Abbot Suger on precious objects at worship

Vase provided to St-Denis by Suger

In discussing the many wondrous things he provided for the church at St-Denis, Abbot Suger (1081-1151) writes:

To me, I confess, one thing has always seemed preeminently fitting: that every costlier or costliest thing should serve, first and foremost, for the administration of the Holy Eucharist. If golden pouring vessels, golden vials, golden little mortars used to serve, by the word of God or the command of the Prophet, to collect the blood o f goats or calves or the red heifer: how much more must golden vessels, precious stones, and whatever is most valued among all created things, be laid out, with continual reverence and full devotion, for the reception of the blood of Christ! Surely neither we nor our possessions suffice for this service. If, by a new creation, our substance were reformed from that of the holy Cherubim and Seraphim, it would still offer an insufficient and unworthy service for so great and so ineffable a victim; and yet we have so great a propitiation for our sins. The detractors also object that a saintly mind, a pure heart, a faithful intention ought to suffice for this sacred function; and we, too, explicitly and especially affirm that it is these that principally matter. [But] we profess that we must do homage also through the outward ornaments of sacred vessels, and to nothing in the world in an equal degree as to the service of the Holy Sacrifice, with all inner purity and with all outward splendor. For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Saviour in all things in a universal way — Him Who has not refused to provide for us in all things in a universal way and without any exception; Who has fused our nature with His into one admirable individuality; Who, setting us on His right hand, has promised us in truth to possess His kingdom; our Lord Who liveth and reigneth for ever and ever. (From this website)

The final sentence points us to an approach to liturgy and worship very different from either a simple Presbyterian chapel with a cappella Psalms or a mega-church stadium with a rock band, ‘For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Saviour in all things in a universal way.’ What matters to Suger, whether he’s providing beautiful vessels for the liturgy or inventing Gothic architecture, is offering the highest worship to the highest God; the greatest goods to the greatest good.

Crystal vase provided to St-Denis by Suger

I do not write this post to condemn either approach to worshipping God. I, myself, would prefer something in the middle. Instead, I simply want to highlight this mindset, this outlook, this worldview — once you start to grasp it, you will come to appreciate high liturgy more, whether you agree with everything its supporters say or not.

What, I would argue, Suger is saying here and in the context of the passage, is that Jesus Christ is excellent and praiseworthy. He communicates to us, with us, through the Blessed Sacrament, celebrate by the assembled faithful in church. Therefore, we should go all-out in worshipping him. No expense should be spared in worshipping Jesus. Build beautiful buildings. Craft beautiful liturgical vessels. Sing beautiful songs. Extend the worship. Stand. Bow. Kneel. Use stained glass; use gold; use crystal; use alabaster. Sing Scripture. Do processions. Wear fancy clothes.

Nothing is more wonderful than the Body and Blood of Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Nothing is more wonderful than worshipping Him and praising Him.

He is the best, most excellent, most sublime.

He deserves, therefore, the best we have to offer. No half-measures in liturgy, then. No half-hearted worship. Do your best, even if your best isn’t very good. Hold nothing back. Throw yourself at his feet, for He is more excellent than anyone you will ever meet.

It’s a different approach.

How can it inform your private devotion today? Your church’s act of worship on Sunday, whether liturgical or not?

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4 thoughts on “Abbot Suger on precious objects at worship

  1. The issue, I believe, is whether God considers costly things, ornamented in gold, to be “offering the highest worship”. Obviously, God deserves “the best we have to offer” as an act of ascribing worth to Him, but He Himself has to set the standard as to what He considers worth-ascribing!

    • I imagine the question of whether using a gilt chalice or a clay chalice is a matter of the highest worship is, ultimately, a matter of the heart, which God alone can see. Not only does He own the cattle on a thousand hills, he owns the gold from a thousand mines. So, certainly, I wouldn’t actually say that we must use the best, and I would argue that a certain amount of medieval obsession with using beautiful things or chanting the liturgy correctly is misguided; but I also believe that God will accept the sacrifice of people like Suger who wish only to offer him the very best, and who thus channel it in this way. My concern is how rarely we even consider such questions in our current situation, being more concerned at times with emotional impact or keeping butts in pews or a good sermon than with worshipping Almighty God in spirit and in truth, offering him the best of ourselves, our talents, our lives.

      Finally, I would imagine someone like my dear Pope Leo the Great saying that if you donate precious vessels for church use but don’t help the poor, you’ve entirely missed the point.

      • I think you’re right that God does desire the right heart-motives, and that this an important issue to discuss! But, at the same time, do you think it is possible for a person to have sincere heart-motives, and yet offer something unacceptable or dishonoring to God?

      • Presumably, but only if that thing were inherently sinful, I think. In matters such as church furnishings or how to word the liturgy or which hymns to sing, which are largely adiaphora, I think it must be the heart that matters.

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