Thursday, January 12, 2006

Beauty is of God

I’m not sure why I’m writing about beauty, since I know very little about it (let alone theological aesthetics), but I just read a book on the subject, so I thought I’d offer a few inchoate mumblings, perhaps just to help me get my own bearings.

My conclusion, which should be obvious to all believers (and which should help lead unbelievers to faith), is that beauty is of God, that beauty in any form is somehow a reflection of God (however pale or inadequate), an expression of his will and wisdom and delight in creating the universe, and even in creating you and me.

The book I read, which I recommend, is The Evidential Power of Beauty, by Thomas Dubay, S.M. The subtitle, Science and Theology Meet, may be slightly misleading, though he does spill considerable ink in showing how the discoveries of science ought to lead any normal person to discover God behind the marvels of the universe. He relies quite a bit on the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar for the theology of beauty—anyone who can make von Balthasar intelligible to the masses has done a great service—and offers a brief but thought-provoking passage on the cover: “Every experience of beauty points to infinity.”

To some extent, the recognition and appreciation of beauty presupposes a minimum of cultural formation and education. On the other hand, being the creations of God that we are, if we have not experienced a definite de-formation in all the vulgarities of modern life (as so many lamentably have), we will innately and spontaneously be drawn to the beautiful and at least begin to appreciate its worth. I must confess that I am mostly illiterate in the knowledge of great art and classical music (though I know what I like when I see or hear it), but I recently had an experience that dovetailed rather nicely with what I had been learning in Fr Dubay’s book.

We are fortunate to have as a friend an internationally-acclaimed harpist, Anna Maria Mendieta. We don’t get to see her very often because of the demands of her profession, but recently she visited us and performed a marvelous little impromptu concert of Christmas and classical music. It became clear to us why the harp has been chosen as the symbol of the music of Heaven. Beauty engages the soul and the spirit in ways that are beyond conscious thought or explanation. An encounter with beauty is a kind of transport to a higher level of life and experience. As Anna Maria played, it was not for me a particularly emotional moment, but tears began spontaneously to come to my eyes, simply because it was so beautiful. For a few moments I seemed not to be in the monastery refectory any more, but rather at the gates of Heaven. Such an experience can only be of God.

Now there are times when tears have come while listening to other types of music, but that is usually because of the emotional impact of the lyrics, which may or may not be particularly beautiful, but which speak to my emotional state at the time. I finally came to the conclusion (OK, so I’m way behind all of you on this one) that even though some kinds of music are enjoyable, energizing, cleverly crafted, or simply “cool,” they are not all beautiful. True beauty, something more than a superficially attractive quality, will reach the depths of the soul, and will speak to you there of God, who is in Himself infinitely more than the sum total of all created beauty. (I love that little saying: “I said to the almond tree, ‘Speak to me of God,’ and it immediately burst into flower.” All creation knows Him; why are we lagging so far behind?)

I’ve just given this one example of music here, but the possibilities of experiencing beauty are practically endless. The world is essentially a beautiful world, intricately and lovingly designed by God for our delight and as a means of discovering his infinitely wonderful Mind and Heart. The ugliness and horrors of this world are largely the product of man, in his ignorance or rejection of God’s plan for our happiness and salvation. But God will still intervene to refresh us with beauty, calling us to wake up, to look at the stars, to hear the angels sing. None of this is beyond our reach. If I can experience it, so can you. I would not pass as a “cultured” man, by the standards of cultured people (I was even called a “hillbilly” a few years ago when attempting to navigate my way through standard etiquette during a brief foray into a non-monastic environment). So you don’t need to have college degrees in art or music to be able to let the beautiful touch you—it may even help if you don’t, because then you won’t be tempted to analyze or criticize, but only be enraptured.

Beauty is one of God’s precious gifts to us, as is our ability to perceive and appreciate it and allow it to lead us back to the Giver. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder. It is objectively in what God has made, in the radiance and perfection of form, sound, light, color, etc. I have not mentioned it here, but the author rightly concludes his book with a section on the beauty of sanctity, the transformation of the human spirit, of the whole person, into the likeness of Christ, in whom beauty is also love, truth, and goodness. To delight in the beauty of creation is to begin to move toward the glory of God, the ultimate Beauty that eye has not yet seen, nor ear heard, but which God has prepared for those who love Him.