My theological formation included the work for a master’s degree in Roman Catholic theology, graduate level philosophy courses, three years of (classical) Greek, and tutorials with Anglican clergy in Anglican theology, liturgy, and pastoralia.  The last component of this program was in many ways the most memorable.  It certainly at times was the least conventional.

My main tutor, the director of the program, had an appointment in the philosophy department, which was and is well-known for its interest in continental philosophy in general.  Father Keyes’s greatest interest, I believe, was Kierkegaard:  an interest sufficiently deep and persistent that he learned Danish in order to pursue it.  In any case, the first books Father Keyes asked me to read were Longinus (or ‘Longinus’) On the Sublime, parts of Aristotle’s Poetics, and Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.  The reasons for these choices were not immediately clear to me, but over time I came to see why they made sense.

A common thread uniting the books is suggested by a passage early in the Longinus:

…[T]he effect of genius is not to persuade the audience but rather to transport them out of themselves.  Invariably what inspires wonder casts a spell upon us and is always superior to what is merely convincing and pleasing.  For our convictions are usually under our own control, while such passages [of genius] exercise an irresistible power of mastery and get the upper hand with every member of the audience.

We will return to this work in a moment.

As is naturally and properly, though often not actually, the case, the academic departments of a university exist in a hierarchy.  The hierarchy is obscured, or not understood at all, at most modern universities.  The university, if it is not reduced to justifying itself on purely utilitarian, economic, and practical grounds, requires a justification that depends in turn on that hierarchy, at the top of which rest the liberal arts, crowned by theology and philosophy.

At Duquesne the place of the theology department as the queen of sciences was outwardly and visibly expressed by its location on the top floor of the main academic building, just above the philosophy department.  The psychology department of the university was in its inspiration and principles subordinate in turn to the philosophy department – though I do not recall which building or floor housed psychology.  I do recall that when I was studying theology and philosophy there, the psychology students with a regrettable frequency wore t-shirts which read, ‘Duquesne Psychologists Do It Phenomenologically’.  One suspects that the wearers thereof meant to be arch about ‘It’, while in fact they assumed that they knew quite well what ‘Phenomenologically’ meant.  The truth was more likely that in fact they knew quite well what they meant by ‘It’, and assumed that everybody else did too, but were rather muddled about ‘phenomenologically’.  Perhaps I am mistaken, and certainly I digress.

In any case, the unifying theme of those first assigned works, or at least of the ideas I eventually took with me from them, was the importance of the experience of drama, of music, of poetry – and of religious experience, including liturgy.  Philosophical critique might challenge and cast into question many assertions or explanations.  Historical and archaeological research might provide much information about the history of the arts in question.  But the experience of drama, music, worship – aesthetic experience – is itself fundamental and is subject to a different kind of consideration from that pursued by critical inquiry.  Rational critique and aesthetic judgement are different and cannot be reduced to each other.

Therefore, what Longinus calls genius and the sublime and what Otto calls the holy and mystery –  the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – are beyond the reach of reductionistic critique.  A John Dewey, a Carl Sagan, and a host of other reductionist, middlebrow popularizers, and the more serious thinkers behind them, mostly miss the point.  They are down on the first or second floor and cannot rise much higher.  In fact, they cannot even by themselves justify either their own place in the building or even account for the existence of the building as a whole or explain why it should be paid for by private philanthropy or by the public purse, except in utilitarian terms which they, again, cannot fundamentally defend against reductionist critique turned back upon themselves.

Several of these ideas, encountered at the beginning of a theological education, apply rather directly to liturgy.  Regarding modernist liturgy, one wishes it were even what Longinus calls ‘convincing and pleasing’.  We could choose to refrain from complaining that modernist liturgy is ‘merely convincing and pleasing’ so long as it were somewhat convincing and pleasing.  Alas, it is seldom convincing or pleasing.  What modern liturgy transports people ‘out of themselves’ or takes them beyond the ramparts of this world?  What modern liturgy exercises an irresistible power and mastery over hearts and souls?  What ‘7-11’ ‘praise music’ (seven words, repeated eleven times with a back beat) elevates anyone into the realm of the numinous, where God is encountered as Mysterium tremendum, as the compelling, overwhelming, transcendent Lord of majesty and awe?

