Editor’s note: This article by the distinguished scholar Anthony Esolen is the first in a series on Catholic Aesthetics to be published in the Catholic Herald. Future articles by Joseph Pearce, Deal Hudson and others will offer readers an opportunity to reflect on the centrality of arts, creativity and beauty in the life and evangelical mission of the Church.
I am often baffled, when I attend Mass and the congregation is so unfortunate as to suffer the usual Catholic hymnals in the pews, by the evident separability of talent and taste. I wonder how it is that people who can play the organ, or at least the manual part of it, with skill that I could never command, cannot distinguish between good poetry and doggerel, or between deep feeling and sentimentality, or between coherent musical structure and confusion.
“Here is a person,” I say, “whose fingers might do a creditable job with Christus Lag in Todesbanden, but who instead pounds out chords for a bad Broadway show tune, as if the Jesus Bunny had risen from his sleep to pass out coloured eggs and candy, alleluia.” It is utterly unnecessary. Even I, with my stone hands, can play genuine Easter hymns, and indeed genuine hymns all through the year, written for ordinary congregations of men and women and children. There are many thousands of such, and they lie unused, like semi-precious stones in a chest in the attic, while liturgists tart themselves up with costume jewellery, and the people submit to it because they don’t know any better.
Fundamental to good art is a discriminating taste. The artist chooses from among many possibilities, ruling most of them out, just as a sculptor in stone or wood works by subtraction, removing what is not to be, say, the young David, sling in hand, about to slay Goliath. This principle of selection is also a principle of placement, context and order. David knits his brows and looks troubled. That means one thing if it’s Goliath he confronts, another if it’s Nathan confronting him.
Adam drapes his arm across his knee, his neck thrown back, with longing in his eyes. He looks towards God, and the still uncreated Eve, embraced by God’s left arm. Michelangelo need not tell us with a caption that Adam is meant to love both his Maker and the woman who will be made for his helpmeet. We do not have to be told that Adam will soon follow Eve in sin against their Maker.
I urge Catholic artists to pay close attention to what the Church, mother of the arts, has done in her old Office of the Hours. It is enough to make you shiver with that apprehension of beauty that cannot be commanded but only received, as a gift.
Take, for example, the matins for Easter Sunday. The first three psalms for Sunday matins are always the first three in the psalter itself. We open with Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly.” The antiphon for this psalm, outside of Advent and Eastertide, is that verse, combined with words from another verse: “Blessed the man who ponders on the law of the Lord.”
What shall we do for Easter, then? We apply the psalm directly to Christ, as the true man of obedience and as true God: “I am who I am, and my counsel is not with the ungodly, but My desire is in the law of the Lord, alleluia.”
Who could have expected at Easter those mysterious words that God spoke to Moses from the burning bush? We hear them, we are surprised by them and they are exactly right: to grasp even the slightest portion of their truth is to penetrate to the heart of the Christian faith.
Then comes Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage, and the people devise empty dreams?” Its antiphon is ordinarily the verse, “Serve the Lord with fear, and trembling rejoice in Him.” But for Easter, the Church has chosen two Messianic verses, and has again placed them on the lips of Christ: “I have asked my Father, alleluia; He has given Me the nations, alleluia, for an inheritance, alleluia.”
For in his death and resurrection Christ has overcome the world: what the tempter once offered to him on wicked terms, he now possesses by obedience and grace.
Finally, Psalm 3: “Lord, why have they multiplied, those who oppress me?” The psalmist appeals to God for help, and God hears him.
The ordinary antiphon is the cry of appeal: “Rise up, O Lord! Save me, my God!” This time the breviary does not alter the words of the psalm. Instead we chant a different verse, perfect for Easter morning, with the sun just peaking over the eastern hills: “I was sleeping, I had fallen into the depths of sleep; and I arose, because the Lord sustained Me, alleluia, alleluia.”
Astonishing, this art of selection. Imagine chanting those words with your fellow worshippers on Easter morning, and knowing by experience that all of Scripture points ultimately to Christ, as its origin and unveiling and end. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come.”
Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire