April 26 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


A feast for the senses and the soul

In our monthly feature on THE ARTS, we hear from STEPHEN CALLAGHAN, creative director of the Archdiocese of Glasgow Arts Project, on how Catholic Mass is perhaps the ultimate form of art, while CHRISTINE GLEN reviews a Dominic Hill directed adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s celebrated play Dr Faustus

The arts are a part of our everyday life. Whenever we pick up a book, watch a film, go to a play, listen to music or tell a bedtime story, we are engaging with art. But have you ever thought about the importance of the arts in our worship? Many claim that the sensory bombardment that is part of life in the 21st century has reduced our awareness of being active participants in and consumers of the arts. So too, our awareness when we actively participate in the divine act of worship can also be reduced if it is not part of a deeper personal relationship with God.

I would argue that, in the divine act of worship within a Catholic context, we can come closest to what Richard Wagner once called Gesamtkunstwerk: a German word which suggests the ultimate synthesis of the arts in one pure organic artform. However, I am coming at this from an arts perspective and I fully appreciate that Liturgy is a field of study in its own right. My argument is not, therefore, Liturgical nor is it a vehicle for a political agenda, either ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ but simply an observation of the way that the arts, properly understood as glorifying God and not ourselves, are important in our worship.

Catholics are sometimes criticised for being simply brainwashed by the Church and the rituals that are important to us have been satirised and ridiculed by comedians and journalists alike. One non-Catholic once compared the experience of Catholic worship to the experiment of Pavlov’s dogs: a study in which the Russian psychologist, Pavlov, presented dogs with a ringing bell followed by food. The food elicited salivation, and after repeated bell-food pairings the bell alone would cause the dogs to salivate. Such barbed comments often show a latent disrespect for Catholicism itself. However, I believe that the sensory aspects of worship are important and an awareness of them does not diminish their effect but rather enhances understanding of worship as a sacred art that engages all the human senses (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste)—every part of us, material and spiritual—in drawing close to God.

A young evangelical Christian once asked me: “How do you worship?” The question was followed by a series of joyful affirmations about the quality of her local minister’s preaching and how good she would feel coming from a service at her local church. “I’m Catholic and we have the celebration of the Mass,” I said. “We’ve been doing that for about 2000 years.” To my surprise, the young woman told me that she too was Baptised into the Catholic Faith but enjoyed going to the evangelical church much more because the minister was so dynamic. Sadly, this is something which is not exclusive to one person and, in fact, it is a bigger problem in some countries more than others. Even at home, some evangelical churches have fused the experience of church with that of a nightclub to attract young people. It leads us to ask what role the senses actually play in our relationship with God and, in particular, the way in which the arts are intrinsically linked to this experience, for better or worse.


Theatre and religion are strongly linked. Indeed, theatre has its origins in religion, going back to ancient Greece where the pagan cult of Dionysus performed the circular dance on the threshing floor, leading to the development of the amphitheatre and the performance of plays.

In Britain, our theatre begins with the Easter Liturgy: the responses of the priest and the servers as they enter the church, carrying the light of the Paschal flame. We went on to develop the tradition of medieval mystery plays, telling Bible stories and morality tales, which were performed in church buildings where certain areas of the church would denote Heaven, Hell, Earth and Purgatory. When we go to Mass, however, we are not there to be ‘entertained.’ Time again, the Church teaches that, when it comes to prayer, how we ‘feel’ is not too important. Many of us may experience a ‘dryness’ and I am sure that we have all heard of people who stopped going to Mass because they ‘got nothing out of it.’ The truth is, there are much more entertaining pastimes than attending Mass, or, indeed any church service. If the point was entertainment, we would be at the cinema, theatre or concert hall and not at the church. So, what kind of ‘performance’ is the Mass?

When we attend the Mass, we are taking part in a ritual. Ritual is a particular kind of ‘performance.’ Its purpose is to reaffirm the identity and beliefs of the community by making present the truths of the past, usually through the actions of a leader from among the people, who communicates with God on behalf of the community, for the good of the people. A ritual involves the ‘acting out’ of certain stories that are such an important part of the identity of the community that they cannot simply be ‘told’. Through this action, the people are lifted from the ‘quotidian’ (everday) to the ‘liminal’ (threshold) and thus, brought to an encounter with God.

In the Catholic Mass, we believe that we really meet Jesus, substantially—body, blood, soul and divinity—in the Eucharist. We follow His command ‘do this in memory of me.’ Note that he does not ask us to ‘tell this’ but to ‘do this.’ It involves a specific action and, as such, the priest ‘acts’ in the Person of Jesus—in persona Christi—during the consecration of the Eucharistic bread and wine. Our God comes close to us through a physical action and becomes substantially present in physical things so that we might come close to him and, literally absorb him with our sense of taste and touch. Nothing else can supersede this.

The Mass involves physical performance and active participation by the people. We praise God with our bodies, as well as our minds. This is shown in our posture: standing, kneeling, or sitting. We join in the responses to the Mass and we sing praise to God with our voices. We exchange a sign of peace with one another, making physical contact through touch. Much contemporary performance art explores the boundaries of the body, its vulnerability and corporeality, sometimes with grotesque expressions. However in the Mass, the ultimate performance art, we find the most corporeal action—the God-man who hung naked on a tree offers Himself anew and affirms that ‘this is my Body’ and ‘this is my Blood.’


