Liturgy, Beauty, and the World

By Dr Joseph Shaw

One of the most famous verses in Scripture is “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only Son”. (“John 3:16” was for years graffitied onto a bridge I passed every time I drove from Oxford to London.) But in the same Gospel, Jesus declares: “I pray not for the world”. (John 19:7) In the former text the term “world” evidently refers to the whole of creation; in the latter, it is distinguished from the disciples, as their enemy: it is the spirit of worldliness, the spirit of opposition to the Gospel.

When Luther rejected reason in theology, and Calvin rejected instrumental music in the liturgy, they were distancing themselves from the “world”, but they got the wrong one. What is “worldly” in a negative sense is not simply what is created, or what is material or fleshly: human flesh was taken up by God in the Incarnation and redeemed. What is worldly is what rejects God, what prioritises lesser goods over greater goods, what ignores salvation to grasp money, or power, or pleasure.

The latter, admittedly, is the dominant theme in the society in which we live. While fleeing “the world” in this sense, nevertheless, Catholics remain aware of the possibility of redeeming created things, and of making use, for good, of human achievements in technology and art.

Worldly goods like money or fame have no intrinsic value; those who seek them for their own sakes are seeking dust and ashes. As Dietrich von Hildebrand pointed out, however, not all created goods are like this. God did not create a worthless bauble: He has filled Creation with things which are genuinely good, a reflection of His own goodness. Beauty is one such good.

Can beauty distract us from God? Certainly it can, but if it did so it would be out of place, and since beauty implies the right ordering of things, this would be a paradox. They say a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place. Something beautiful in the wrong place, distracting us from something greater, is itself spoiled. If we stuck a postcard of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto the middle of the Mona Lisa with blu tack, we might hesitate to say that Van Gogh’s masterpiece was ugly, but the overall effect would be an aesthetic disaster. It would be a failure of taste. 

We don’t just want any art in any context. It has to be appropriate, and establishing what is appropriate can require difficult judgements. One of the reasons for the neglect of art in the Church since the 1960s has been a reaction against bad art: as von Hildebrand wrote (Trojan Horse in the City of God),

“mawkish prayers and hymns distort the religious ethos of the faithful; appealing to centres in man that are far removed from the religious one, they draw him into an atmosphere which obscures and blurs the face of Christ.”

Not all art has this effect, however: the great art of the Church’s history, created by men and women who combined piety with artistic skill, does not blur the face of Christ, but reveals it. As Pope John Paul II wrote in 2003 (Ecclesia in Europa 60):

“Nor should we overlook the positive contribution made by the wise use of the cultural treasures of the Church. … artistic beauty, … a sort of echo of the Spirit of God, is a symbol pointing to the mystery, an invitation to seek out the face of God made visible in Jesus of Nazareth.”

It is a sad fact of life that when one thinks of the Church’s “cultural treasures” the phrase suggests a store-room of dusty and neglected artefacts. Despair of their ever being used in their intended liturgical context motivates some to offer fine vestments and sacred vessels for exhibitions and to propose sacred music for performance in the concert hall. But this, in a different way, threatens to put them into the wrong context. 

How does art work when used in the liturgy? After all, it is not essential to it. Hildebrand responded to this observation by saying that it may not be essential for the validity of Mass, but nevertheless,

“if it is meant that such things like the beauty of the church, the liturgy, and the music are trivial, then this accusation is very wrong, for there is a profound relation between the essence of something and its adequate expression. This is especially true of the Holy Mass.”


“Those who clamour that the church is no museum and that the really pious man is indifferent to these accidentals only show their blindness to the great role played by adequate (and beautiful) expression. Ultimately, this is a blindness to man’s nature. Although they claim to be ‘existential’, these persons remain very abstract. They forget that authentic beauty contains a specific message of God which lifts up our souls. As Plato said: ‘At the sight of beauty, our souls grow wings.’ [Phaedrus 249d]”

The beauty of the liturgy serves the message of the liturgy, it does not replace that message with another. Indeed this is an important criterion of a piece of art’s suitability for use in churches and the liturgy: that it does not interpose values alien to the purpose it serves. 

Appropriate art does, however, add something. As a sermon or commentary on the liturgy might quote a text and comment on it, a musical setting gives a certain interpretation of a text, just as a painting of a bible story gives its own spin to the story: the expressions of the characters, who is in the foreground, exactly what moment is chosen. Great Catholic liturgical art sits alongside our patrimony of theological commentary on the liturgy, as a way to understand it better.

Beauty in the liturgy has an effect not only on those outside the Church, who can be drawn in, but on those who have experienced the liturgy a thousand times. The beautiful expression of the message helps it to enter into us, and transform us.