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

A “Sarum Use” church plant and why it wouldn’t work

Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe
Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe

A friend of mine once dreamt that I had started my own church following the liturgy according to the Use of Sarum. I’ve had a few encounters with Sarum Use, including translating some of its texts on this blog.1 I started to imagine what my Sarum Use church would be like. Obviously, despite my Protestant sentiments to the contrary, the liturgy would have to be in Latin. And it would have to follow the Use According to Sarum. This is not difficult to organise; the entire Missal and Breviary exist in modern printed editions. I would probably, however, print up glossed versions of the text for the congregants. Although it’s something that I’ve seen in Tridentine churches, it would be my first departure from the mediaeval liturgy. Nevertheless, this seems perfectly justifiable; the Middle Ages had a low literacy rate,2 so pew sheets would have been useless — plus, parchment and paper were rather more expensive then, and print was only around for a few decades before the Reformation, to boot.

Kitting out a full-blown Sarum church as recommended in the mediaeval sources would require no small sum of money — candles, censers, incense for the censers, vestments for clergy and the various assistants at the altar, altar cloths, banners for processions, chalices, patens (both plural, of course), monstrances, tabernacle for reserve host, etc, and more of which I am unaware.

The architecture of a Sarum church is important. I thought about this for a while — Romanesque or Gothic? Mosaics on the walls? I decided that, as much as I am fond of Romanesque and mosaics, it would have to be Gothic with a few carvings and frescoes because our sources for this liturgical use come from the period when Gothic in all its variety and Perpendicular reigned supreme in English church architecture. So it would only be fitting for my Sarum church to be Gothic. Unlike Victorian Gothic, however, the windows would be large, ablaze with stained glass telling the stories of Scripture and the saints, like Yorkminster (or, preferably, La Sainte-Chapelle).

This Gothic church would be cruciform in shape with the high altar just beyond the transepts. I would want a screen, but I’m not sure a. how authentic Late Mediaeval Rood Screens looked (besides Yorkminster) b. how much I want it to obscure the congregational view of the celebration of the Mass. My modern/Prot sensibilities intruding again!

The music for the liturgy is another question. When Sarum was last in use, it was blessed by the magnificent music of Thomas Tallis. But I am not sold on this sort of music for congregational use — I want the people of the congregation to engage with the words of the liturgy and recite/sing/chant as much as they can. This sounds very Protestant of me (because it is), but I’ve a feeling it would be in the spirit of the Dominicans and Franciscans, anyway. Perhaps a compromise with an ‘Anglican’ or Gregorian plainsong for most the liturgy, but then intricate choral singing while people receive the Mass?

Hymnody could come anywhere from the Latin tradition, I suppose. Perhaps restricting itself to hymns found in British sources? I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to pre-Elizabethan Latin hymns, though — I’d lose ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,’ in that case!

The lectionary would be based on the Sarum sources and the preaching in the vernacular based on the lectionary. That’s simple.

I think I would like to restore the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval ‘cathedral’ liturgy of the hours. That is, Morning and Evening Prayer, Monday through Saturday, instead of Mass every morning which is contemporary Roman Catholic practice. But, since this is a parish church, no attempt at the monastic liturgy of the hours. I think a modern practice that could be acceptable, however, is a mid-week, midday Eucharist.

Thus the liturgy. Anyone with enough willing bodies and money could reproduce the Use of Sarum in an appropriate space. There are probably more people willing to get involved with such an experiment than one would think.

But is that enough?

Can we transplant mediaeval liturgy into the modern world and touch modern souls in the same way? If we were to transplant it, would touching modern souls as mediaeval even be the goal?

The liturgical practice of the Middle Ages was part of a much bigger spirituality that a single parish could not recreate today. This was a shared spirituality that, with some variety of region or religious order (Dominicans, Franciscans, secular clergy, monastics), embraced Europe from Ireland and Iceland to the Czech Republic, from Norway to Sicily (and sometimes Cyprus and the Levant). For all that pilgrimage has always had a hint of spiritual tourism, people would still have taken pilgrimages to Durham or Canterbury or St Andrews or Compostela or Rome or Jerusalem as part of an international spiritual piety that bound them together in a way that modern spiritual tourism does not. In England they would have had the religious world of the miracle plays on their doorstep as part of the regular life of a city’s entertainment. Monks and anchorites were available to learn from as an integrated part of a spiritual community rather than oddities or perceived as relics of a bygone age.

Some of this could be mitigated in artificial ways in the parish life of the Sarum church, I suppose — study groups of the mediaeval mystical tradition, for example, or trips to living monasteries. But I don’t think the spirit of Sarum could ever be recaptured precisely because we no longer live in the Middle Ages. Christendom has been torn asunder over the past 500 years, and any attempt to integrate the mediaeval with the (post)modern must acknowledge that fact and realise that anything it does will be, inevitably, different from what they did, no matter how one might try.

1. In real life, I have, in fact, been to a service at St Thomas’, Huron St, Toronto, that used the Sarum liturgy (thoughts here and here); before that, I’d blogged about Sarum Use at least once. As well, in my ‘Classic Christian Texts’ on this site, I’ve got Mediaeval Vespers and the Order for the Consecration of Marriage: Sarum Use, both translated by me. Never having footnoted before, I give thanks to Karl Winegardner’s blog Compendiums for showing me how to do this.

2. According to one source, England had a literacy rate as low as 6% in 1300, but in the 1400s literacy steadily increased.