In the Mass, we also meet God in the Word. We engage with the written word, read aloud from the Bible or Lectionary. We honour the Word of God by processing with the Book of the Gospels and by setting it in a special place from which it is read. The new English translation of the Mass seeks to encourage greater reverence through the language that is used in the prayers and reduces the potential for adjustment of those parts of the Mass which should be standard. The text of the Mass is also infused with literary allusions to the Bible.

Music used at Mass can also help to raise our hearts and minds to God. Sacred Liturgical music is a subject of great controversy but, in its proper use, regardless of what form it takes, its purpose is the same: to raise our hearts and minds to God and to glorify Him. It also allows full active and conscious participation of the Faithful in the divine act of worship through another means which is in keeping with the scriptures. It is no accident that the Sanctus is introduced as an ‘unending hymn of praise’ in which we join with the angels, as earthly and heavenly worship unite.

Catholic Liturgy is also visually arresting. Vestments are worn by the priests, deacons and altar servers, and the sanctuary is dressed in colours according to the season of the year. Even in the starkest moments of the Church’s year—during Holy Week—we are even more aware of the absence of colour, and of the absence of flowers which would normally adorn the sanctuary.

Although the Mass can be celebrated anywhere, the church, whether it is an old building or a new one, plain or ornate, can contribute to the art of worship. Church architecture has had a massive influence upon the worship experience of the Faithful throughout the world. Great buildings like the Sagrada Familia or the Basilicas of Rome demonstrate the desire of human beings to build a place that honours God. “What temple could you build me?” God asks David in the Old Testament but we, like our ancestors, have a desire to set aside a space for God. Also, our church buildings are often home to beautiful paintings and statues that serve to raise our hearts and minds to God in prayer. We do not worship them as idols but we reverence them because they too contribute to our worship of God and many Protestants now think of the many beautiful works of sacred art destroyed during the Reformation as an unfortunate casualty of the times. The sense of peace found in church buildings by people of different faiths and none is testimony to their power.

Whilst not being a form of entertainment, the Mass is a feast for the senses as well as for the soul. People sometimes refer to the ‘smells and bells’ of Catholicism but the incense, bells and candles, are all part of a unique ‘performance’ that is weighted with meaning and significance. It is the desire of a community to come together and offer service, praise and glory to God out of love. In this sense, all of the above demonstrates that the Catholic Mass is the ultimate work of art—the Gesamtkunstwerk—not so much because it fuses together performance, literature, visual art, music and our many expressions of creativity—but because it is where the Divine Creator meets the created and blesses our efforts, making them whole through His own gift to us.

Since 2008, we have held a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Arts in Glasgow Archdiocese. This Mass brings together artists of every discipline to consecrate their talents anew in the service of God. However, the Mass is not a parade of these talents. It may be followed by an exhibition, or a concert or a drama but these are separate from the divine act of worship. Why? Because we recognise that the Mass is a different kind of art—a sacred one in which God himself is the central focus.

Perhaps the best thing that Catholics can do today is to look again at the beauty of the sacred art of worship with hearts and minds truly raised to God, not in a hypercritical or over-analytical way but in all humility accepting that the Mass is truly God’s gift to us. Oh, and in case you are wondering how I answered the young woman’s question about ‘worship’, I simply said that when I go to Mass, I really receive Jesus Christ in Holy Communion and no matter what else happens, or how entertaining other church services might be, there is nothing that can be better than that.


n http://www.agap.org.uk


Modern take on an oft told tale


Written by: Christopher Marlowe

Directed by: Dominic Hill

Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre


A modern take on that old tale of a man selling his soul to the Devil. The stage has dressing tables on both sides and a bedroom scene situated in the middle. Dr Faustus, the main character, is a student of divinity but soon turns to the more exciting, in his mind, prospect of necromancy and magic.

From the moment he goes down the path of selling his soul, we see and hear the tumultuous world of the eternal battle between our two sides. The Devil’s servant on one side, the angel on the other and the exaggeration of all the wonders that Faustus believes he can get by this one simple transaction; is humorous in itself.

The realisation and reality of the never ending possibilities does for a time sate Faustus’s need to be noticed and recognised highlighting an everyday part of our consumer and celebrity culture.  But the temptation and lack of something more soon begin to trouble him, is his soul really not able to be saved from damnation?

There are hints of theology hidden and obvious in the dialogue within the play, there is talk of love, despair and hope. The Devil, in his guise as an almost retro game show host; with all the glitz and glamour, does not speak of God or Heaven, it’s one of the rules. When the character of the Pope comes on he speaks of hope and not letting ourselves be overcome with despair.

One of the most intriguing parts of the play was that there were actual magic tricks being performed live on stage adding to the mystery and sometimes humour of things not being as they seem, including more complex tricks than just making flowers appear.

Overall Dr Faustus is a fast-paced piece for theatre that will leave you pondering about the reality of the Devil in our world, our need to love and to be loved, and our searching for something more. It also still connects with that inherent human nature of wanting the quick fix, why wait when you can have it all now mentality.



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