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Beauty Will Save the World—But How? Part VI: Liturgical Participation (Conclusion)

June 22, 2021


Concluding our look at how we identify and understand beauty in all its forms, we again feature Denis McNamara, the Director of Benedictine College’s Center for Beauty and Culture. In Part V, Dr. McNamara discussed the importance of liturgical iconography and why it matters to the Mass. His conversation with Robert Mixa, the Word on Fire Institute’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Fellow for Catholic Education, now concludes with a discussion of how liturgical participation contributes to the overall beauty of the most spiritually powerful and penetrative act in the world, as well as how Catholic evangelization plays into this.  

Robert Mixa: If only we had good churches with good liturgies! I mean, beautiful churches with beautiful liturgies at the center of the city. Having everything else ordered around that deepest center, time is brought into liturgical time, the economy is brought into divine economy, and the culture is brought into cult, so everything finds its fullness in God. This is the belief behind the Liturgical Movement, right? Denis, I know you used to teach a course on that. And you once gave a graph and said, “What’s the problem? Sin. And the solution? The liturgy.”

Dr. Denis McNamara: Well, it’s not that simple because you can have valid Masses all over the world, and beautiful ones. But if the people don’t know what they’re doing, if they don’t care, if they don’t show up, or if they read the bulletin during Mass, then they’re not going to receive the available grace as fully as they ought. So this is where beauty—the subjective and the objective—work together.

We all know that the Eucharist, properly confected, is objectively the bearer of sanctifying grace for us. It’s Christ’s own Real Presence, and by definition, the presence of God confers holiness upon us. This is a biblical idea that goes back to the Old Testament where the presence of God was of supreme interest to the Israelites. But if a person at Mass doesn’t know what the Eucharist is, they cannot fully participate because knowing what you are doing is essential for it to bear fruit in you. This is why Vatican II called for “conscious participation” in the sacred liturgy. Similarly, if you breeze through Mass and don’t partake of it fully, both internally and in the exterior actions of the rite itself, you are missing out and can’t expect much in the way of results, much like going to the gym but not working out very hard. So this is why Vatican II called for “full” and also “active” participation. 

Some people are suspicious of Vatican II for various reasons, but they often don’t realize that full, conscious, and active participation are actually really good ideas that come from many decades of theological reflection before the council itself. And participation also relates to beauty, because that’s how you do things beautifully. If you remember Aquinas’ three constituent elements of beauty, one is integritas or wholeness. And you can see how participating fully corresponds to doing one’s whole part at liturgy. But liturgy is also proportionate both to heaven and to you, which Aquinas calls consonantia. So the earthly liturgy should be proportionate—that is, reveal most fully—the heavenly liturgy. It makes the fullness of the ontology of liturgy in its divine nature more knowable. It’s not called “divine worship” for nothing! But here’s the twist: the more you know about liturgy, the more proportionate you are to it and the more you can get from it. So beauty and liturgy go together like this.

Being transformed by the grace of the liturgy requires that those preparing and celebrating liturgy—priests, artists, and music directors, for instance—know what liturgy is and celebrate it beautifully. This is called the ars celebrandi, or “art of celebrating.” A priest ought to know, for instance, that to celebrate beautifully, he has to become an icon of Christ who prays for and with his people at the right hand of the Father. He ought to know that his vestments are like sacraments of the garments of heaven, and his gestures and tone of voice should reveal something important and divine. Similarly, a music director ought to know that the earthly choir is not so much meant to “produce” earthly songs, but reveal what the pre-existing song of heaven is like so that people can join it. And by joining it, they become more heavenly themselves. 

At the same time, it requires effort and understanding on the part of people in the pews to know what they are doing and do it fully. They should not simply expect the priest to entertain them or merely sing the songs that give them warm and fuzzy feelings. They are meant to surrender their personal preferences and be conformed to the liturgy, which is the “exercise plan” for the soul that the Church gives us.

There’s the story in Scripture where Christ calls the Apostles to breakfast on the beach, and he asks them to bring the fish. In other words, we have a contribution to make to God’s action in us. And in the liturgy, we bring ourselves to Christ, “sacrificing” ourselves, so that God can glorify us and return us to ourselves better than we were before, much like wheat is sacrificed to become the Eucharist. But if we don’t bring ourselves, it can’t happen. Because of God’s justice and love, he won’t take our freedom from us and can’t force us to love him. So he invites us to offer ourselves freely to this transformative process. And the principal place where this process occurs is the sacred liturgy.

If you are going to the gym, and the personal trainer tries to make you exercise and you refuse or only do it half-heartedly, it’s not going to bear much fruit in physical fitness. You have to surrender your will to this person and do what they say. It is an ascetic discipline, which means you sacrifice your freedom and your will, and you get yourself back better than before. Liturgy works in a similar way for the soul. And beautiful liturgy is much like a beautiful workout plan. You have to encounter what is true, do it fully and consciously, and surrender yourself to it. And then you wait for the fruits of that work to appear gradually over time.

