What makes liturgy beautiful? When we claim that the liturgy is “aesthetic,” it’s helpful to explore the idea from two angles. First, liturgy is aesthetic because it is perceived as beautiful in its own right, objectively speaking. Second, liturgy is aesthetic by the subjective experience of its participants. This is not to say that every liturgy is objectively beautiful in an error-free, flawless sense, or that every participant is overwhelmed by beauty simply by existing in a space where liturgy is taking place. Still, our subjective role within liturgy brings the overarching objective beauty of the liturgy to fulfillment.
In his book “Spirit of the Liturgy,” Guardini something with style “has, by virtue of its existence and activity, expressed in a convincing manner that which it really is, and if at the same time by its quality of specialness it does not merely represent an arbitrary mood, but its relation to a corporate life, then and to that extent it may be said to have style.” The liturgy is both expressing itself and going beyond itself to reflect the reality of communal worship: beyond individual families and communities, to the voice of the universal Church at prayer.
Guardini takes this idea one step further. As a communal event, in the liturgy, “the individual yields place to the universal” (44). Guardini emphasizes that we must not approach the question of the liturgy’s purpose from a sense of utility, but look for ultimate meaning beyond our individual selves. “In the liturgy man is no longer concerned with himself; his gaze is directed towards God” (66). Individualism has a tertiary place within the liturgy. Its primary purpose is worship of God. Second, we surrender our own needs and wants to pray with others in the liturgical context of community. If we happen to “get something out of” the experience, personally, it is an added blessing, but not the core purpose of our worship.
At first, this thought is disconcerting; our human tendency is often to attempt to maximize the outcomes of our time, seeking- if not profit- at least personal fulfillment. But in our worship, we are called beyond this mentality. “The liturgy offers something higher. In it man, with the aid of grace, is given the opportunity of realizing his fundamental essence, of really becoming that which according to his divine destiny he should be and longs to be, a child of God.” (69). Although the purpose of liturgy is worship, our individual sanctification is not forgotten, and God uses our active participation in liturgy as the key to reunion with humanity as his adopted children.
Finally, it’s worth noting again the beauty of the liturgy itself. “In the liturgy the faithful are confronted by a new world, rich in types and symbols […]. Out of this the question arises- what is the precise significance of all this as regards the soul’s intercourse with God? […] God is Simplicity; then how is He concerned with specific ritual, actions, and instruments?” (53). In short, it is because of our human nature-our physical bodies and spiritual souls- that our worship embraces the physical to heighten our awareness of the spiritual. Indeed, every symbol must contain both spiritual and physical components; not loosely related, but so intricately connected that the meaning is lost when one or the other is absent. “A symbol may be said to originate when that which is interior and spiritual finds expression in that which is exterior and material” (57). In this way, our materiality is a critical feature in concretizing our spiritual expression of worship.
Surrounded by the physical elements of symbol that are in themselves beautiful, and raised up to a higher calling of worship beyond self-satisfaction, our subjective role as communal participants during the liturgy sanctifies the time, the space, the material elements, and even the people around us. As we bless our God during the liturgy, God blesses us and uses our material world and our efforts for our own salvation, and the sanctification of the whole world.