Dr. Peter Kwasniewski at the Imaginative Conservative expounds on the goodness of beautiful worship and exhorts us to consider the necessity of ceremonial dignity.
Under Archbishop Laud (1589–1645) there was a strong move towards greater ceremonial dignity in the church. As the house of God it was to be fitted out accordingly with the finest of human artistry, and its functions were to be conducted in a spirit of deepest reverence. The liturgy, the music, the sacred vessels, the very fabric of the building, all were to serve and make manifest the beauty of holiness. This phrase, which we find invoked time and again both by writers of the period and, later, by historians, derives from Psalm 96: ‘O sing unto the Lord a new song…. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.’ —On Pärt, by Paul Hillier and Tõnu Tormis (Samfundet, 2005)
Laud was Anglican, of course, but it is no more than ecumenical common sense to recognize that we Roman Catholics could learn a thing or two from his devout attitude. (Need I mention the sincere hope of many Roman Catholics that the Anglican Ordinariates, by modeling that Laudian attitude and approach, will become a force of renewal for the rest of us?) (For those of us Ordinary Form Catholics who have migrated to an Ordinariate Mass, worshipping God "in the beauty of holiness" (Ps. 29:2) is a joy and blessed relief from the irreverence and indifference one witnesses at too many Ordinary Form liturgies. Contrary to the busy-ness and careless worship commonly associated with the Ordinary Form, the Ordinariate Mass (i.e., Divine Worship: the Missal) offers an elegant rhythm of silence and reverent praise, adoration and robust liturgical worship that leaves no doubt in the mind of the worshipper that the focus of worship is on God.)
Do we not need “greater ceremonial dignity in the church?” Why are our processions in church so slapdash, casual, and quick, almost as if we’re embarrassed to be engaged in divine worship?
Why are there so few processions outside of church? We could certainly use “a spirit of deepest reverence” in conducting our services. Less of the informal greetings, smiles, and handshakes—more of the reverent fear of the Lord that brings us to our knees in homage to the great King of all the earth, begging for His mercy. We need music, vessels, and architecture that “make manifest the beauty of holiness.” (In particular, we’ve all heard music that seems neither beautiful nor holy; its mawkish sentimentality, circus-like tunes, predictably syncopated rhythms, and simpering lyrics are an appalling combination from which beauty must hide her fair head while holiness flees to the mountains to bewail her virginity.)
But why must we seek to do such laudable things? For one simple reason: because God, the greatest and best, deserves the greatest and best from us. And there is a corollary: We human beings, created in His image and likeness, need to be able to offer “the finest of human artistry” to Him, lifting up our minds and hearts by means of it. If only we knew ourselves, we would see that we have a longing to give the best of ourselves to Him, not what is mediocre, humdrum, worldly, or two-faced. Doesn’t an artist who takes pride in his work want to give the best to his patron? Don’t lovers with noble intentions long to give the best of themselves to one another? God has given us the ability and the calling to reach out to His transcendent holiness with works of beauty that carry us along with them, past the realm of the profane into the sanctuary of divinity. As St. Thomas says, we worship God not to give Him something He does not already have, but to bring ourselves closer to Him by yielding what we owe Him. In this way we draw nearer to His goodness and grow in likeness to Him.