Below is a response I posted to David Clayton’s entry at the New Liturgical Movement, of which I was in general agreement (minor points notwithstanding).
Thank you for your thoughts, Mr. Clayton, and apologies for this long response. A portion of your topic reminds me so much of an email discussion I just had with some family members regarding the lack of inclusion of the visual arts (and natural arts!) in what many today feel to be a quintessential liberal or great books education. To paraphrase part of what I had written:
“The larger issue is the formation of the entire Imagination which is necessary for a living, vibrant Catholic culture, let alone a well-rounded individual human being. The very fact that it is simply not mentioned [in the article about what constitutes a well-rounded college education that was overly focused on dialectic or "scholastic" models, as you would say] says a lot to me about what is seen as important, and the type of individual writing the essay. One of the largest holes in great books programs is the (nearly ubiquitous) lack of study of the visual arts and the “natural arts”…forgetting that while we are rational creatures and should grapple with ideas, we orient ourselves in the world visually, but have never been trained how to see and be truly receptive to what we see (perhaps because we’re always trying to be on guard with our eyes, and the fact that we, as a society in general, no longer live an existence that is “close to the earth”!) Unfortunately, this is an enormous catastrophe for prayer life, because of its natural analog with real contemplation (as opposed to meditation). We’re no longer in a world where we can take for granted the general formation of individuals who have studied good music, art, poetry, architecture, and nature, and thus the formation of the imagination which is the ground of our reception and interpretation of reality, and hence truth. And truth will, generally, not be “believed” unless it comes in the form of Beauty….there has to be something attractive about it, and so at a fundamental level, teaching what to be attracted to, to discern beauty, is just as fundamental as teaching to discern the truth of ideas, because it serves to fundamentally orient how we situate ourselves and live in the world. All of this is not to belittle the search for Truth and the cultural battle we face in this regard, nor the books that [author] recommends, but just to point out the ubiquitous lack of talk about Beauty (natural and “artificial”) in such discussions about education, as if a proper education was circumscribed to a merely “rational” formation. I’m reminded of a quote by Balthasar here, though there are many I could choose from: “The witness borne by Being becomes untrustworthy for the person who can no longer read the language of beauty.”
So, in returning to my response, I can agree that “liturgy” is the source and summit of things, and yet there should be a mutual interdependency whereby both the natural and supernatural, i.e. profane beauty and sacred beauty, reinforce each other circumincessively. I do not think that there is any cause for true concern regarding the potential for the former to trump the latter if one understands the study of scripture as not merely the study of “text” or “literary style”, but in a prayerful and more Ignatian model of active receptivity in contemplation to the God who reveals himself and speaks to the individual heart in ever unique ways. Learning to “see and hear” properly in the natural world will only reinforce one’s receptivity liturgically (at least in my experience), though perhaps it will make one uncomfortable with “bad liturgy” (and perhaps that is a good thing?). I know this was not the entire focus of your essay, but at least one of the themes is, among other things, that you want to avoid aestheticism by a healthy dose of asceticism, which I agree with, but it can be shown that that is true in the sphere of the every-day as well as the liturgical (think of fasting). I suppose it also means that liturgical beauty is not entirely “natural” but also supernatural, and hence our ability to enter into the liturgy that may or may not be the most “naturally” beautiful is akin to having the ability to find God in all things, even if the more naturally beautiful can be the more obvious or “evidential” way…if the focus of the liturgy is the imitation of Christ, then there must involve a certain amount of “dying to self”, both actually and imitationally, even in the liturgical setting (not that this is an argument for intentional ugliness…)