In contrast I think of a former parishioner, raised without religion, who as a teenager walked in the 1960s into a parish and heard the priest begin the Collect for Purity.  This woman remarked, ‘When he opened his mouth and said, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid”, I knew I was home.’  She was in the grip of ‘an irresistible power of mastery’, moved by God through the sublimity of the Prayer Book.

And so back to Longinus….

There are two passages in Longinus that might seem in some tension as we attempt to understand our experience of the sublime.  At one point Longinus writes that ‘[J]udgement in literature is the last fruit of ripe experience.’[1]  Here ‘judgement’ renders krisis, ‘choice’ in the sense, we might say, of discriminating selection.  As the result of ‘ripe experience’, this judgement is not arbitrary or a matter of an emotional whim, a sudden fancy, or a popular enthusiasm.  Experienced or ripe judgement suggests the fruit of educated and refined taste in a ‘man of sense, well-versed in literature’ (182v).

A moment later, however, Longinus writes that ‘[t]o speak generally’ the ‘truly beautiful and sublime…pleases all people at all times’.[2]  Does this suggest that judgements of beauty and sublimity in fact are matters of popular taste and, as it were, of democratic determination?  The tension is, I think, only apparent.  The ‘all people’ in the last statement seems in fact to be not all people whatsoever, but rather ‘all people of ripe experience’ or ‘all people of sense, well-versed in literature’.  The point of the last statement seems to be that the conclusions of discriminating judges will be enduring and will recommend themselves to people of good taste and judgement over time.  The ‘all people’ here is rather like the ab omnibus, ‘by all’, of the Vincentian canon:  Catholicity is not determined by democratic or popular vote at any given moment or place, but rather by a consensus of Christians over time attending to Scripture and tradition and the creeds.  Since the beautiful and the sublime are enduring, they, like Christian orthodoxy, are not subject to radical change.  The content of orthodoxy grows but does not fundamentally contradict itself or alter arbitrarily.  Sound education, good taste, and orthodox judgement are inherently conservative.  Such good things are only rightly determined democratically if we allow, as it were, votes for the dead:  and not in the way the dead used to vote in Mayor Daley’s Chicago.

It is a central article of Christian hope (and faith, and love) that the beautiful, the true, and the good coinhere.  If so, the orthodox Christian’s love of the traditional liturgy in its surpassing beauty, and of That which traditional liturgy brings to us from beyond the ramparts of our world, is not a matter of arbitrary taste, nor even merely an apprehension and delight in beauty, but also is an apprehension, or at any rate (in Rahner’s term) a ‘prehension’, of transcendent truth and goodness.  The banal liturgies of the modernist tinkerers are simply inadequate vehicles for the Mysterium Tremendum.  The heaven of heavens cannot contain the Mystery.  But 7-11 songs, praise bands, ersatz language never spoken by any real person, and even earnest preachments, simply will not suffice.  All people of ripe experience, all men and women well-versed in literature, have tasted the modern pottage and found it wanting, thin gruel that does not and cannot nourish.

Rediscover the Latin Mass or the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom or the real Book of Common Prayer (and missals based thereon).  Or, if you find that most of this piece persuades, but cannot find your way to those liturgies, then rediscover the liturgies in the past of some noble tradition.  Rediscover the idea of the Holy.  Rediscover the Sublime.  Go back to the future, where God was once more honored and loved than today:  loved and honored as He who gives pleasing food to all the world, food always and everywhere agreeable unto every (rightly formed) taste.


[1] ἡ γάρ τῶν λόγων κρίσις πολλῆς ἐστι πείρας τελευταῑον ἐπιγέννημα· (182r)

[2] The ‘truly beautiful and sublime’ translates, or at least is a paraphrase of, καλὰ…καὶ ἁληθινά… (182v).  More literally, perhaps, simply read ‘beautiful and true’.

3 thoughts on “Liturgy, Beauty, and the Sublime

  1. Always such a joy to see your blog post pop up on my email. I always learn something, or am inspired to read more, pray more. And sometimes it’s just a good read and a chuckle. This post was spot on. I recall the first time I heard: “and with angels, and archangels and all the company of heaven” well, I thought I had been transported to heaven. No praise chorus or invocation of someone called “Father God” will ever be able to do that. Thank you again, your Grace.


  2. Thank you Father, I too always learn something new and I especially like being reminded of how our liturgy can transport us to a new understanding.


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