Why Have We Turned Away from Beauty?

hymn, church music, chant

hymn, church music, chantMy daughter gave me a CD for Christmas called Alma Mater: Featuring the Voice of Pope Benedict XVI. The first time I played it, I ended up on my knees in prayer. Good music will do that. Beauty in any form lifts us toward God.

At a parish where our family used to worship, the pianist played so sublimely she could move me even when playing songs I did not particularly care for. During difficult times in my life, her musical gifts helped me to pray when I could not find the words.

My husband and I attended a parish out of town one weekend where the pianist had this same gift. I spoke to her after Mass. When I told her how she affected me, her first reaction was “I hope I didn’t distract you!” I explained that rather than distract me, she had helped me to worship.

To ask if she had been a distraction was an appropriate question. Music at Mass, as with everything else in worship, should point to God, not to the musicians.

Both of these pianists tell me when they play, music becomes their prayer. Indeed I suspect that musicians who are best at bringing our minds to God are the ones who are offering something to Him, not just singing to be noticed.

Marissa Meyer, MM, is a cantor at St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Catholic Church and Church of the Assumption in Nashville, TN. She is also my daughter, the person who gifted me with the CD I mentioned at the beginning of this article. I asked her for her thoughts about worship and music.

First, she pointed me to a video by Roger Scruton called Why Beauty Matters. She tells me that every time she watches it she learns something new. After viewing it with her, I agree. I highly encourage you to watch it as well.

Mr. Scruton begins by explaining that in the past, people thought of beauty as the aim of poetry, art, and music. He goes on to say that people once considered beauty “a value as important as truth or goodness.” In the 20th century, according to Scruton, the goal of art changed. The aim of art was “to disturb and to break moral taboos.” He seems to make a connection between the downfall of art and our moral failings.

Scruton gives many examples of how we have turned our back to beauty. He speaks of how works of art are now about creating a brand. He talks about the ugliness we surround ourselves with.

I have recently become aware of a site that makes his point. At first click, it looks innocent enough. On this site, you can “watch magical videos made by creative people.” Though it is clear on the website that you should be 13 or older to create an account, it is not uncommon for younger children to have one.  The website also has a page that includes information about their brand.

The name of the website is musical.ly. The opening page seems inviting. There is nothing to complain about until you actually look at the videos yourself, or preferably let others look at it for you.

This is just one example of the ugliness Scruton describes. I cannot speak to the intentions of the creators of this site, but it clearly allows pretty much anything. For those who did not read the article, “anything” includes pornography, ridicule, self-harm, and more.

This is not beauty. This is ugliness shown to and often created by kids.

Scruton later says “Through beauty, we are brought into the presence of the sacred.”

That makes sense to me. I played clarinet from sixth grade through college. I remember how even then, some of the better music not only moved me but brought my mind to God.

This would help explain why beautiful music enhances worship. Musicam sacram states:

Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it.

Indeed, through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Is this happening where you worship? Are you finding a union of voices, and minds raised to heavenly things?

We should actively participate in Mass. Musicam sacram puts it this way:

The faithful fulfill their liturgical role by making that full, conscious and active participation which is demanded by the nature of the liturgy itself and which is, by reason of baptism, the right and duty of the Christian people.

Yet, as Marissa pointed out to me, we live in a time when people will raise their hands as high as possible during the Our Father, and the sign of peace becomes a social hour, but people will not sing if the music is not to their liking. I think most of us have witnessed the truth of this. We do not necessarily see “full, conscious and active participation” as a duty. We want to participate, but only in the things we like.

Scruton observed the correlation between the downfall of art and moral failure. As we look less for beauty, we become more centered on ourselves.

We also surround ourselves with the trivial. We spend our time on social media and computer games rather than immersing ourselves in beauty. This affects our worship. As Marissa stated:

Really, we don’t meditate anymore. We are fed entertainment and action. We can watch tv on our phones. And that aspect has crept into the Mass.

We are “fed entertainment and action”virtually everywhere. People often attend Mass carrying a source of that entertainment, their smartphones. These phones can be handy for following the readings, but I have often seen people checking Facebook or sports scores during Mass.  People expect to be entertained rather than to give of themselves even during this holy time. This leads to the attitude of participating only in the parts of Mass worshippers find entertaining.

