Monday, February 26, 2018

Liturgical Vestments as Doorways into the Divine: On the Importance of Transcendence

In the Book of Genesis, God makes garments of skin for Adam and Eve and clothes them. Gianfranco Ravasi, a Roman Catholic Cardinal and de facto cultural minister of the Vatican, reflected on the meaning of liturgical vestments while he was in New York with prominent designers to preview the upcoming exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That fashion could point to the transcendent would seem to go against the ostensibly fundamental  dichotomy between the superficial and the significant.  The religious quest can be understood in such terms as transcending the image to the underlying ineffable mystery that must characterize the transcendent.

The items lent by the Vatican “feature exquisitely crafted clothing and accessories, with intricate patchworks of gold and silver thread embroidery, as well as bejeweled tiaras and miters.”[1] On one level, silver and gold represent wealth, which until beginning with the Commercial Revolution in Medieval times was assumed to be indicative of an underlying motive—that of greed, the love of gain itself.[2] The ornate vestments in this sense represent the crowning glory of the pro-wealth paradigm as evinced by  the prosperity gospel.
On a deeper level, however, the liturgical vestment “represents above all the transcendent dimension, the dimension of the religious mystery, and that’s why it is ornate,” the Cardinal explains, “because that which is divine is considered splendid, marvelous, sumptuous, grandiose.”[3] These adjectives essentially point to the supremacy of value that is placed on the divine; it’s value relegates even ethical goodness. Plato’s sublimated love of eternal moral verities becomes for Augustine love (caritas) of God. To declare the value of the divine to be the highest is, however, merely a starting point, beyond which transcendence beckons—the experience of the sacred that relegates the ascetics of ornate beauty for unobtainable, ineffable mystery. The temptation is to hold on to the pretty vestments rather than to transcend them. The source (and value) of the divine lies beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, so the vestments themselves should not be allowed to become the point; their value is only relative. Optics draws the eyes in, but must ultimately be let go for the yearning to be transcendent in nature, and thus in line with the nature of divinity. It is a marvel of human nature that ornate beauty can be appreciated at all, yet even more astonishing that an instinctual urge is oriented to going beyond the limits of our perception and cognition.[4] Hence liturgical garb is to be grasped only as a starting point rather than a focal point. The animus (mind, spirit) is capable of transcending itself as well as its realm in yearning for the invisible and unknowable transcendent called God.