N THE PRESENT age, the sacred liturgy is often treated as a commodity. It becomes, in this way, a “thing” to be done or handled, regulated or exported. The usual result is that liturgy becomes pedestrian and its enactors become minimalists.
The minimalist approaches the worship of God from the standpoint of what must be done. This approach can be dangerous, as it risks prioritizing what is pragmatic over what is possible. Concomitant with such a shift in emphasis is the swift erosion of the transcendence that, by right, undergirds the liturgy.
Divine worship, however, ought to be regarded as much more than dry goods or raw material. The antidote to liturgical minimalism arises not from pragmatism, but from practicality (understood in a certain sense). Consider the distinction that Chesterton elucidates between what is “practical” and what is “practicable”:
If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we mean merely what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical, and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi)
There is a great need in our time for the Christian faithful to be “practical” in Chesterton’s second sense. To be practical, in these terms, does not mean to be pragmatic. Modern disciples, rather, must be practical in the sense of believers motivated toward “prompt effort and energy” in place of “doubt or delay.” This type of practicality could be understood as one’s response to that which is necessary. And what could be more necessary than divine worship? The worship of God is, indeed, essential to being Christian. Insofar as God is good and beneficent to man, man has the duty to respond in praise and thanksgiving. This is not merely a right or an opportunity, but truly an obligation.
Practicality in Chesterton’s first sense is inimical to truly Christian worship. The type of worship that starts and ends with the here-and-how is insipid. Liturgy that seeks primarily to be easy or relevant is, in the end, beige and uninspiring. The overall trajectory of church music in recent decades bears witness to this truth. Where liturgical musicians have most sought ease and relevance, the result has been the greatest banality.
Our Holy Father Emeritus once made this observation about liturgical music that favors utility over beauty and sacrality:
A Church which only makes use of utility music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. . . . For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of glory, and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos, itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” in The Feast of Faith)
The sacred liturgy is humanity’s corporate response to God and His goodness. What is necessary or appropriate for this activity is not always what is most practicable. The demands of the liturgy, in fact, are quite often very impracticable. It is the generous act of rendering an impracticable gift, however, that is most practically necessary and ultimately pleasing.