Monday, September 28, 2015

Dietrich von Hildebrand on beauty, 4: Raising hearts to God

A.W. Pugin's stunning chapel at St Edmund's College, Ware, draws the eye,
and thus the attention and the heart, to the centre of the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Concluding this series of quotations from Dietrich von Hildebrand's Trojan Horse in the City of God, mostly from chapter 26, a final section addresses the question of the role of beauty lifting our hearts to God: perhaps a hackneyed phrase, but for something which, surely, we all feel. It is a theme taken up in recent times by Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who talk of the via pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty, as a form of evangelisation.

Beauty helps form us in the Faith and helps us to become holy. If we take this idea seriously, we will concur with the attitude of the Liturgical Movement which wanted to rid the liturgy and devotions of aesthetic elements which struck the wrong note, in the first half of the 20th century: most obviously, sentimental hymns and art. Far, far worse, however, is the invasion of our churches by various forms of pop music in more recent decades. It is not just a matter of giving the audience aesthetic pleasure, but of engaging with them in the right way and to the right end: this brings us back to the earlier arguments in this series, against aestheticism and on the question of beauty as an adequate expression of worship, serving worship and not distracting us from it to its own, alien, theme.

Here is Dietrich von Hildebrand.

The beauty and sacred atmosphere of the Liturgy are not only something precious and valuable as such (as adequate expressions of the religious acts of worship), but are also of great importance for the development of the souls of the faithful. Time and again those in the liturgical movement have stressed the truth that 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. Sacred beauty, therefore, is of great importance for the formation of the true ethos of the faithful.

In Liturgy and Personality I consider in detail the profound function the Liturgy has for our sanctification, despite the fact that worship of God is rather the theme of the Liturgy. In the liturgy we praise ad thank God; we partake in Christ's sacrifice and prayer. By inviting us to pray with Christ to God, the Liturgy also plays a fundamental role in our transformation in Christ. This role is not restricted to the supernatural part of the Liturgy. It also pertains to its form, to the sacred beauty embodied in the words and music of the Holy Mass or the divine Office. To overlook this fact is a sign of great primitiveness, mediocrity, and lack of realism.

One of the great aims of the liturgical movement has been to replace unsuitable prayers and hymns with the sacred text of the official liturgical prayers and by the Gregorian chant. Today, however, we are witnessing a crippling of this liturgical movement as many try to replace the sublime Latin text of the Liturgy with translations into vernacular slang. They even arbitrarily change the Liturgy itself in order to "adapt it to our time." Gregorian chant is replaced at best by mediocre music, at worst by jazz or rock and roll. Such grotesque substitutions veil the spirit of Christ immeasurably more than did former sentimental types of devotion.

Those were certainly inadequate. However, jazz is not only inadequate, but antithetical to the sacred atmosphere of the Liturgy. It is more than a distortion; it also draws men into a specifically worldly atmosphere. It appeals to something in men that makes them deaf to the message of Christ.

Even when sacred beauty is replaced, not by a profane vulgarity, but by neutral abstractions, this has serious consequences for the lives of the faithful. For, as we have indicated, the Catholic Liturgy excels in its appeal to a man's entire personality. The faithful are not drawn into the world of Christ only by thir faith or bystrict symbols, They are also drawn into a higher world by the beauty of the church, its sacred atmosphere, the splendour of the altar, the rhythm of the liturgical texts, and the sublimity of the Gregorian chant or other truly sacred music--for example, a mass by Mozart or by Bach. Even the odour of incense has a meaningful function to perform in this direction. The use of all channels capable of introducing us into the sanctuary is deeply realistic and deeply Catholic. It is truly existential and plays a great role in helping us lift up our hearts.
Dietrich von Hildebrand on beauty, 4: Raising Hearts to God

I have previously posted extracts from this book, Trojan Horse in the City of God, on this blog; the book deserves to be better know.

His discussion of grief and the Requiem Mass can be found here and here.

His discussion of whether the truth is to be found in the middle between crusty old pre-Conciliar Thomists and liberals can be read here.

The quite brilliant chapter on the 'Vivification of Religion' is available in its entirety here.

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  1. Anonymous10:46 am

    Thanks a lot, Joseph. In countries as mine (Romania) it is impossible to find any of Dietrich von Hildebrand' books. And not just his books, but any good Catholic book written by authors devoted to the Sacred Tradition (including Romano Amerio, Claude Barte and so forth). And Dietrich von Hildebrand' writings are especially important... Yours, Robert

  2. Amen to this. I am just starting to learn more about the Latin Mass but so far I am loving it. It is so pure and holy.

    thanks for this amazing blog.

  3. just one thing: the link "'Vivification of Religion' is available in its entirety here." doesn't work. Is there any way to find the document?

    greetings from Texas

    1. Thank you!

      I've mended the link: it is