HE POET GOFFRIED BENN, in a significant speech on growing old, has made a penetrating remark on works of art and their meaning. It contains a statement, and a question which he does not answer. This unanswered question is the chief point. Benn says: “One thing is clear: when something is finished, it must be perfect―but what then?” This is not the tone of someone who thinks a work of art meaningful in itself. To be sure, the question “What then?” is flung into a world that promptly falls mute. “Then” we ought to be able to celebrate, festively commemorate affirmation of the meaning of the world―in the happiness of contemplating something that is not the work of art, but that is brought into view by that work. Perhaps also―in a rare, special case―it should be possible “then” to offer up the completed work as a consecrated gift and sacrifice in the precise meaning of the word. Phidias, when he completed the Athene Promachos, knew the answer to the question “What then?” Bach knew it too, and Bruckner. And probably there is no better answer.
This paragraph could be taken almost as a summary of the entire medieval understanding of works of art made to the praise and glory of God. The Gothic cathedral as such is a giant sacrificial offering to the God of light, the God of infinite majesty and glory; the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as Fr. Barreiro says, has the same purpose in view, only it is still more perfect by the fact that not man, but the God-man, offers Himself and the entire cosmos to the heavenly Father. That is why the cathedral was built: to house the Holy Sacrifice. It is a house of glory for the ultimate sacrifice to God’s glory. The one reflects and supports the other. An ugly “church” represents the loss of this fundamental contemplative insight into the beauty of the world and the need to bring all things in sacrifice before the God who is Beauty itself.
Catholics have a right to the full expression of their faith in the sacred liturgy and in the arts that embellish and support it; they have a right to see and hear the full measure of the Tradition that has been handed down for centuries. Corresponding to this is a duty: Catholics have a duty to preserve, cherish, and perpetuate this Tradition; they have a responsibility to come to know it and love it more and more over their lifetimes. What God gives us is not just the here and now, but the faith and love of generations who have come before us, embodied in countless treasures of writing, music, architecture, and so forth, destined for the edification of souls until the end of time. All of this has been given to us, in proportion to our capacities, positions, opportunities for action. We are the path by which tradition will reach, or not reach, our descendants.
Every Catholic who enters a church should be able to find figures of Christ and the Saints; an elevated sanctuary set apart, elevated, and beautifully furnished, with the altar and the tabernacle in a prominent place and suitably decorated. Catholics have a right to the full, authentic expression of their faith, both in the liturgy and in the arts that embellish it, especially sacred music. And as I never tire of saying, Catholics have a duty to embrace this fullness, to become acquainted with it and to cherish it.
Please visit THIS PAGE to learn more about Dr. Kwasniewski’s Sacred Choral Works and the audio CDs that contain recordings of the pieces.