Beauty in the liturgy

_DSC9111Irmã Monica Erin MacDonald,EP

The liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, height of Christian worship, “the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed (…) and fount from which all her power flows” * , is a synthesis and apex of religious expression in its diverse aspects. The powerful experience within in the Liturgy, which culminates in mystical union in the Eucharist, arouses a consideration of the celebration in its artistic and transcendental dimension. It encompasses not only the spiritual faculties, the understanding and the will, but also the sensitive faculties: internal and external senses, passions and affections 2 . Clearly, the liturgical act employs diverse means of communication that encompass the entire human person 3 , in a celebration of the Divine. It is at once a moment of festive exultation in which the faithful speak through, words, music and gestures, while at the same time a moment of silent contemplation, an ecstasy of admiration and awe, wherein the spirit is receptive to Divine communications. The course of the liturgical celebration encompasses time, space and symbolic forms that harmonize in a synthesis of beauty. It constitutes, at the same time, the greatest mystical journey possible in the human experience, leading to a destination of mystical union in communion.

In this epoch of pragmatism, industrialization and globalization, the Liturgy takes on a new dimension as a reservoir of pulchrum, intense symbolism and call to transcendence. If a “world without beauty” – today’s world – is immersed in conflict and horror, one finds within the liturgical celebration an oasis of the true expression of verum and bonum in a harmonious contemplation of beauty. The Liturgy, regardless of its accidental transformations throughout the ages, has persistently remained a bulwark of the transcendental in the human experience. In its symbolism and mystical composition, it fulfills the complex needs of the human soul, in its invariable search for the Absolute.


The Liturgy, veritatis splendor, is intrinsically associated with beauty 4 . Beauty has a unique ability to attract and open the human spirit, in a more effective way than abstract ideas or doctrines. Navone 5 speaks of our incapacity to live without beauty, manifested in the most basic needs of the mind and heart. He emphasizes beauty as a call to transcendence, for that which attracts us by its beauty and goodness, implicitly calls us beyond, to a beauty and goodness even greater 6 . The Eucharistic Celebration, in its resplendent conjugation of sights, sounds and smells, is an efficacious instrument in captivating the human spirit, attracting it through beauty to the Supreme Good. In it, contrasting elements are harmoniously combined: words and silence, gesture and stillness, light and darkness. In the beauty of the mysteries celebrated, man experiences pulchrum, as the splendour of verum and bonum.

Clearly, a consideration of the beauty within the Liturgy brings to light some metaphysical aspects. The Concluding document of the General Assembly,Via Pulchritudinis points out the role of beauty in its relation to the true and the good.

Beauty itself cannot be reduced to simple pleasure of the senses: this would be to deprive it of its universality, its supreme value, which is transcendent. Perception requires an education, for beauty is only authentic in its link to the truth – of what would brilliance be, if not truth? – and it is at the same time “the visible expression of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical expression of beauty‟ 7 .

Since Kant, philosophy has, to a great extent, reduced the conception of beauty to a merely subjective element, depriving it of its ontological dimension. However, according to the philosophia perennis, beauty is a transcendental property of being; that is, a perfection found in all things, without exception. According to Saint Thomas 8 , the transcendentals are unum, bonum, verum, pulchrum – unity, goodness, truth, and beauty. When a being is what it should be, that is, when it possesses truth in its essence, it is also good, and, depending on the sphere to which it belongs, beautiful, holy, noble and useful 9 . Since the transcendentals are aspects of being, they form a union with it, so inseparable among themselves that the lack of care with one would be a catastrophe for the others, as Von Balthasar 10 points out.

Plato called beauty the splendour of truth, and Saint Augustine defined it as the splendour of order 11 . In the Thomistic vision it is seen as the splendour of truth and goodness 12 . For Saint Thomas, beauty is the synthesis of three fundamental qualities, “Beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection (…); due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness, or clarity”*. Integrity is related to unity, proportion to goodness, and clarity to truth.

The Greek word for beautiful, kalos, interestingly comes from the Greek verb kaleo, which means, “to call”. The beautiful, the good, attracts us evoking happiness and delight 13 . The Greek philosophers, conscious of the relationship between the good and the beautiful, combined the two concepts in one phrase: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. On this point Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful‟ 14 . Beauty is then, the center of all motivation, decision and human action, for we do not act without being motivated by the attractiveness of a specific good 15 .

Hans Urs Von Balthasar 16 affirmed that in a world without beauty, the good loses its force of attraction, and truth, its cogency. He bases his profound reflection on beauty in the consideration of God as the font of all beauty, and all created beauty as a reflection of this beauty. Beauty is not just an external form; rather it is a light that radiates from within, an exterior form of the interior. Something is beautiful when it radiates splendor, the reverberation of a hidden light, splendour of the being. The synthesis of the truth and good produce a light that infiltrate to the exterior, an illumination that attracts and fascinates. Von Balthasar 17 employs the terms kabôd, dóxa, glória as synonymous of this beauty, for this scriptural term defines this luminosity that is a manifestation of the Divine splendour. “Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect has the courage to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained brilliance around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another 18 ”.