Beauty and Evangelization

So, I want to conclude with beauty and evangelization. Bishop Barron often speaks about the way of beauty, and it seems to me, a beautiful liturgy is one of the best ways of evangelizing. Bringing somebody to such a liturgy can really help prime such a person for a more conscious encounter with the Lord. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Sure. If you want to sell people a product, you don’t begin by saying how expensive it is. You speak of what is true about it: it is well-made or delicious or good for you and so on. In marketing, if you want to sell something, you have to reveal what is good about it and have people believe that it is something good for them. If you want people to believe what’s true, you have to present it in a way that’s true, but also in a way that the culture still values and finds delightful and compelling. 

People still go to art museums, go to concerts, listen to music, and watch videos. I heard the other day that normally about 25,000 people per day go to the Sistine Chapel. Where else on earth are 25,000 people per day looking at and learning about the mysteries of the Christian revelation? Why are they going there? Because it’s beautiful, it’s amazing, it’s attractive. And one of the classic definitions of beauty is “the attractive power of the truth,” or “that about the truth which is delightful.” Sometimes it is called the “splendor” of the truth. 

Beauty has an evangelizing power because of the nature of beauty itself. Beauty attracts people to something, or as Aquinas would say, it “moves the will toward the Good.” This is one of the classic definitions of love. In other words, beautiful things have a power to make us want them and do the work of encountering them. We see what is good in them in a delightful way that stimulates our own wills to desire them. It doesn’t take guilt or threats to make us desire beautiful things. We feel the desire in our own hearts. The smell of chocolate-chip cookies baking in the oven makes us want to eat the cookies. I know it sounds silly, but the beauty of that aroma stirs desire to greater participation in the cookies. We can treat the Christian revelation in a similar way.

Here’s a little syllogism I came up with: Deliciousness is to food as beauty is to truth. Delicious food stirs us to eat it. Beautiful things stir desire in us to know them. How do people come to the truth in our time and place? They don’t come from finger-wagging, and they don’t come from guilt trips, as we can see all around us. Yet people in our culture still do have the natural attraction to things that are beautiful, and so that’s always the challenge. How do you deliver the Christian message of salvation to people in a way that they freely want to receive it but also presents it in its fullness? And how do you make it so compelling that it isn’t seen as being imposed on people against their wills, but instead as a delightful thing that is good to accept freely, even when it requires conversion of life? 

A Christian presents the faith to others in the context of love, freely offering an invitation: “I’m asking you to consider this. I’m asking you to see how good this is. I’m inviting you to see how wonderful this is.” Sometimes I think of the free samples in Costco, silly as that sounds. They give you a taste of something delicious hoping you will want more. If we Catholics simply lead with moral laws and threats of hell—even though those are important—we won’t be perceived as offering something good. Imagine if you were offered free piano lessons but were told it was all about practicing scales rather than freely playing something exquisitely beautiful. Who would say yes to that? It’s because of the hope of playing something beautiful that we do the work of learning scales and commit to hours of practice, not the other way around.

And so the beauty of a Christian life and Christian liturgy is the best way to convince people to come and see what the Church offers. They might visit a beautiful church knowing nothing of architecture, but the beauty of the place has already drawn them in, and they have had an experience of delight, of “deliciousness” for the eyes. And then, after they see it, they logically ask, “What is that? Why is that guy wearing that funny outfit? What is that smoke coming out of that thing? Why does it smell like that? What are the stained glass windows showing us? Who’s that figure in the statue?” Nobody said to them, “Go learn this or else.” It’s just so compelling that they want to know, and when they understand, perhaps they’ll say, “Oh, that makes sense to me. I think I’ll do that.” So the beauty caused them to know the truth, and the truth convinced them to act. And all in delightful freedom rather than coercion.

I had a great experience several years ago. We were recording some Liturgy Guys podcasts in Madison, and they were just building the new St. Paul Newman Center there. There’s a big golden mosaic on the outside of the building showing Christ and the Virgin Mary sitting on a jeweled throne in heavenly glory. And they were just installing it, and I was standing there looking at it because I hadn’t seen it before. And some guy walked up to me, in totally secular Madison, and asked, “What is that?” And I explained that it was the image of the heavenly Jerusalem where Christ and the Virgin Mary are in perfect harmony, and it was emerging sacramentally into our own time. He thought about it for a second and then said: “Maybe I’ll start going to Church again.”

Here was the evangelical power of beauty on display, and it all happened in less than thirty seconds. After something beautiful caught his attention as being delightful to look at, he asked, “What is that?” And then, after a very simple explanation, he thought about it for a second and said, “Maybe I will do something.” Here was a small conversion moment from beauty to truth to goodness to action just because they put a beautiful mosaic on a building. So evangelization isn’t “do what I say or else.” Rather, it’s “let me propose to you something lovely, good, and true in a way that you find compelling so that you can take it in as your own.” And I think that’s the way we need to go in a world that’s obsessed with free will, micro-aggressions, and personal autonomy. Beauty proposes, never dominates. It invites, never insists. It stirs love for the good and the true, not just fear. And so the way of beauty really is the way of loving invitation, and that is at the heart of true evangelization.

Well, thank you, Denis. You gave us much to ponder and take to prayer.