We look for “mountaintop” experiences at Mass. Often that is how we judge the goodness of worship. We forget that Mass is about God, not ourselves. Worship, this most unselfish act, becomes selfish.

At another out-of-town parish where my husband and I attended Mass, the church was both big and crowded. An overflow room was needed to accommodate everyone. This would seem to be a nice problem to have.

It had all the looks of a vibrant parish. I was quite surprised, then, to see a half-empty church immediately after communion. This is no exaggeration. Fully half of the parishioners left immediately after receiving the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord. After such a gift, they could not kneel to pray, wait for the final blessing, and sing the last hymn to our Creator.

It is intriguing to watch Roger Scruton’s video and wonder if he is right. Has lack of beauty led to moral decay? If this is true, what can we do about it?

Musicam sacram suggests this:

The faithful should also be taught to unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God.

Worshipping with the most beautiful music we can is a good start. Exposure helps people learn to appreciate beauty, and beauty raises our mind to God.

This is a difficult task. Ideally, we would be able to better pay our musicians so they could have more rehearsal time and learn some of the more difficult, but more beautiful, choral pieces.

People have their favorites, but they can still learn to love a different style of music. In our former parish we usually sang the standards, but for Triduum our Director of Music managed to get a larger group of people together who were willing to put in some extra hours.

This parish full of people who were accustomed to their favorites, a parish where I have personally seen worshippers prefer the cell phone to Mass, paid rapt attention to complex beautiful pieces like the Ubi Caritas by Ola Gjeilo.

This is not the kind of music a church could standardly sing without paid musicians. Over the years it has become more and more difficult to get volunteers even for the Triduum choir. It would be impossible to ask this kind of time commitment of volunteers year-round.

In Marissa’s case, not being paid well it means she needs a full-time job to pay the bills. She now works seven days a week. At some point, she will likely have to give up something. Cantoring means so much to her, but that is likely what will have to go.

The reality, of course, is that most parishes just don’t have the funding for a consistent choir or even a few professional singers. Wealthy benefactors would help, but often this is not possible. We can still make movements within our own lives and families to create an atmosphere of beauty.

It can start simply. Play more music around the house, the kind that brings your thoughts toward heaven, not music that causes you to feel restless or angry. Rather than spend the bulk of your free time on Facebook, read books such as Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. Take time to watch a sunset or walk on the beach, with your spouse and children if you have them.

Most importantly, do not forget prayer. That includes private and public prayer, such as Mass. As Catholics, we are also blessed to be able to pray in a very special intimacy through Adoration.

In her undergraduate degree, Marissa took a course in Science and Theology. The professor pointed out that human beings are the only living things that recognize beauty. Beauty is for human beings and only human beings.

On that note, I would like to close with something beautiful. This is the piece of music that Roger Scruton ended his video with, the piece so beautiful it has settings by countless composers: the Stabat mater. It is a perfect Lenten reflection. I highly recommend you take some time away from social media to listen

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9 thoughts on “Why Have We Turned Away from Beauty?”

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  3. Very good article and makes me think about the wasted time on things like Facebook and games. Beauty is so sacred and is needed by all.

  4. Loved the article and as you know love music at Mass. It moves me and touches my heart. I love the old Catholic church music and as my son as introduce me to chant I find it also moving. What I don’t find moving is the use of drum kits at Mass. When i see and hear them it takes away the reverence of the Mass for me. I want to see and feel and presence with God, and this certainly is a distraction especially when I see people swaying and tapping their feet to the beat. We are suppose to be listening to the beat of God’s heart, not the beat of a drum. I have also seen people with their cell phones and my first thought is what is more important than God while at Mass. God would never put you on hold to check his messages. Even have seen parents giving them to their children to keep them quiet, this is not a good practice it is your responsibility as a Catholic parent to teach your children to respect Mass time at a young age.

  5. Over the past 50 years, there has been an unfortunate trend to see the amateur as being more “authentic” than the professional. This leads to a lot of well intentioned bad art and music.

    It is as if someone read the story of the widow’s mite and concluded that it was best for everyone to give a mite, rich and poor.

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  7. Mary Pesarchick

    This was excellent!! Couldn’t agree with you more! Thank you so much for your reflection and for the links to the beautiful music.

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