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Sacred Tradition and the Individual Artist: A Review of The Way of Beauty

The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College by David Clayton. Angelico Press (Kettering, Ohio 2015), 282 pp., $17.95

The Catholic artist has had a rough time of it lately. From Hollywood’s shallow low-brow entertainment to the abject rejection of Christian thought and belief among today’s higher brows, Catholic painters, poets, novelists and other workers in beauty have found little access to the secular portals of creativity which presume to define the present state of the arts. When it comes to participating in the arts and letters of the current day, the working assumption seems to be Christian artists need not apply. But in denying this Christ-centered creative perspective, today’s culture is impoverished and isolated from the only source that can give it new life. Throughout Church history, the Catholic arts have been a bridge to the transcendent truths which fulfill our understanding of who we are as humans and orient us to our ultimate destiny with God in heavenly glory.

While the causes for this abridgement of Catholic arts are manifold, Anglo-Catholic poet T.S. Eliot rightly points out that the root of these cultural problems is that modern culture doesn’t understand its own Christian foundations. Seeking to address the concept of tradition as a necessary mainstay for maintaining culture, Eliot wrote his influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as a way to reassert the proper relationship between the artist and the culture. Published almost a century ago in 1919, at a time when Western culture was looking more like a wasteland than a watershed, Eliot’s essay provided a trustworthy compass by which the Catholic artist could safely take his bearings. It serves a similar purpose today.

“No poet, no artist of any art,” Eliot writes, “has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism” (Selected Essays, T.S. Eliot 4-5).

A welcome elaboration on Eliot’s aesthetic criticism, David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School and College, seeks to restore this same relationship between artist and tradition – and thereby renew the culture – in an explicitly Catholic way. Expanding on Eliot’s notion of the artist’s individual contribution to tradition, The Way of Beauty seeks to reconnect the Catholic artist’s individual talent with the Western artistic tradition by fostering a greater understanding and love for the Church’s Tradition, especially as it touches on sacred art. In this way, The Way of Beauty calls for something even bolder than what Eliot prescribes – an integration not only of the individual talent with the tradition, but of the artistic tradition itself with the Catholic liturgy. For Clayton, such a call includes a complete educational program based on the Liberal Arts and an aesthetic formation which includes a strong focus on ancient classical and Catholic models of harmony and proportion.

Relying on his own knowledge and training as an artist and art historian to make his case for beauty, Clayton also enlists the help of some contemporary thinkers who, on the face of it, aren’t usually associated with aesthetic theory. Many of the popes make an appearance in The Way of Beauty, and Clayton has special regard for Benedict XVI’s liturgical writings and John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists.

Examining case studies among the masterpieces of art and architecture, The Way of Beauty is a spiritual, intellectual and creative curriculum for integrating what Clayton calls the Church’s “culture of faith” and contemporary culture, “such that each reinforces and reflects the other”(The Way of Beauty, David Clayton 30).

“The liturgy and the culture of faith preserve the faith of those who already possess it,” Clayton writes. “However, this is not enough. It is particularly important that contemporary culture be a Catholic culture of beauty too, because this may be the only aspect of Christian culture that non-Christians see…. Contemporary culture, therefore, is at the forefront of our work of evangelization” (Clayton 30).

Today’s artists and critics might cringe at the idea of creativity serving as a means of evangelization, but Clayton proposes no simplistic Bible- or Catechism-thumping didacticism presenting cheap allegorical overlays as vehicles for imparting moral or spiritual lessons. Rather, The Way of Beauty relies on the power of beauty itself as the primary path to individual and cultural conversion.

“This is the Way of Beauty,” Clayton writes, “a joyful path to God by which our work shines with the light of Christ and draws people in so that they might share in it” (Clayton 2).

In opposition to what Benedict XVI has called “the tyranny of relativism,” Clayton defines beauty along objective classical lines – that what is beautiful can be objectively known and that objects of beauty can be objectively judged. Noting that the Greek word for beauty, “kosmos,” is also the word for order as applied both to the natural world and to the arts, Clayton shows how the Church – from Boethius through Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to the contemporary popes – adopted this notion because it was a “self-evident” truth.

