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Some Good and Weighty Truths About Beauty: The Seriousness of the Liturgy

A Centenary of Romano Guardini’s Spirit of the Liturgy, Part VI


“The liturgy is art,” wrote Romano Guardini 100 years ago, “translated into life.”[1]

In the sacred liturgy, he said, “the Creator-Artist, the Holy Ghost, has garnered and expressed the whole fullness of reality and of creative art.”[2] Understanding that liturgy expresses the fullness of reality, of truth itself, is critical to understanding the liturgy, to praying and offering it, and to being transformed by it.

The Church offers the liturgy, Guardini wrote, for the worship of God, and because of our “desperate spiritual need. It is to give expression to the events of the Christian’s inner life: the assimilation, through the Holy Ghost, of the life of the creature to the life of God in Christ; the actual and genuine rebirth of the creature into a new existence; the development and nourishment of this life, its stretching forth from God in the Blessed Sacrament and the means of grace, towards God in prayer and sacrifice; and all this in the continual mystic renewal of Christ’s life in the course of the ecclesiastical year.”[3]

The sixth chapter of Guardini’s masterwork, The Spirit of the Liturgy, argues that liturgy serves to “mold and adapt human entities for the Kingdom of God,” so that “our real souls should approach a little nearer to the real God, for the sake of all our most personal, profoundly serious affairs.”[4]

A serious beauty: St. Teresa began each day with Mass and Eucharistic adoration. The liturgy, especially when radiantly beautiful, transforms those who participate in it to radiate the beauty of Jesus.

Get Serious Now

Guardini’s vision of liturgy is serious. Liturgy is a serious work—a work of the Lord and a work of the Church, and to serve its sacred and noble purpose, it must be beautiful. Beauty, Guardini writes, “is the full, clear, and inevitable expression of the inner truth in the external manifestation…, the splendid perfection which dwells in the revelation of essential truth and goodness.”[5]

Beauty in the liturgy reveals what is true and good, makes it manifest, expressed, and perceived, not as “mere lifeless accuracy of comprehension,” but as “the right and appropriate regulation of life, a vital spiritual essence…, the intrinsic value of existence in all its force and fullness.”[6]

Through beautiful liturgy, Guardini says, we encounter “the triumphant splendor which breaks forth when the hidden truth is revealed, when the external phenomenon is at all points the perfect expression of the inner essence.”[7] Through beautiful liturgy, we encounter the Lord, expressed and revealed in his glory, and we are transformed by him. In the liturgy, he writes, the Church herself is “in the process of transformation.”[8]

Beauty stands in close relation to truth and goodness, while remaining an independent value, Guardini writes. But there must be something behind beauty in order for it to reveal itself externally. One could say that beauty is truth and goodness made visible. But in the end, it is truth that wins out. Guardini writes that “pride of place, therefore, though not of rank or worth, belongs, not to beauty, but to truth.”[9] He points out that the philosophers have always taught that beauty is the splendor of truth. In Guardini’s words, “beauty is the triumphant splendor which breaks forth when the hidden truth is revealed, when the external phenomenon is at all points the perfect expression of the inner essence.”[10]

For Guardini, the liturgy is to be beautiful in order to manifest its essential truth, and for the good of the salvation of souls, especially our own. The beauty of the liturgy offers us a palpable, sensible, real experience of the reality of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and our own redemption.

Beauty in the liturgy matters. It is essential to our sacred worship. But there is a danger, Guardini says, “of beauty being placed before truth, or treated as entirely separate from the latter.”[11] Because the beauty of the liturgy is important, there is a danger that it might be considered apart from truth, Guardini warned, fostering an attitude “which ultimately degenerates into nerveless aestheticism.”[12]

Such aestheticism has no place in the “Opus Dei” of Christian worship. Indeed, Guardini says, those who approach liturgy to worship, to seek strength and consolation, who experience transformation in Christ through sacred worship, “penetrate far more deeply into the essence of the liturgy than does the connoisseur who is busy savoring the contrast between the austere beauty of a Preface and the melodiousness of a Gradual.”[13]

 

Always Is Now

One hundred years after the publication of The Spirit of the Liturgy, the idea of many people savoring, or even recognizing, a preface or a gradual seems unlikely. Indeed, the ordinary experience of sacred worship for most Catholics has changed so dramatically since the time of Guardini’s work that it seems to many that his reflections are irrelevant to the current state of sacred liturgy in the life of the Church.

