oftentimes the first experience people have of the faith as something that you grow up with. What makes liturgy beautiful? Oftentimes, I find Mass lacking in the constitutive elements of beauty. So how do we talk about this without it becoming a matter of taste? 

Dr. Denis McNamara:

Like everything else, the first question when someone says, “Please evaluate if that is beautiful, or please make a beautiful thing” is to ponder, well, beauty is the revelation of the truth, so what is true about that thing? In other words, what’s the nature of the liturgy itself? What is it according to its being? And so, this is where operative ontological understandings come in. Not everybody has heard this phrase “operative ontology” but everybody’s got one. It simply means the understanding of something out of which people operate.

So, is my operative ontological understanding of liturgy the 1970s gather-around-the-table meal theory privileging psychological intimacy and feelings of closeness? Or is my operative ontology of liturgy one where God, who is the eternal Father, receives our worship through Christ, sacramentalized by the priest, giving us access to the sights and sounds of heaven?

If you want to talk about beautiful liturgy, the first question is, “What is liturgy?,” and the primary place to find that answer is in the Church’s liturgical books. We ask the Church to tell us what liturgy is. When you read the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or any authoritative book of the Church, you find out what she herself thinks liturgy is. The Catechism, for instance, says that liturgy is “the participation of the people of God in the work of God” (CCC 1069), which is very interesting.

What’s the work of God? It’s the “work” of Christ who is at the right hand of the Father as the true High Priest, doing what priests do: offering himself and us as a perfect sacrifice. He is pleading with, praising, and thanking God. So our job is to offer ourselves and plead and thank together with Christ because we are participating in Christ’s work as members of his Mystical Body. He’s the Head of the Body, and we can’t do it without him. But we, too, offer ourselves as a victim with Christ to the Father through the Holy Spirit, so we die with Christ and rise again glorified. This is how the events of the Paschal Mystery get applied to us.

Now, that’s serious business. And for a fuller understanding of the liturgy, you have to ask this question: Who else is doing this? Who else has membership in the Mystical Body giving perfect worship to the Father through Christ? And the answer is the angels, the saints, everyone on earth worshipping at that moment, and even the souls in purgatory. And what is Christ the High Priest like? Is he just a carpenter of Galilee? Is he only the Christ of the historical Last Supper on earth? Or is he the second person of the Trinity at the right hand of the Father outside of time and space, supreme divine ruler and judge, glorified, resurrected, and ascended into heaven? These are questions of the very nature of Christ, and therefore the very nature of the liturgy.

So, a person evaluating the beauty of liturgy has to ask if their particular earthly liturgy reveals its heavenly nature. Does it show that heavenly glory? Does the priest most fully sacramentalize Christ at the right hand of the Father? Do the vestments reveal the garments of salvation? Does the building show you what the new heaven and new earth might look like at the end of time?

If your operative ontology of liturgy is wrong, you might be making a good expression of your ontology, but you couldn’t call it beautiful because it’s not actually revealing as fully as it should what the nature of the thing is. If I think a dog is a cat, and I draw a picture of a dog, and I call it a cat, it means I don’t know what a dog is. It’s a pretty good cat, but it’s not a very good dog. And so, if you don’t know what liturgy is according to its nature—the action of Christ at the right hand of the Father—then you might be doing something you like, but it’s not really revealing what it’s supposed to be revealing, and therefore not beautiful, properly speaking.

So, the truth of a thing, and therefore its beautiful expression, may not be to a particular person’s “taste” or personal preference, but that does not change the mind’s capacity to assess the truth of its ontological reality.

So, you’re saying that the best thing we can do is to understand or think about what a thing is, right? You oftentimes hear people jumping right to the practical without adequately pondering the speculative. But I hear you advising better understanding before jumping into action. Perhaps understanding is the first action? 

Absolutely. How can you make a decision about the rights of a person if you don’t know what a person is? If you think someone is subhuman, then you might think you can enslave them. Well, that’s an ontological problem. If you think the Eucharist is just a piece of bread, it’s likely that you don’t handle it very carefully or give it the honor due to it. So, you can’t do anything beautifully until you know what’s true about it. And this is where beauty, truth, and goodness come together.

When you have beauty, which is this clear understanding and revelation of the truth of a thing, then you know how to act. Goodness follows on truth, and beauty is the clear and radiant revelation of that truth.

Often I hear some Catholics almost separate beauty from truth, as if in today’s “postmodern world” you can’t lead with truth. But the best approach is not beauty first and truth later, but beauty and truth simultaneously together. “Yes” to both, at the same time. 

Interestingly, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have each spoken about leading with beauty, but beauty can never be separated from truth. Beauty, by definition, is the attractive power of the truth. It cannot be separated from truth and still be genuine any more than “delicious” can be separated from food.

If I say to you, “Hey, I have this beautiful chocolate chip cookie,” and it smells delicious, the first thing you want to do is eat it. So there’s something about that deliciousness that moves your will to accept and eat that cookie. But if it smells like a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s really wax and tastes terrible, you would rightly feel deceived. So perceived beauty without truth can be dangerously deceptive and even lead a person to error.

A demon, for instance, tries to make things that are bad seem like they’re good. This is how temptation works because we, as humans, tend to choose things that are perceived as good. And so true beauty has to be attractive, but then the attractiveness has to lead you to that which sometimes is true and good. This is where people are sometimes suspicious of beauty because they are at times attracted to things that seem beautiful, and then they find they are hollow and empty. Pornography is a good example of something that seems attractive but then doesn’t have the fullness of truth behind it. So is the glitter of Las Vegas.

So, goodness, truth, and beauty ought always to exist together.

Las Vegas is a good example. I remember when I first went there. At first, Caesar’s Palace is attractive, but then there’s just something so superficial about that place.

At the same time, there is something really pleasant about it: dancing fountains and marble columns and elaborate paintings and mosaics. But at the end of the day, you say, “This is all drawing me in. The attractive power is here, but it’s not leading me to the truth. It’s leading me to put money in a slot machine.” Or worse. It is the mind that realizes that the opulence of a casino is not revealing its inherent ontological reality. Instead of being beautiful, it is merely pleasant.

So mere pleasant stimulation of the senses is not the same thing as the experience of beauty because beauty always gives a delightful experience of the truth. Similarly, mere emotional response is not the same thing as the experience of beauty. Beauty, of course, comes with an emotional response of delight precisely because you have come to know the truth and are moved out of yourself to know the good. This is what is traditionally called ecstasy, from ec– which means “out of” and stasis which means “standing or still.” So someone in ecstasy is standing out of himself.

You mentioned that moving outside of oneself, that ecstatic move that beauty brings about. You’re reminding me of Plato’s “Symposium” or some of his other dialogues.

Think about a homily at Mass. You can have a preacher who really knows the Scriptures and knows what’s true, but he’s not a very effective speaker. The parishioners really have to concentrate to accept that and are more concerned about how bored they are than the content of the homily. Now, think of a speaker who is such a good communicator—and this is one of the reasons people love to listen to Bishop Barron so much—that you come to know the truth easily and delightfully. And you get excited about that knowledge. It draws you out of your petty personal concerns and allows you to participate in something outside of yourself. It makes the truth not only true but also delightful to receive.