“Just like the ancients, I appeal to consensus, the fact that most people see [beauty] that way, as a basis of its truth…. Once this consensus is accepted, it seems a small step to assert also that there is some property in the object of our attention which makes it beautiful; or to put it another way, that beauty is an objective property. And, in turn, once we have accepted that [beauty is objective], then it seems natural to try to analyze that beauty and describe it numerically” (Clayton 139).

Holding that as a fundamental principle of aesthetics number is a quantitative measure and a qualitative symbol, Clayton argues, beauty itself participates in that which is timeless – as eternal as number itself. Consequently, he asserts, beauty will draw men to it in a way that philosophical or theological arguments alone can’t.

“When a work of art or music expresses well the timeless principles that appeal to all men, but in a way that also characterizes the time and place of those who experience it, the result is irresistible,” he writes. “The need for the creation of these modern expressions of the traditional are at the forefront of culture. This is the challenge we are placing before the gifted and creative today” (Clayton 45).

Because of beauty’s “irresistible” power, the liturgy too is an important part of Clayton’s plan. In the Catholic artistic tradition, there has never been a separation of the here-and-now from the eternal hereafter – and so it makes sense, according to the author, that the artist should aspire to lead souls to the liturgy.

As Clayton notes, “if we participate in the liturgy fully, it becomes an ordering principle for the whole of our lives; that is, by participating in an earthly liturgy that is in harmony with heaven, we receive grace that flows through our lives and overflows into the world. The liturgy is the portal that ushers the presence of God into our lives and (through our participation) into the lives of others around us” (Clayton 102).

Like art, Clayton says, the liturgy is “the focal point for the meeting of the material and the spiritual…. The earthly liturgy should evoke a sense of the non-sensible aspect of the liturgy through its dignity and beauty. All our activities within it – kneeling, praying, standing – should be in accordance with the heavenly standard. Likewise, the architecture of the church building, as well as the art and music used, should point us to what lies beyond it and give us a real sense that we are praising God with all his creation and with the saints and angels in heaven” (Clayton 100-102).

Despite placing a premium on beauty in its pages, The Way of Beauty is not without its own flaws – at least in the presentation of Clayton’s ideas. The work is marred by a want of editing in parts – to the detriment of clarity, concision and occasionally cohesion. But overall, the work is a refreshing return to “what works” in art as an anodyne to the warped and thwarted aesthetics of modernity. At the same time, Clayton makes haste to note early on in the book that he is not seeking to return our present culture to some Golden Age of sacred art.

“In focusing strongly on the past traditions of the Church, there is no suggestion that I am looking for a future that is an unthinking replication of the past,” he writes. “Rather, I hope that this analysis might lead us to a re-application of the same principles, but in a way that is appropriate to our age. To this end, my intention is to demonstrate how the form of these past traditions reflects the worldview of the artist as much as its content” (Clayton 6). To the extent that it has elaborated on T.S. Eliot’s concern for tradition and the individual artist, The Way of Beauty is also important because it contributes an important statement to the ongoing conversation about the place of beauty in modern culture.

Catholic writer and critic Gregory Wolfe’s 2011 book Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age is steeped in this same conversation about beauty and Catholic art in the modern world. As founder of Image, a Christian journal of arts and letters, Wolfe’s entire lifework has been to bring this conversation to the fore – not only among Catholic and other Christian artists – but also among the modern makers of mystery and manners in the mainstream culture as well.

“At the heart of Christian humanism,” Wolfe writes, “is the effort to achieve a new synthesis between the condition of the world around us and the unique ways in which grace can speak to that condition. That is how art created by Christians will touch the lives of those who encounter it” (The Way of Beauty, Gregory Wolfe 23-24).

The Way of Beauty provides a blueprint for such an effort.

The title of Wolfe’s book is taken from Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous aphorism; and both Wolfe and Clayton see this saving beauty as an essential means of accessing the transcendent in modern culture.

“What does the famous and mysterious phrase… (quoted by John Paul II in his Letter [to Artists]) mean?” Clayton asks in his own book. “Does it mean that the beauty that is in the world will save it? Or must we look for a beauty from beyond the world? The answer is both. The beauty that is in the world comes from beyond it. It directs us to where it comes from. The Christian religion, especially, is all about this saving beauty” (Clayton 18).

And today’s Catholic artist, Wolfe and Clayton would agree, is all about drawing others to the source of this saving beauty through inspiration, prayer and love at each step along the way.