But Guardini’s work was prescient, and is relevant to our circumstances, because his reflections on beauty, truth, and sacred worship are perennial. And indeed, his thoughts, and his warnings, have a particular importance as we reflect on the development of sacred liturgy since the time of the reforms called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The Second Vatican Council’s efforts for a reform of sacred liturgy were needed in large part in order to foster the kind of transformative experience in sacred worship which Guardini, and his collaborators in the liturgical movement, called for. The “fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations” desired by Sacrosanctum Concilium (14) was a call for all Catholics to understand the work of sacred liturgy, its meaning, and to offer their sacrifices in union with the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, and at the altar.

But the implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the celebration of the Mass of Paul VI have often left much to be desired. And in many cases, this is because of the kind of aestheticism which Guardini warned about.

The aesthetic preferences, of course, of many misguided efforts to implement the liturgical developments of the Second Vatican Council have not been those anticipated by Guardini. But the underlying concerns are the same. He was concerned with the effects of Protestant individualism, with emotivism, and, at the same time, with a certain kind of formalism which had diminished the capacity of the faithful to engage, consciously and actively, in the liturgical act of worship. The liturgical movement sought to rediscover the Church’s sacred liturgical traditions, precisely in order to imbue in the Church a sense of what it meant to worship, in spirit and in truth, and to be transformed by the sacred liturgy.

The Second Vatican Council’s efforts for a reform of sacred liturgy were needed in large part in order to foster the kind of transformative experience in sacred worship which Guardini, and his collaborators in the liturgical movement, called for. Catholics must understand the work of sacred liturgy, its meaning, and to offer their sacrifices in union with the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, and at the altar.

 

Theater of the Absurd

Sacrosanctum Concilium has often been misunderstood by those who have separated truth from aesthetics, who have responded to individualism with a kind of foppish pseudo-communalism, bereft of communion with the sacred Trinity, or who have confused the accidental changes to the liturgy with the essential purposes of the Council, and thereby misunderstood the relationship between essential beauty in the liturgy and transformation in Christian holiness.

Guardini made mention of aesthetes savoring the differences between graduals and prefaces. The aesthetes of the post-conciliar era have been of a different sort. But nevertheless, their confusion has led to the kind of “spiritual theater”[14] about which Guardini warned.

Consider the kinds of aberrations and innovations that have sometimes plagued the sacred liturgy since the post-conciliar period. Consider the ways they embody a preference for aesthetics over sacred worship—a limited kind of aesthetics, to be sure, but aesthetics nonetheless. Consider the music, or art and architecture, or modus celebrandi, which have been paeans of liturgical theater, expressions of the aesthetic preferences of the celebrant, or the “worship director,” or the liturgist, but not expressions of the ineffable truth of the sacred liturgy.

Guardini’s work was prescient because it understood that the fleeting dictates of aestheticism are a temptation for anyone who strives to make a beautiful thing, and forgets that it is the Lord who is the source of all that is true, who has given us the form of real beauty, and who wishes to inspire and transform us in and through true beauty.

The greatest victims of post-conciliar aestheticism have been the ordinary Catholics, those about whom the liturgical movement was most concerned, who, as a consequence of shallow aestheticism, have often missed out on the meaning of the sacred mystery of the Mass, celebrated directly in front of them. From a desire to make the Mass more “accessible,” it has often become more hidden, its mysteries shrouded in banality, rather than proclaimed and revealed in staggering and timeless beauty.

