The Liturgy As The Union Of The Three Transcendentals

Ceiling Civitas Dei, Entrance of the Cathedral, Aachen, Germany.jpg

As y’all know, I care a lot about the liturgy and why we should care about the liturgy and how we should go about it and how we should think about it.

An obvious first way to think about it is through the lens of yesterday’s post, Morality as Worship. Is “behaving right” is itself a form of worship and the reason why we should do it is that we are called to worship–that our very nature is to worship God–then it clicks into place: obviously the liturgy is the “source and summit of the Christian faith” as Vatican II appropriately says. And this post should be read in the continuity of that.

But one idea that’s struck me and that I want to doodle on here is based on the rediscovery of the Three Transcendentals of ancient philosophy (which has so greatly shaped Christian Tradition): the True, the Good and the Beautiful. To destructively compress Plato and the Neoplatonists, all truth points to the transcendent Truth; all good points to the transcendent Good; all beauty points to the transcendent Beauty; and in turn, the transcendent True, Good and Beautiful is the One, the source of all being, which classical theism identifies as God, and is in turn identified with the God of the Bible by orthodox Christianity.

A rediscovery of this ancient knowledge is important, and particularly its aspect of the Beautiful. Contrary to simple fretting about “relativism”, the postmodern world likes Truth and Goodness just fine. It has Truth–”Science” (not science, “Science”). It has Good–it has a demanding and absolute moral doctrine. But the Modern world does not really like Beauty as a transcendental. The idea that there is an objective standard of beauty is taboo. And beauty, when it is seen as valuable, is seen valuable mainly as a source of pleasure, or, perhaps, as a window into the True and the Good; but not as a ladder to an objective transcendent Beauty (even less of this Beauty understood as the One who created all).

All of which brings us back to the Liturgy. What is the Liturgy? In a word, the Real Presence of God among His People. Who is God? The True; the Good; the Beautiful.

In the Mass, we encounter the True and the Good through the Liturgy of the Word and the teaching of the Church. But do we encounter the Beautiful? Do we see whatever beauty there is in the Liturgy as instrumental? As a source of pleasure, as a way to evoke nice religious feelings, which helps the teaching go down better, or to enhance our feeling of community? (As good as all these things are.) Or do we see our encounter with beauty in the Liturgy as an encounter with God Himself, just as an encounter with His Word is an encounter with Him? Think of the Psalms–which were written for a liturgical context, which are liturgy–; are they not an icon of this union of the True, the Good and the Beautiful?

If we see the Liturgy as an encounter with God and if we understand this ancient knowledge about God, we understand that beauty is not an ancillary aspect of the liturgy; not a nice-feeling part of it, but an intrinsic part of it. God is the union of the True, the Good and the Beautiful–and so, therefore, must be the Liturgy.

Ceiling Civitas Dei, Entrance of the Cathedral, Aachen, Germany” by JebulonOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Jean MERCIER

    This text highlights the main problem which the Catholic Church has to face : there is not a commonly accepted definition of the Beauty in the liturgy. There are some Catholics who believe that there is an aesthetic experience in the priest celebrating mass – the Eucharist, sorry ! – with barely an alb on… They see Beauty in what they believe is more “authentic”, more “true to the origins” (even this is not actually documented..). This can explains why we have such ugliness in liturgy, because it pleases some people, including some very good hearted Christians. As far as liturgical beauty is defined by the pleasure it brings to some people whose ideology is somehow protestant, the reign of the arbitrary will continue. One of the advantage of the tridentine liturgy was its normativity. Ratzinger’s Reform of the Reform seems to me the ideal thing to save the Catholic Church, but we are very far from its implementation in many parishes where the happy-clappy happenings are the norm. I also see the tendency of many priests to so adapt to the people in front of them (who are sometimes terribly spiritually and symbolically illiterate) that they fall into a sort of nonsense by watering down all the symbols and gestures, on the ground that the people won’t understand.

    • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      …And in turn many Traditionalists only see Beauty in a few very narrow and culturally-conditioned set of experiences.

      But overall you’re right.

      • Charles

        Wonderful experience to read a well-reasoned and common sense article and three insightful comments about the thoroughbred stallion of liturgy which is too often yoked to a threshing wheel in a pen and abused in thought and deed.
        As a four decades plus director of music in the RCC, I couldn’t agree more with all three of you gentlemen.

        • mochalite

          That’s an excellent, if very sad, image!

        • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

          Great metaphor! (And thank you.)

      • Jean MERCIER

        I am not a traditionalist, and I don’t believe they own the truth. But since there is no liturgical normativity on beauty, we are left with the arbitrary of those who are in power, whether lay or ordained.

        • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

          :-(

    • Mike

      I agree; i think that easy liturgy is comforting to alot of ppl that like things comfortable and easy going and simple; when the choir at my church sings in latin, once a year maybe it seems, everyone perks up and gets excited.

  • mochalite

    “…beauty, when it is seen as valuable, is seen valuable mainly as a source
    of pleasure, or, perhaps, as a window into the True and the Good; but
    not as a ladder to an objective transcendent Beauty (even less of this Beauty understood as the One who created all).”

    You got me thinking about beauty. The only definition that makes sense to me is “the essence of the thing.” Otherwise, how could couples married 50 years see each other (wrinkled, gravity winning) as beautiful? Mathematicians call equations beautiful when they simplify to the essence of the thing. And beauty has little to do with what I like or don’t like … a tornado has a terrible beauty.

    So, when we are called to “worship God in the beauty of His holiness” (Ps. 29 & 96) I hear the psalmist saying that in His essence, God is holy. And when Is. 6 calls God “holy, holy, holy” he might as well say “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”

    So, to the extent the liturgy focuses on God’s holiness, it is drawing people to ultimate Beauty. Perhaps, reading Jean Mercier’s comment, ministers (both Catholic and Protestant) need to talk with their flocks about what they need and what they like, and minister what they need.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Sir, you are getting me hooked on your blog. I don’t know if I should like that. ;) This is another fascinating post that has me thinking. That’s at least two in a row. One more and I may just have to bookmark you.

    • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      Thanks! I hope you do.

  • Mike

    Excellent again; you should run a class on this and catechises in general…plus i really like the images, the paintings and pictures.

    So many ppl don’t know about the Unmoved mover and the god without a name in Athens; one of my secular lapsed catholic co-workers didn’t believe me when i told him the new testament was written in greek and that the apostles traveled to ancient greece and debated its philosophers; he honestly had no idea how far back the church went and that it was historical appart from debate about miracles and divinity that there was real archaeological evidence of this faith in its infancy; he honestly believed it was created by Romans in the early centuries and he’s a generally knowledgeable guy.

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