I came across this quote in an old notebook, from a 2008 interview in the Spectator with Dom Hugh Gilbert (the abbot of Pluscarden Abbey who was at that time being talked of as a possible successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor):
I like the idea that beauty and holiness are the apologia for Christianity. The beauty of Christianity needs to shine out more; this is where the celebration of the liturgy becomes central. And the goodness of Christianity, i.e. the holiness of self-giving love (the witness of charity) and of prayer, needs to be sustained and developed. And this too, certainly: that the one thing Christianity has to offer is Easter. Simply: Christ is risen!
The beauty of the liturgy, the holiness of self-giving love and of prayer, and the announcement that Christ is risen. I’m even more convinced that Abbot Hugh is correct than I was when I first read it.
In my 2008 note I asked myself, perhaps a little sourly, “is beauty a misleading apology?”. I was perhaps mistaking beauty for splendour. Splendour has its place, but I wonder if what Gilbert meant is something closer to what C.S. Lewis described as “solempne“:
This means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression or austerity. … The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp. …
The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.
The beauty of the liturgy can be expressed partly through fine clothes and well-performed music, but at its heart it is about a certain forgetfulness: those involved, both celebrant and congregation, forget themselves as they perform the liturgy. This forgetfulness-in-performance can occur in both splendid and plain settings; equally, both splendour and plainness can be, in different ways, a distraction.
To put it another way, what is needed in the liturgy is a certain complacency, in the sense in which James Alison describes it in his essay “Confessions of a former marginaholic”:
The first point about complacency is that, contrary to its bad name, is in fact rather a good thing, because it means dwelling with liking in something. The Father says of the Son, “This is my son in whom I am complacent”. If you want to know that I am not making this up, here’s St Jerome’s translation: “Tu es Filius meus dilectus in te complacui”.
So that’s the essence of beauty in the liturgy: “dwelling with liking in” it. Not feeling apologetic for liturgy and ceremony; resisting the constant tug back towards the informal and spontaneous. In a word, liking the liturgy.
Then we have the life of holiness (in self-giving love and prayer) and the confident proclamation that Christ is risen – and hence death is defeated and our sins are forgiven. This is it, isn’t it? This is Christianity. I’m just conscious of how far my own life, and much of the life of the church, is from this.