Peter Kwasniewski

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St. Catherine's Cathedral in Utrecht, Netherlands

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True art affirms the Catholic Faith and pleases God

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April 4, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — In his book Happiness and Contemplation, Josef Pieper writes:

The 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 as a summary of the Catholic understanding of works of art made to the praise and glory of God.

The Gothic cathedral is a giant sacrificial offering to the God of light, the God of infinite majesty and glory. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass 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 in the first place: to house the Holy Sacrifice. It is a house of glory for the ultimate sacrifice to God’s glory.

As if to continue Pieper’s reflection, John Senior writes in a famous passage that can never be quoted too often:

Whatever we do in the political or social order, the indispensable foundation is prayer, the heart of which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the perfect prayer of Christ Himself, Priest and Victim, recreating in an unbloody manner the bloody, selfsame Sacrifice of Calvary.

What is Christian culture? It is essentially the Mass. That is not my or anyone’s opinion or theory or wish but the central fact of 2,000 years of history. Christendom, what secularists call Western Civilization, is the Mass and the paraphernalia which protect and facilitate it. All architecture, art, political and social forms, economics, the way people live and feel and think, music, literature ― all these things, when they are right, are ways of fostering and protecting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

To enact a sacrifice, there must be an altar, an altar has to have a roof over it in case it rains; to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, we build a little House of Gold and over it a Tower of Ivory with a bell and a garden round it with the roses and lilies of purity, emblems of the Virgin Mary ― Rosa Mystica, Turris Davidica, Turris Eburnea, Domus Aurea, who carried His Body and His Blood in her womb, Body of her body, Blood of her blood. And around the church and garden, where we bury the faithful dead, the caretakers live, the priests and religious whose work is prayer, who keep the Mystery of Faith in its tabernacle of music and words in the Office of the Church; and around them, the faithful who gather to worship and divide the other work that must be done in order to make the perpetuation of the Sacrifice possible — to raise the food and make the clothes and build and keep the peace so that generations to come may live for Him, so that the Sacrifice goes on even until the consummation of the world.

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 sacred right, owing to their baptism into the glorified Jesus Christ, to the full expression of their faith within the liturgy and through all the arts that embellish and support it; they have a right to free access to the glories of Tradition, which have been cherished and handed down for centuries and must be cherished and handed down until the end of time.

Corresponding to this right is, as always, 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. We are not to sit back and wait until someone brings us beauty on a platter; we are to work on beautifying our interior life through prayer, our external life through manners, ongoing education, and cultural pursuits; we are to support the Church’s ministers with our prayers, our resources, our petitions, so that the riches of Tradition may flourish again in our times.

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 music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and writing, 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 descendents. Much today depends on lay involvement, as Vatican II predicted. This can go in a good direction, as when Catholics respectfully ask their pastors to provide the traditional Latin Mass; or it can go in a bad direction, as when laity attempt to run the show, taking over responsibilities that belong to the clergy (such as the distribution of holy communion). Lay people who are humbly, cheerfully, and generously devoted to the spread of Christian culture, centered on the Mass and surrounded on all sides with the beauty that befits it, have been and will continue to be a major factor in the longed-for renewal of the Church.

Every Catholic who enters a church should be able to find figures of Christ and the Saints, as well as an elevated sanctuary, set apart 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.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.