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Book Review: The Signs of the Holy One

Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred
Fr. Uwe Michael Lang
Ignatius Press, 2015
180 pages
$9.99 Kindle; $19.95 Paperback

In recent years Fr. Uwe Michael Lang’s talk on sacred art, music, and aesthetics has been one of the most effective such presentations available on the internet. Fr. Lang has since developed these ideas into a full length text of considerable value to anyone concerned with the relationship between beauty, the nature of the sacred, and the Catholic liturgy. What emerges in his book is a well-reasoned and forceful apologia for the traditional liturgy as well as the art forms which it has nurtured, along with a practical guide to “expression of the sacred” in modern times. From the role of symbol in liturgy to the recognition of authentic and appropriate liturgical art to the legitimate cultural problems present in the liturgical renewal, Fr. Lang presents us with arguments that traditional Catholics involved with liturgy and liturgical arts should understand, while placing the burden of refutation squarely on the shoulders of would-be modernists.

It should be said from the outset that this is a text which begins like a PhD thesis (which in part it was) and ends like an engaging dialogue, becoming easier to read as it progresses. The first two parts of this book – around 60 pages dealing with the anthropology of the liturgy as well as a discussion on modern theology – may be burdensome for certain readers, yet they are worth trudging through as they provide a powerful foundation for Fr. Lang’s dissection of the modern liturgical crisis.

Fr. Lang begins with a direct challenge to many modern liturgical sensibilities:

“…the Church’s solemn public worship speaks through a variety of “languages” other than language in the literal sense. These languages correspond to what the English social anthropologist Mary Douglas has described as “non-verbal symbols”, which “are capable of creating a structure of meanings in which individuals can relate to one another and realize their own ultimate purposes.” The years when I was working for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome (2008-2012) have sharpened my awareness of how important these non-linguistic or symbolic expression are for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, and I am convinced that they are more significant that language itself.”

Indeed one of Fr. Lang’s central refutations is directed against those who see liturgy “mainly as text”, reducing it to a written form which is augmented by whatever artistic or symbolic meaning may be contemporary to a place or time, therefore rendering the discussion of appropriate and authentic liturgical art a moot point. He identifies such a philosophy as a driving force in 20th century (often artificial) liturgical change, leading to a Mass which is glaringly localized and often stripped of its universal character. In later discussing liturgical art, architecture, and music, Fr. Lang shows how the traditional liturgy and its aesthetic counterparts offer a far more practical solution to the question of universality in Catholic worship and artistic expression. Writing later of liturgical manipulation, Fr. Lang states:

“These symptoms are not sufficiently understood if they are simply classified as liturgical abuses… In a world of unprecedented mobility and globalization, the prevalence of particular interests often makes Catholic worship parochial and fragmented in ways that go far beyond the question of using the vernacular. It is properly the “rite” that is often hardly recognizable.”

Such liturgical observations are grounded firmly in the observations of modern scholars and anthropologists concerned not only with Catholic liturgy but often the phenomenon of worship in human culture in general. In beginning his text this way, Fr. Lang very cleverly demonstrates that liturgical modernists – in seeking a solely contemporary and personalist liturgical expression to pursue transcendence or some manner of return to origins — are often in violation of the most luminous observations of the very types of scholars they seek to emulate, let alone the aesthetic and linguistic guidelines of the Second Vatican Council. While Fr. Lang does not state it as such, liturgical modernism is shown as a complete rebellion without traditional grounding or even consistent contemporary support, being a wholly selfish and arbitrary expression.

In the second half of Lang’s book – this being a discussion of sacred art, architecture, music, and beauty — he begins by drawing a firm distinction between what is non-liturgical art (such as a sacred themed  music or religious painting) and what is specifically liturgical in nature, pointing out the roles, functions, and limitations of each distinct genre. Religious art, Lang says, is more firmly rooted in the individual approach to a particular religious idea or subject. Liturgical art (claimed by Lang as the summit of religious art), by contrast takes up a more servile posture, subsuming individual artistic preference (or pretension) to the particular needs and aesthetic culture of the liturgy itself. This is a deeply useful distinction by which many modern liturgical artistic abuses can be identified and diffused. An example can be found in a number of Mass compositions or individual Mass part settings (such as many a “Kyrie”), works that despite their great reverence and high quality are practically improper for the liturgy because of their length. Liturgical music in a popular style, by contrast, is guilty of appropriating liturgy to culture rather than the inverse, while an artist dealing in certain popular or modernist styles may be by default beginning his liturgical work from an overly personalist position. Lang quotes Ratzinger’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy” in arguing that “no sacred art can come from isolated subjectivity.” He buoys this simple point with numerous references from Church documents regarding the Church’s particular wishes regarding liturgical art, parsing authentic canonical documents from mere opinion pieces (such as the American Bishop’s “Sing to the Lord.”) What emerges is a picture of liturgical reform unmoored from its source, where vast swathes of liturgical artists, architects, and musicians proceed without any grounding in the Church’s actual aesthetic wishes, indeed if they even care for such a foundation at all.

Fr. Lang’s work is far more than a critical examination, ultimately pointing the way forward to developing effective aesthetic expressions within authentic liturgy. What makes Fr. Lang’s discussion so effective is its rare and learned discussion of the three branches of religious art, providing a more general framework upon which to begin more detailed discussions of modern liturgical art. Avoiding the extremes of the iconoclasm of traditional form or the total embrace of modernism, Lang instead presents – in the vein of Ratzinger – the discussion of liturgical art as a modern struggle for every age, a permanently modern question only discernable in the light of the Church’s established tradition. For any student of these questions, Fr. Lang’s book is highly recommended reading.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Signs of the Holy One”

  1. Every liturgical action.takes on a symbolic meaning and should be an expression of belief. In the past liturgical processions were usually in honor of the Eucharistic presence of Christ. Now even at the TLM the altar boys and priest process to the back of the Church and come marching down to the altar…..signifying what ?…
    important they are ? To be fair they do carry a crucifix.

  2. An excellent review, thank you. This book has been on my list for some and this is a timely reminder to get on and purchase it! I already have his ‘Turning Towards the Lord’.

  3. If the whole Catholic world and the hierarchy would get back to the Traditional Latin Mass, the world would not be in the mess its in today


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