28 March 2023

Traditional Worship: A Compendium of Culture

The TLM, celebrated in a traditional style Church, contains art, architecture, literature, logic, rhetoric, drama, poetry, metalwork, textile art, and woodwork.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Fr Dwight Longenecker

It would be wrong to compare the Mass too closely to a stage production, but in a traditional celebration of Mass there is what I call a “compendium of culture”: a combination of art, architecture, literature, logic, rhetoric, drama, poetry, metalwork, textile art, and woodwork. Why does this matter? It matters because matter matters. The foundation of the Christian faith is the incarnation of God’s Son who took flesh of the Blessed Virgin.

In college I had my arm twisted to join the opera chorus. We were doing a production of Boito’s Mefistofele, and as I got involved in the production I was interested to observe the backstage team at work. When the curtain finally went up, it was exciting to be part of a theatrical production that wove together many different art forms. Literature was present with a version of Faust’s great story, drama in the stage acting, the plastic arts were there in the set design and creation, textile arts in the costumery, painting in the scenic backdrops, and more.

This experience came to mind not long ago when I was meditating on the experience of traditional Catholic worship. It would be wrong to compare the Mass too closely to a stage production, but in a traditional celebration of Mass there is what I call a “compendium of culture.”

One of my tasks as a parish priest in Greenville South Carolina has been to lead the congregation in the construction of a beautiful, new church in a traditional Romanesque style. Inspired by the ancient Abbey church of San Antimo in Tuscany, the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville draws together a wealth of Catholic art and architecture, and when we celebrate high Mass at 10:30 on Sunday mornings, the building surges with a beautiful combination of virtually every art form. First there is the architecture: The Romanesque style flowered first just after the decline of the Roman Empire, with its round arches, soaring height, and solid pillars, it developed naturally from the architecture of Rome herself, and is thus a living link with Roman history and culture.

Our church is adorned with various examples of traditional Catholic art. A set of more than fifty stained-glass windows from the famed Wilbur Burnham studio were salvaged from a church in Massachusetts and installed in the new OLR. In addition we commissioned a local artist to create new, low-relief, ceramic tympani to be placed over the doors. Our set of antique Stations of the Cross was lovingly and professionally restored by the same artist who painted the cherubim and the starry dome in the ceiling of the baldacchino.

Statues of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, St. Benedict, St. Francis, and the angels were salvaged, restored, and given pride of place. The copy of a painting from the Vatican museum painted by a local artist is in the narthex. Behind the high altar is a hand-painted English, nineteenth-century crucifix in the style of Duccio, which we discovered in an antique shop in Utah. In the floor and on the high altar are mosaics from a workshop in Jordan. The antique font—also from the church in Massachusetts—is a fine example of marble work, and the cover, bronze metalwork.

On Sunday mornings the pipe organ thunders, and one of our four choirs accompanies the Mass with plainchant, sacred polyphony, and classic hymns. So along with the art and architecture is some of the finest music of the Western liturgical tradition.

Where are the other cultural art forms? Literature is there as the Scriptures are read. We hear the great sagas of the Old Testament, the drama of the parables, the stories and teachings of Jesus, and the epistles of St Paul. Poetry is represented by the psalms and the lyrics to the fine old hymns we choose. Rhetoric and logic are displayed in the homily.

The sacred vessels and altarware exhibit traditional metalwork skills. The textile arts are featured in the good vestments we recently ordered from Watts & Co. in London. Bookbindery is there in the missals and prayerbooks we use, and even the kneelers and furniture show forth the skill of the woodworker and upholsterer.

Is there an art form that is missing from this compendium of culture? Dance perhaps, but there is even an echo of that in the formalized, ritual actions—almost choreographed—of the clergy and altar servers as they move in the sanctuary.

Why does this matter? It matters because matter matters. The foundation of the Christian faith is the incarnation of God’s Son who took flesh of the Blessed Virgin. St. Paul says of Jesus Christ that he is the “image (icon) of the unseen God.” Consequently, all of the created order is blessed and redeemed and we are called, according to our gifts, to be co-creators with God. This creative artistic endeavor is nowhere more integrated and directed to God’s glory than when it is dedicated to divine worship. In traditional Catholic worship all these artistic elements not only work together, but each is submissive to the higher aim of the glory and worship of God. If one element obtrudes—let us say the music is overpowering in volume or in quality (or too often in lack of quality) then the whole compendium of culture is flawed. When they combine together the overall effect is to lift the soul into the transcendent realm.

Art does this. The apprehension of beauty transports the body, mind, and spirit to the source of all that is beautiful, good, and true. Beauty opens the eyes, the ears and the heart and mind. Furthermore, what astonishes and moves me as we worship in our beautiful church, day by day and week by week, is that this compendium of culture is available and accessible to all.

We are so used, in our day and age for the arts to be a refuge for the elite. We go to art galleries to look at pictures and to concert halls to hear fine music. Literature has become the pastime of the elite classes—poetry for fine craftsmanship, sculpture, painting, mosaics all are considered to be prohibitively expensive for “ordinary folk”. Hoi polloi are expected to be satisfied with cheap, mass-produced trinkets, kitsch reproductions, cheap, brutal utilitarian architecture, and banal, sentimental folk music.

But in a traditional church like ours these things are not only available and accessible, but we live with this art, architecture, music, literature, sculpture, and stained glass. Each week our school children are immersed in this compendium of culture as they come into church for our school Mass. Every day and every Sunday “ordinary folk” are there (as they should be), not gawking at these wonders as one does in an art gallery, but living with them, worshipping with them and praying surrounded by them. At first our beautiful new church was a wonder (there are few like it in South Carolina). Now it is almost as if they take it for granted. The beauty is part of their quotidian vocabulary of worship.

This is the context and motivation that produced the greatest art, architecture, and craftsmanship the world has ever seen, and traditional Catholicism keeps it alive. May she survive the current lamentable stripping of the altars which the well-meaning liturgical and architectural barbarians are imposing, may she revive, and may she live long and prosper.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the author of Letters on LiturgyTake a virtual tour of the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church here.

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