… I really don’t understand all this animosity towards the Church and her liturgy. I feel like saying “don’t hate us because we’re beautiful”. Trite sounding but yet it rings true.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that those who criticize liturgical beauty hate beautiful things; I just think they don’t fully understand how it’s utilized within the Church. The full purpose of liturgical beauty and ritual is to physically manifest the spiritually metaphysical through the use of our senses.
In no other aspect of our lives do we demand a reason for beauty or question its purpose. We accept and appreciate beautiful art, music, or a sunset for what it is and allow it to uplift us. For some reason beauty is not suspect except when found in the Church. Then it becomes a waste of money, gaudy excess, and idolatry. Suddenly we are expected to ban beauty in His own house when He Himself made us with this desire to create and appreciate beauty? How odd.
And this argument against ritual, calling it meaningless pomp and circumstance. Ritual gives order and is rarely meaningless. You can find simple examples of ritual even in the most progressive evangelical home church which may open and close with a prayer each Sunday. And surely Catholics do not have the monopoly of liturgical ritual. Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists all have ritual in their worship practices yet it’s only Catholic liturgy most freely criticized and questioned for its usefulness. Again, how odd. One might suspect the real prejudice is with Catholicism and not general beauty or ritual in liturgy.
The second most common criticism I hear, after that of ecclesiastical ornamentation being a waste of financial resources [to which I say Matt 26:6-13], is that God doesn’t need it. He doesn’t need our fancy churches, rich vestments, and gold goblets. God is just as pleased with a group of people worshiping Him in a stark utilitarian building as He is with a group of people worshiping Him in the grandest cathedrals. I’m going to be honest here and say, I don’t think so.
When we consider what it is the appropriate amount of effort used to glorify God, I’m not so sure offering the barest minimum is all that pleasing. To say that God doesn’t need beautiful liturgy is one thing; but I ask, do you feel He deserves it? That is essentially what is being implied when one argues that God doesn’t need the gold goblets and fragrant incense. Whether you believe He needs it or not, He most certainly deserves our finest efforts.
And so what if God doesn’t need it. If we only gave gifts that people needed you’d end up with a toilet plunger for Valentine’s Day. True story. No, we give gifts knowing it’s what the recipient wants, not need, just for the simple fact that these extravagences cause them joy. That is why there are towering catherdrals with lavish interiors and rich liturgy. It is not meaningless frivoloity any more than when a man gives his love a shiny bauble. Not only is the ritual of the mass full of scripture and therefore hardly meaningless, it is a an act of love and beauty offered to God because it’s what He so richly deserves.
Image: Fr. Hunwicke celebrating his First Mass in the Old Rite at Brompton Oratory. Click for photo source and more photos. There’s even a picture of Fr. Blake who authors one of my favorite spiritual treats.