How I Was Seduced By Traditionalism, Part 3: Truth, Beauty, and Anxiety

When I was a freshmen in college, I took a class called “Music and Culture,” which was basically a music appreciation course. More than anything, “Music and Culture” helped to form my current love of classical music. One piece of music that had a particularly profound influence on me was the works of Palestrina and the magnificent Miserere by Allegri. When I first heard Renaissance polyphony, I was still years away from my conversion, but it was hard not to listen to these songs and feel like there was some kind of transcendence out there in the world. Even today, as a born-again secular humanist, Renaissance polyphony holds a special place in my heart. But the point is that being exposed polyphony put the idea in my head that anything that sounded that beautiful had to be a reflection of a supernatural reality, even if I wasn’t sure at that time what that might mean.

I began exploring different varieties of Platonism and Neo-Platonism, because the concept of Ideas and Emanations of the Good seemed like a sensible way of discussing God, but my naturally skeptical mind just wasn’t able to get over my general dislike of the supernatural. Some years later, after I made the decision that I wanted to convert to Catholicism, I started attending the parish where I would later be confirmed, a decision I based entirely on the architecture. This parish, St A, was build in the early 20th century and possessed gorgeous Gothic architecture and traditional stained glass windows. When I went to St A, the beauty of my surroundings was so overwhelming that it was hard not to feel that I was in a place where God must live. I was positive that any institution that could create such beauty, whether in terms of music or architecture, had to be “true.” Indeed, I think that for many Catholics, whether converts or not, are really impressed by the church’s artistic heritage and would probably cite that as something that is important to them.

However, anyone who has spend any amount of time in the Catholic blogosphere will know that arguments over liturgy and architecture quickly devolve into battle royales. If you admit you like guitar music at mass or that you like certain modern hymns, you might as well be in the same category as someone who gets turned on by stomping kittens to death. Similarly, preferring the appearance of a newly constructed glass and steel church to a more “traditional” Neo-Gothic building marks one as a philistine and probably a heretic to boot. As someone who really wanted to be “orthodox” and do all the right things, I got into the liturgy wars with the kind of gusto that you can only find in a naive convert.

At first, the liturgy wars didn’t bother me, because I was just defending the music that I liked anyway. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, conservotrad Catholics have a real problem with “inculturated masses,” in particular the tendency for majority black parishes to play gospel music or spirituals. Since I was never a fan of gospel music, I initially agreed that Catholic parishes should play “Catholic music,” but as my racial problems intensified, I became disturbed by the implications of the “gospel music is heresy” position. The old school gospel and spiritual music was forged in the fields of the Deep South and expressed the deepest pain and longings of my ancestors, who were mostly Baptists and Methodists. Even if I myself wasn’t a fan of gospel, I could understand why other people might, and didn’t didn’t see how or why Latin polyphonic music should be considered metaphysically superior to traditional forms of black religious music. The “gospel music is heresy” position seemed to be telling me that all of the work and beauty that my ancestors had created was worthless in the eyes of God, especially when it seemed that the Catholic church had largely been MIA when it came to slavery and segregation.

When I was wandering around the various Catholic parishes of Atlanta, I ended up for a few weeks at the “Mother Church” of black Catholicism, OLL. Whether you consider yourself to be a religious person or not, I would suggest that anyone who can should go to a mass at OLL, because the music is amazing and so are the people. In the end, it was a bit too lively for me (and I was still trying to detox from traditionalism at the time and was just generally confused) so I didn’t stay very long, but I’m glad that I went, even if it was only a couple of times. Contrasting the beautiful, joyful spirit at OLL with the general dourness of St F, it was hard for me to believe that God would find the former so hateful, while setting up the latter as the baseline for what all parishes ought to aspire to. At that time, I was still convinced that capital T “Truth” and capital B “Beauty” had to fit in a narrow Eurocentric box that someone like me could never fit into.

The topic of “Catholic architecture” is a huge one that I intend to leave for a future post, but one thing that I’m learning is that church architecture has always been a controversial topic, long before the age of square modernist buildings. While some form of Gothic or Neo-Gothic architecture seems to be the preferred type among conservotrads today, there were many medieval churchmen who hated it. The most prominent of the Gothic haters was probably Bernard of Clairvaux, who believed that Gothic architecture was just ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation, and was distracting for monks who had taken specifics vows to be free of the sensual world. This is why classical Cistercian architecture is characterized by simple white lines, and the utilitarian use of open space, rather than the dramatic majesty of Gothic buildings.

Today, I still love European religious music, but I like it only as music. I don’t think that it has any deeper meaning other than the fact that I like personally like it. As beautiful as the works of Tomas Luis Victoria or Henry Byrd are, they don’t reflect any kind of “really real” reality that exists out in some other dimension.  Some people like Palestrina, some people like Mahalia Jackson, and others prefer Metallica, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Beauty maybe beautiful, but very seldom does it have anything more substantial behind it.