The Value and Danger of Simplicity in the Liturgical Arts

posted by Michael Raia 

Chapel Maria Magdalena in Zollfeld, Austria, by Sacher.Locicero.Architectes. Photo by Paul Ott.

Chapel Maria Magdalena in Zollfeld, Austria, by Sacher.Locicero.Architectes. Photo by Paul Ott.

Ask any group of church-goers about the qualities they appreciate in a beautiful church building and you'll get a lot of different answers. Sentiments range from appreciating intimacy to fulfilling a need to be inspired. Certainly these qualities play a vital role in our worship, which is both a personal and communal act of relationship. Similarly with liturgical art and music, different qualities speak to different people. A song that uplifts the spirit and inspires an encounter with the transcendent God for some can also be perceived as overly-formal or even pretentious by others. Conversely, a piece of liturgical art that favors simplicity to declutter its focus may come off as lacking, barren, or sparse. Many of us have experienced the friction between these extremes, and we know that finding a balance is necessary. What we don't always know is how to achieve it.

“...when it comes to those of us who make up the lay faithful concerning liturgical arts, how are we to understand the vision outlined by the Second Vatican Council?”

Among Catholics, simplicity is a commonly cited virtue, and not without good reason. It is used within the Second Vatican Council's liturgical document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), to mark the intentional shift to a more focused approach in worship. The goal of ‘noble simplicity’ – an important phrase used in Sacrosanctum Concilium – in itself reflects the tension of the opposing forces of nobility and simplicity. The Roman Rite liturgy famously embodies these virtues, so it is no surprise that this phrase is used in regard to the rites that both outline and constitute liturgical worship. The rites are given by the Church, and their celebration is typically led by a member of the clergy. So when it comes to those of us who make up the lay faithful concerning liturgical arts, how are we to understand the vision outlined by the Second Vatican Council? What kind of simplicity did the Council envision?

Whereas Sacrosanctum Concilium states that a noble simplicity should mark the rites, with respect to liturgical arts (sacred music, art, and architecture), Sacrosanctum Concilium here speaks of a noble beauty. Perhaps the substitution of simplicity with beauty is meant to emphasize that particularly in regard to the sacred arts, beauty is indispensable, and at times requires a complexity that is not necessarily simple. Can beauty also be simple, or simplicity be beautiful? Of course this is possible, but the idea that nobility and beauty are to mark the music, art, and architecture that surround our worship is telling. A look at these sacred arts as experienced by the average American Catholic on a Sunday – the average parish church building, the average collection of sacred artwork contained within, the average choir –  reveals we have quite a bit of work to do when it comes to realizing the vision that the Council Fathers had in mind for the Church and her liturgy. 

“...we have also seen in recent decades the results of a deprivation of beauty, often with altruistic intention, under the banner of simplicity.”

Without a doubt, we must embrace a certain spirit of simplicity that eschews the ostentatiousness or sumptuousness that is warned against. We know from our history the dangers of these excesses. However, we have also seen in recent decades the results of a deprivation of beauty, often with altruistic intention, under the banner of simplicity. Not every parish church or chapel should look as grand as its diocesan Cathedral. In fact, in certain environments where devotional prayer and meditation, and not liturgy, is the prevalent action, a certain minimalism might be well suited. Other appropriate circumstances for a muted aesthetic include monastic settings where the spiritual charisms of an order might reflect poverty and simplicity. This said, the norm for the parish church is quite a different matter.  

This said, each church or chapel should, in some way, emphasize the proper Trinitarian and eschatological orientations that are to mark Catholic worship, according to the Council – Trinitarian in that liturgical worship is to be oriented to the Father, through the son, in the Holy Spirit, and eschatological in that worship through Christ who sits eternally at the right hand of the Father takes place by means of our mystical incorporation into his Body, which also includes the angels, saints, and all departed who hope for the coming of the Kingdom. The challenge is to communicate these heavenly realities in built form. Furthermore, doing this in a way that both inspires and invites, challenges and consoles, and uplifts and grounds is definitely a monumental task, but is nonetheless the vision that Sacrosanctum Concilium outlines for the Church. As a result, the challenge of the liturgical musician, artist, or architect of today is to respond to the extremes that excess and minimalism can produce and find a middle road. I am personally delighted at an encouraging number of individuals emerging in their practices who are both willing and capable of doing just that, and I look forward to seeing the work that will come in the next generation.

Another helpful article published by New Liturgical Movement on the topics of noble simplicity, beauty and liturgy, can be found here.