The manifold interpretations of beauty throughout the ages enrich our perspective in a consideration of its multifaceted role within the human experience. What becomes insistently clear is that beauty intrinsically moves the entire person “spirit and heart, intelligence and reason, creative capacity and imagination 19 ”. Beauty has the capacity to lower the barriers of our egoism in such a way that when we are touched by it, we are overcome and liberated from our selfishness as though from a prison. With the barriers of egoism struck down, one leaves oneself, and in this liberation comes an ecstasy in which one gives oneself, not in an oppressive way, but as a true donation of oneself. It possesses a dynamism that fulfils the deepest of human yearnings for it invites one to leave the transient and ordinary, to rise to the Transcendent and Mystery, ultimately seeking the source of all beauty, God 20 .

The beauty of the Liturgy is a beauty that transcends us 21 . It is a beauty that speaks through the simplicity and originality of its symbols, but also through the splendour and nobility of its ritual. It is a beauty that is revealed gradually, demanding time and attentiveness to be entirely disclosed. It is a beauty that leads to contemplation through the synthesis of its diverse manifestations. It cannot be denied that within the Liturgy the aesthetic sentiment and activity is copiously engaged in the music, choreography, art and architecture 22 . The timeless passage of Saint Augustine seems to reflect the yearnings of contemporary man, aptly fulfilled in the multiple dimensions of the liturgical experience, in which the five senses are touched and overcome by the experience of Beauty so ancient, Beauty so new.

Late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new, too late have I loved You! Behold, You were within me and I was outside, and it was there that I sought You. Deformed as I was, I ran after those beauteous things that You have made. You were with me, but I was not with You, for those things kept me far from You, which, unless they existed in You, would have no being. You have called. You have cried out and pierced my deafness. You have poured forth Your light. You have shone forth and dispelled my blindness. You have sent forth Your fragrance, and I have inhaled and panted after You. I have tasted You, and I hunger and thirst for You. You have touched me, and I am inflamed with the desire for your peace 23 .

Liturgical beauty is truly an epiphany of the true and the good in today’s world, lifting man in his entirety to transcend the physical realities. Particularly through its symbolism, the Liturgy manifests its splendour and diversity.

* Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10
2 VAGAGGINI, Cipriano. El sentido teológico de la liturgia. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos,1959. p. 278.
3 BENEDICT XVI. Sacramentum Caritatis, 40. [On line]. [Consulted: 19 Mar., 2009]
4 Ibid., p. 35.
5 NAVONE, John J. Em busca de uma teologia da beleza. Tradução Elizabeth Leal F. Barbosa. São Paulo: Paulus, 1999. p. 41.
6 Ibid., p. 83.
7 CONCLUDING DOCUMENT of the General Assembly. The Via Pulchritudinis, II.I. Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue. [On line]. [Consulted: 25 Nov., 2008]
8 NICOLAS, Marie-Joseph. Vocabulário da Suma Teológica. In: Suma Teológica. 2a.ed. São Paulo: Loyola, 2003. p. 101.
9 STEIN, Edith. Ser finito y ser eterno: ensayo de una ascensión al sentido del ser. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1994. p. 334.
10 VON BALTHASAR, Hans Urs. Gloria. Una estética teológica. La percepción de la forma. Madrid: Encuentro, 1985. p.15.
11 PANELLA, Federico L. La Belleza en la Liturgia. In: Phase. Barcelona. No .253, 2003. p. 9.
12 FORTE, Bruno. A porta da beleza: por uma estética teológica. Aparecida: Idéias & Letras, 2006. p. 34-35.
* SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS, Summa Theologica, I q.39, a.8.
13 NAVONE, Op Cit., p. 83.
14 JOHN PAUL II. Letter to Artists, 3 [On line]. [Consulted: Mar. 19, 2009]
15 NAVONE, Op. Cit., p. 40.
16 VON BALTHASAR, Op. Cit., p. 23.
17 Ibid., p. 40.
18 VON BALTHASAR, Op. Cit., p. 22. (Personal translation)
19 CONCLUDING DOCUMENT of the General Assembly, Op. Cit. II.3.
20 Ibid., II.3.
21 MARINI, Piero. Liturgy and Beauty. [On line]. [Consulted: 19 Mar., 2009]
22 VAGAGGINI, Op. Cit., p. 289.
23 SAINT AUGUSTINE. On Christian Doctrine. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952. p. 297-298.

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