Beauty and the Liturgy: An Excerpt from The Way of Beauty
by David Clayton

This connection between the beauty of creation and our worship has long been understood. Writing in the 5th century, Pope St. Leo the Great, for example, says, “For every one of us nature is full of instruction that we should worship God. The heavens and the earth, the sea and all within them, proclaim the goodness and the almighty power of their maker. The wonderful beauty of these inferior elements of nature demands that we, intelligent beings, should give thanks to God.”1

Christian cosmology is the study of the patterns and rhythms of the planets and the stars with the intention of ordering our work and praise to the work and praise of heaven – that is, to the heavenly liturgy. The liturgical year of the Church is based upon these natural cycles. The date on which Easter falls, for example, is calculated according to the phases of the moon. The purpose of earthly liturgy and, for that matter, all Christian prayer cannot be understood without grasping its harmony with the heavenly dynamic and the cosmos. The earthly liturgy should evoke a sense of the non-sensible aspect of the liturgy through its dignity and beauty. All our activities within it—kneeling, praying, standing—should be in accordance with the heavenly standard. Likewise, the architecture of the church building, as well as the art and music used in that building, should all point us to what lies beyond the earthly realm, and give us a real sense that we are praising God with all of his creation and with the saints and angels in heaven. Pope Benedict XVI is sensitive to this dimension of Christian life, and his little book The Spirit of the Liturgy seems devoted to awakening us to this understanding. In the book, Benedict discusses the importance of orienting church buildings and the Mass to the East, to face the rising sun, the symbol of the Risen One: “The cosmic symbol of the rising sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places…. But… this turning toward the east also signifies that cosmos and saving history belong together. The cosmos is praying with us. It, too, is waiting for redemption. It is precisely this cosmic dimension that is essential to Christian liturgy. It is never performed solely in the self-made world of man. It is always a cosmic liturgy. The theme of creation is embedded in Christian prayer. It loses its grandeur when it forgets this connection.”2

But why would we want to have a liturgical life at all? One reason, as Leo the Great pointed out, is the desire of believers to worship Him well by giving Him thanks and praise, as an end in itself simply because we love God. Another reason is that if we participate in the liturgy fully, it becomes an ordering principle for the whole of our lives; that is, by participating in an earthly liturgy that is in harmony with heaven, we receive grace that flows through our lives and overflows into the world. The liturgy is a portal that ushers the presence of God into our lives and (through our participation) the lives of others around us.

If we want to increase our collective ability to conform to grace, we should strive to make our liturgy conform to the liturgy in heaven. Canon law and the rubrics of the Mass are gifts from God that can guide us so that we can love him more, and open us, and so the world, to the grace of God. And number is an essential part of this, through the rhythmical repetitions of prayers and words, through posture, and in the production of beautiful music, art, and architecture that are “liturgical” even when they have a secular use.

The patterns observed in the cosmos are described using number. The beauty of number is that once its significance has been discerned, that symbolism can be transferred, so to speak, and applied to any aspect of our lives through the ordering of time, space, art, and music in accordance with it. This is number’s special mystery. When we apply the liturgical numbers of the cosmos to the rhythms and actions of our lives, extending beyond that part lived in the church building, the whole of life becomes infused with a liturgical rhythm. We can imbue all our activities and work with a heavenly grace and beauty if the application of this symbolism is appropriate to that to which it is applied.

In the sixth century, St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order, underlined an aspect of “liturgical number” in chapter 16 of his Rule by looking to the Old Testament: “the prophet says: ‘Seven times daily I have sung your praises’ [Psalm 119:164]. We will cleave to this sacred number if we perform our monastic duties at Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.” Man cannot address his attention to prayer constantly, but must attend to the needs of life. Yet, these seven occasions of prayer during the day are seven portals through which grace pours into daily life and, to the degree we cooperate, sanctifies the times between prayer by integrating them with the cosmic rhythm of the liturgy.

1. Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 6 on Lent, 1; from Office of Readings, Thursday after Ash Wednesday.

2. Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), pp. 70, 76.

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife Cecilia and their nine children in rural southwestern Wisconsin. He is Managing Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a correspondent for the Catholic Business journal, and poetry editor and cocktail reviewer for The San Diego Reader. He has a BA (1995) and MA (2004) in English from University of Dallas, Irving, TX.