Monday, December 05, 2005

A Paradox of Beauty

In the chapter entitled “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty” in his book On the Way to Jesus Christ, Pope Benedict XVI makes a couple of points that I’d like to reflect upon here.

He notes that in the Divine Office for the Latin Church, Psalm 44(45) is used with two different antiphons that seem to be contradictory. One is taken from the psalm itself—“You are the fairest of the children of men”—and the other is taken from the prophet Isaiah: “He had neither beauty nor majesty.” So Christ is the most beautiful of human beings, yet at the climax of his life He had neither beauty nor majesty. Through such a paradox, the Pope says that the Holy Spirit “sets before us the totality of true beauty, of truth itself.”

“Whoever believes in God,” he goes on, “knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also involves wounds, pain, and even the obscure mystery of death… Beauty wounds, but that is precisely how it awakens man to his ultimate destiny.” Beauty in its fullness is the “glory of God on the face of Christ” (2Cor. 4:6), be it the face of the newborn King in Bethlehem’s manger or that of the bleeding Man of Sorrows on Golgotha’s cross. To be wounded by beauty is to be called to transcend the merely aesthetic and to enter the heart of truth, of reality.

Beauty gives us access to a kind of knowledge that is beyond rational inquiry or scientific experimentation. Through beauty we intuitively recognize the truth of God shining through his creation. Some people have become convinced of the existence of God simply by hearing a certain symphony or being moved by a certain icon. The highest forms of beauty communicate something that goes beyond the experience of the senses. We hear music with our ears and see an icon with our eyes, but whatever is truly beautiful in them seizes our whole being and reveals horizons that open up to God.

The beauty on the face of Him who “had neither beauty nor majesty,” as the eyes would perceive it, was the beauty of truth and love. It is a beauty experienced in one’s heart and spirit. This beauty is a counter-argument to that which declares beauty an illusion, which sees the violence, horror, and degradation of this fallen world the only actual truth and reality. A certain one-sided view of human history may seem to confirm that. But this is precisely why the “fairest of men” accepted the loss of his external beauty: to manifest that the enduring, profound beauty of divine truth and love can shine through the darkest night, the deepest horror, the most excruciating pain. The fact that there is ugliness and absurdity in the world should not make us think that these are the ultimate realities, but should urge us to seek the hidden beauty, the deeper truth about what God has made. It is man who has disfigured the face of the earth and then proclaimed this distortion to be the fundamental truth. But Christ came to dispel the lie and to manifest redemption and transfiguration in this fallen world.

There is yet another attack on true beauty from the father of lies: not the contention that ugliness and horror are the last word, but the offering of a deceptive, superficial, and hence false beauty. “Such beauty does not awaken a longing for the ineffable…but instead stirs up desire, the will for power, possession, and pleasure.” Here is a criterion, then, for true beauty: if what is called beautiful opens us up to transcendent knowledge and experience, that is, if it leads us (even implicitly) toward the face of God shining in this world, it is true beauty. If it stirs up a desire for power, possession, and pleasure it is a deception. The superficial beauty, if sought for the sake of any form of self-gratification, ultimately becomes an anti-beauty, an anti-truth.

The "world" offers us, then, nihilism and life's harshness as the only truth, or an illusory beauty, the indulgence in which brings only surfeit and disgust. We can perhaps see in certain forms of sexual perversion, for example, the devil’s one-two punch of the exaltation of degradation and the sham beauty of deceptive seductions: experiencing attraction and pleasure in that which is foul and degrading.

But that is not the beauty of truth that Christ came to reveal and to give, and which we must embrace if we are to live genuine human lives. I will let the Pope conclude. He says that the Christian “must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything else, anything beautiful, is a deception and that only the depiction of what is cruel, base, and vulgar is the truth and true enlightenment [witness some forms of modern “art”]. And it must withstand the deceptive beauty that diminishes man instead of making him great and that, for that very reason, is false… If we…are struck by the arrow of Christ’s paradoxical beauty, then we will truly come to know him… Then we will have encountered the beauty of truth, of redeeming truth.”