Liturgical Man

The proper study of Mankind is Man

Alexander Pope

The Owl remembers hearing that Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931–2019), preaching on the true value of human beings, said that if we but knew the reality of Jesus Christ to be seen in each one, we might have to spend our lives on our faces in worshipful reverence for every one we met. If he did say that, he was flying against  the overly facile beliefs most people have about the dignity of man. Agreeing more with Tutu and not with Alexander Pope in the above epigram, the Owl posits Liturgical Man.

Liturgy comes from Greek roots, meaning the proper work of an individual, according to his or her place, or rank, or office in a public context, particularly the clerical and lay roles in Christian worship, prescribed by tradition. In the Episcopal Church the liturgy is set forth in the Book of Common Prayer; the Roman Catholic Church has missals for the same purpose. Practically all the denominations’ worship includes some form for Eucharist, or Communion.

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The beauty of holiness

A few days ago the Owl put up a squib entitled “In their own lands,” which brought interesting comments from two readers, -N- and Katherine. The Owl has grappled with the questions involved for years, and didn’t get around to a good reply in time. Hence this separate post, addressed to them and to all our readers, and which is still not final.

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Thank you for your comments, Katherine and -N-. I think when you, Katherine, describe worship being both emotional and intellectual, you are reaching toward something close to what -N- means by understanding the human spirit on a nonverbal, symbolic level. Both of you know we are multi-layered creatures. I think you both know that inward gnawing St. Augustine described in his Confessions, which is never quiet until we find rest in God. Faith is neither one thing nor the other; neither an intellectual understanding nor an emotional state, though it is certainly something to know about, and have feelings about. Once that blessed dispensation has taken place, the beauty of holiness will take care of itself.

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Use and Abuse of Religious Art

From the most ancient Egyptian and Greek monuments to the present day, most of what we call “Art” is religious art. One of our cultural superstitions is that any art is religious because it is presumed to express the grand spirit of the artist. It is a short step from “creative artist” to then artist as creator: symphonic conductors as demigods; poets, painters, playwrights, and sculptors as transcendent geniuses, and so forth. It takes only one more step to arrive the artist as an avatar of the Creator. Even modern art that appears to call religion into question, or to make a travesty of it (“Piss Christ”) finds itself addressing faith in backhanded ways. When it’s trying to say something positive, not merely mocking, capital-A Art takes the human spirit as a quasi-religious object. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, set forth by the French National Constituent Assembly, was painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier as a pair of tablets, like those from Sinai.

Lately the Owl has written about works of art that have clear liturgical functions. It is just as interesting to look for authentic spiritual and theological content in unexpected places. In some cases, the matter is clear; in others it is ambiguous, or solipsistic. Here are a few examples.

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Music: Performance or Liturgy?

Most of what we mean when we say “Art” is religious art. This is true from the most ancient Egyptian and Greek carvings to the present day. One of our cultural superstitions is that any art is religious because it is presumed to express something of the spirit of the artist. It is a short step from “creative artist” to then artist as creator: symphonic conductors as demigods; poets, painters, playwrights, and sculptors as transcendent geniuses, and so forth. It takes only one more step to arrive the artist as an avatar of the Creator. Even modern art that appears to call religion into question, or to make a travesty of it (“Piss Christ” too) finds itself addressing faith in a backhanded way. When it’s trying to say something positive, not merely insulting, capital-A Art takes the human spirit as a quasi-religious object. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, set forth by the French National Constituent Assembly, was painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier as a pair of tablets, like the law from Sinai.

Lately the Owl has written about works of art that have clear liturgical functions. It is just as interesting to look for authentic spiritual and theological content in unexpected places. In some cases, the matter is clear; in others it is ambiguous, or solipsistic, but still makes for interesting discussion.

Continue reading “Music: Performance or Liturgy?”

Easter in Florence

This is the day of days. There are dove shaped breads in all the stores; chocolate eggs bigger than the children who will receive them. The celebration started with a massive peal from the campanile on the stroke of midnight. Probably the first Mass began then, for there was another such peal shortly afterward, where the Gloria or the prayer of consecration would have come. We left our hotel after a quick coffee, to get to the Duomo in time for the 9:00 a.m Mass. It was raining. Arriving more than an hour early, we got a pew about the tenth row, but we were surrounded by standees, and soon became virtual standees ourselves.

The west doors opened with the sound of drums and trumpets. Men in Renaissance dress entered carrying halberds and swords, weapons that could have wreaked real havoc. The procession ended with the archbishop, blessing the crowd as he went. Through the doors we could see the famous carretino, two storeys high, gilded and painted, pulled into the piazza by white oxen. This must have been done within the hour, since there had been no sign of it when we arrived. It is loaded with fireworks. Men rigged a wire to it from a pillar about two storeys high in the crossing.

At the Gloria a papier-maché dove with a rocket in its belly traveled with frightful noise down the wire to the carretino, set it alight, and returned. By this time it was exploding with cascades, roman candles, and flash-bombs. This lasts all through the Gloria. There are multiple hymns by the choir. Their mouths move, but nobody can hear them. The congregation is not here for Monteverdi or Bach, and the choir is not here to entertain tourists. The choir addresses God no less, on behalf of worshipers who stand on the pews with full-throated shouting and weeping. The bells of the campanile peal throughout the consecration prayer.

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Borgo sansepolcro

My wife and I stood outside the Church of Sant’Agostino in the northern Tuscan town of Borgo Sansepolcro. It was Palm Sunday, a brilliant spring morning. It is a medieval church in a walled city, dating from the thirteenth century. This is the home town of Piero della Francesca, whose fresco Resurrection is one of the world’s great art treasures. We are strangers in the neighborhood.

—I can’t go in there.
—Why not?
—I don’t know what to do.
—Of course you know what to do in any church in the world. Go to a pew, kneel and pray.

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