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Lament for lost beauty

by
12 March 2012

David Stancliffe on a liturgical nostalgia

Lost in Wonder: Essays on liturgy and the arts
Aidan Nichols OP

Ashgate £45
(978-1-4094-3161-9)
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

THE dust-jacket of this book shows the interior of St Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate, by the incomparable Sir Ninian Comper, and reveals where the essay on church architecture is going to take us. It is no surprise, then, to discover that Aidan Nichols, a former Anglican, has lost his heart to the beauty of the beyond revealed in our midst.

A number of these essays have a pre-history, and could be read as a wistful threnody for times past. The opening group are on Thomist sacramental theology, Guardini, and Ratzinger, and on eucharistic theology in the rite of the mass. They have a consciously pre-Vatican II take on sacramental theology, and have no time for the past 50 years of liturgical study, so that names of even of fellow-Dominicans such as Schillebeeckx and Debuyst are absent. His agenda can be deduced from his comment that it was in 1952 that “the Western Catholic study of the Liturgy was starting to take, in the name of pastoral welfare, its reformist — and, all too often, either didactic or indeed frankly anthropocentric — turn.”

The second section is on the setting of the rites, with a chapter on church architecture extolling Comper’s Of the Atmosphere of a Church, where Nichols is rightly critical of much modern work, such as Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church in Rome, but then has nothing to say about fine churches such as John Pawson’s at Novy Dvur, and singles out Comper’s earlier works with their rood screens rather than his late masterpiece, St Philip’s, Cosham.

This is followed by chapters on the icon, on Paul Claudel on sacred art — the most interesting in this section, with Claudel’s critique of kitsch — and on church music, where Aristotle’s sense that music is a moral agent leads Nichols to champion the traditional chant against functional wallpaper rhu­barb. Again, there is no engage­ment with real music by composers such as Messiaen, Britten, or MacMillan.

The final section has two very different and very intriguing essays on literature: one on Dante’s view of the differences between Francis’s friars and Dominic’s preachers; and the other on Weidle, a Russian émigré critic and man of letters, where I learnt most in this book.

Nichols sets out for a glimpse of the divine perfection, and is disappointed in what he finds — particularly in his Church. In this patchy collection, he is at his best when introducing us — and I mean me — to artists and writers of whom I know little.

The Rt Revd Dr David Stancliffe is a former Bishop of Salisbury.

Correction. The “very effective translation” of Diary of a Soul by Pennar Davies (Books, 17 February) was by the Revd Herbert Hughes, who died in May last year. Our apologies for omitting his name.

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