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Too Much Beauty In Church?

Anastasia, who is Orthodox, writes to caution that too great a focus on beauty in church worship can be spiritually harmful:

Well, yes, beauty is important. The Orthodox Liturgy is very beautiful, and the Catholic mass can sometimes sound like a stripped down McDonald’s version of prayer. But there’s danger lurking here! I bow to the wise words of St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris, in her essay on the “Types of Religious Lives”.  An excerpt:

“The aesthete loses himself in clouds of incense, delights in the ancient chants, admires the severity and restraint of the Novgorod style of iconography. He will condescendingly take note of the somewhat naive wording of a hymn. He has partaken in everything, he is sated, afraid to spill his treasure. He is afraid of tasteless detail, of the human woes which provoke sympathy, he is afraid of human weakness which provokes disgust. All in all, he doesn’t like the petty, confused, disorganized world of the human soul. No doubt it would be difficult to find love within the aesthetic type of religious life. Nor, would it seem, is there even a place in it for hatred. There is only that cold, exacting contempt for the profane crowd and an ecstatic admiration for beauty. There is a dryness, often verging on formalism. There is a concern for the preservation of oneself and one’s own world, which is so well structured and harmonized, from the intrusion of anything that might offend or upset that harmony. Even fiery souls will gradually cool down through the inescapable chill of aestheticism (Konstantin Leontiev, for example, had a fiery soul by nature). They insist on putting a chill on everything that surrounds them, looking for some kind of an eternal ice, for some eternal pole of beauty, for an eternal Northern Lights.”

That’s a useful corrective. Thank you for it. Seems to me it all boils down to confusing the sign for the signified — that is, treating the liturgy, the rubrics, the architecture, the music, as the end of worship, rather than signs that point us toward communion with God, that is to say, means to the proper end, which is God.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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