 

Mass Celebration

The Mass is the Mass, whether it is celebrated with great beauty or reverence, or whether it is celebrated according to the whims of aestheticism and the tempting siren song of “liturgical theater.” But absent the dazzling clarity of beauty, the meaning of the Mass, and its potential to transform us, is lost on those who are called to celebrate it, or to assist in its celebration.

This is the reason why Liturgiam Authenticam sought to preserve a certain kind of sacral beauty in the language of the liturgy—to point, for the good of the salvation of souls, to the extraordinary sacral nature of the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Liturgy is “primarily concerned with reality, with the approach of a real creature to a real God, and with the profoundly real and serious matter of redemption,” writes Guardini. “There is here no question of creating beauty, but of finding salvation for sin-stricken humanity. Here truth is at stake, and the fate of the soul, and real—yes, ultimately the only real—life. All this is what must be revealed, expressed, sought after, found, and imparted by every possible means and method; and when this is accomplished, lo! it is turned into beauty.”[15]

 

In All Seriousness

Why, then, does Guardini title the sixth chapter of his work “The Seriousness of Liturgy”? Worship is serious because sin is serious, and redemption is serious business. Liturgy must, by every means and method, draw up the faithful into the drama of the reality of our redemption, transforming each one of us in wonder for holy living in union with Almighty God. Liturgy must be beautiful, in every possible way, because every glimmer of beauty might point some soul to the glimmering truth, goodness, and beauty of the Lord. In short, the liturgy is serious because these elements of the liturgy are as serious as sin.

Guardini understood this, and so did the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. So did the great admirer of Guardini, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. His great work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, named as an homage to Guardini, intended to translate the ideas of Guardini to his own time. We must continue to translate those ideas—that sacred worship matters—because it is the sanctifying summit of the Christian life in our own time. And those who continue the reform and renewal of sacred liturgy in the life of the Church do just that.

To make beautiful liturgy, of course, depends on knowing intimately the serious truths which beauty reveals. Beautiful liturgy does not begin with the aesthetic preferences of the celebrant. It does not even begin with the treasures of the Church’s liturgical tradition. Beautiful liturgy begins with real and intimate union with the Lord. To undertake the work of beautiful liturgy, which is really a work of the Holy Spirit, we must know and understand the promptings and movements of the Spirit, and we must know and understand the person of the Incarnate Word of God. Beautiful liturgy—serious liturgy, to be sure, depends entirely on intimate and authentic unity with the one whom we worship. Absent that, regardless of the accidents of music, word, and movement, we cannot worship the Lord beautifully, or draw others into the serious beauty of the Trinity.

 

Pray One and All

One other point of Guardini’s must remain clear. Beautiful liturgy is not for the elite, it is not to be “the delicate morsel of the connoisseur,”[16] it is not to be celebrated only in enclaves of the like-minded. No, the entire Church needs the beauty of the liturgy. And so those who know the power and potential of beauty must be missionaries of beauty in every ordinary and common part of the Church’s life. Every soul needs the grace of beautiful liturgy.

True beauty, Guardini wrote, is modest. And those who seek to reform the reform of the Church’s life must be modest too, patient, generous, and virtuous. “Liturgy must be regarded from the standpoint of salvation,”[17] Guardini writes. For the sake of souls’ salvation, we must continue to work with generosity and charity, for an “Opus Dei” of beauty in the work of sacred liturgy.


[1] Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy (New York: Herder & Herder, 1998), 73.

[2] Ibid., 74.

[3] Ibid., 82.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 75.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 76.

[11] Ibid., 78.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 74.

[14] Ibid., 83.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 82.

[17] Ibid., 83.

Bishop James D. Conley

Bishop James D. Conley

Originally ordained for the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, in his years as a priest, the Most Reverend James D. Conley has served the Catholic Church in a wide variety of ways—as pastor, college campus chaplain, director of Respect Life ministries, theology instructor and a Vatican official. On April 10, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI named him auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Denver and he was ordained on May 30, 2008. On September 14, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Conley as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln in Nebraska. Bishop Conley was installed on November 20, 2012, in the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln.