Ancient – no, historic – religion got me into this mess: Beauty

Beauty is not an added extra in our lives. In all sorts of areas, beauty enhances life, whether it is a walk by a river, a trip to a cathedral, a gaze upon your (own) wife. Or poetry, or rhythmic prose, or a well-cut suit. Or Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Byrd, the Beatles.

Beauty is an attribute of God. We are taught this. We are told, ‘Look at the world around you — rainbows, clouds, the stars at night, flowers, the South Pole of Jupiter, the Aurora Borealis.’ God is the Creator, and all creations reflect, to some degree, their creators.

Beauty is another reason, besides the three linked to at the end, that I tend towards liturgical worship. It nourishes my soul. I wanted to include it in my discussion of ancient Christianity and patristics, but I have to admit that, outside of some of the more beautiful prayers of the Divine Liturgies of St Basil (recently discussed here) and St John Chrysostom as well as of the Gelasian and Leonine Sacramentaries, my study of ancient religion has not had that much influence in terms of my philosophy or love of beauty.

Not that ancient Christianity was un-beautiful. Consider the mosaics of Rome’s ancient Christian basilicas, such as the triumphal arch of San Paolo fuori le Mura, dating to the 440s:

Nonetheless, my deep-seated appreciation for historic liturgy and beauty in our approach to God has more to do with mediaeval, Byzantine/Orthodox, and ‘Early Modern’ Christianity. First came the Book of Common Prayer; from ages 19-21, I found this book impossible to pray with at Sunday services. It was all lip-service for me. But when I was 21, I used Canadian 1962 Compline daily in Lent, and this re-shifted and re-shaped me. And — it was beautiful.

That Advent, I went to a high Tridentine Use Latin Mass at St Clement’s Church in Ottawa. This had a profound effect on me, and it is still difficult for me to put into words. Here I saw the worship of God in a way very different from the mix of pop music and modern liturgy I had been raised in and devoted to. It was an elegant, reverent dance. It seem that here was a way of approaching God that truly took into account his majesty. And — it was beautiful.

Then, the next September, I found myself in Cyprus. Icons, incense, Greek chanting. Not always actually to my aesthetic taste. But drawing me in over and over again to this day — I cannot help but find it attractive. Rich, powerful, involving all my senses. And, today, I find — it is beautiful.

I visited the Basilica San Marco in Venice, and the mosaics stopped me dead in my tracks. ‘Glory be to God,’ slipped from my lips. I crossed myself. I can never be Truly Reformed. Lush medieval mosaics, delicate Byzantine icons, rich Victorian stained glass. Well — it is beautiful.

Architecture as well: Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s in London, San Pietro in Vaticano, Santa Mario Maggiore — beautiful.

Running around throughout this, I find myself confronted with the beauty of John Donne’s poetry, the 1611 Bible’s prose, the BCP again and again. I am caught by the beauty beyond Christianity in my beloved Virgil and Ovid. And then I circle back to the elegant arguments of St Anselm and the theology of St Gregory Palamas which, if I do not always agree with it, is at least beautiful.

We worship a beautiful God, and we have centuries of rich resources of beauty at our fingertips.

Taken together with all the other things I have been saying about liturgy on this blog, why would we cast it aside in favour of un-beautiful forms of worship?


Ancient Religion Got Me Into this Mess: 1. Doctrines; 2. Sacraments; 3. Devotion

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