Got beauty?



I was raised in a Christian fellowship where beauty in the worship was not a primary concern.  In fact, for the most part it was never a concern.  I was very much involved in ministry in that fellowship, and never in 25 years did I hear someone speculate on what could be done to increase beauty in our worship.  So when I became Catholic, I was sort of suspicious of the pursuit of “beauty” in architecture, in vestment, in ritual, in music, in statues and crucifixes, in chalice and ciborium.  It seemed to lend itself to outward show. 

So is it ok to use beauty as a motive?  Is it ok to pursue beauty in worship?  Catholics do, in fact, pursue beauty, so it’s an important question. 

Could this pursuit of beauty be tied into the fact we are in God’s image?  Seems to me, yes, it could.

Don’t get me wrong, the prime thing about being in God’s image must be that we have a moral sense of right and wrong coupled with self-awareness.  We are capable of good and evil and we are personally responsible when we do either.  That’s the main thing about being in God’s image. 

But every competent human being possesses a sense of beauty.  How can the universal presence of a sense of beauty not also be part of our creation in the image of God?  After all, what God has created is perceive by us as utterly beautiful – and no other creature we know of is aware of that, except us.  What’s more, we are able to create beauty ourselves.  In fact, we seem to be driven to do it.  There’s not a culture in history that didn’t incorporate beauty into art and even into everyday objects.  Without beauty, the human spirit withers. 

This is from a woman’s journal in the 19th century American frontier.  She’s talking about the quilts she made for her family.

I made them heavy so my family would be warm.  I made them strong so they would last.  I made them beautiful so my heart would not break.

 You know what she’s talking about, don’t you?  The sustaining power of beauty and what seems to be an interior longing to be ourselves a source of beauty. 

Why do things that are true also (always?) strike us as beautiful?

John Keats wrote famously “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, That is all ye know on earth, And all ye need to know” in his Ode on a Grecian Urn

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare”.  Both of these poetic statements reflect on what seems to be a fact, the fact that when we find something deeply true, we also perceive beauty in it.  

And conversely, when we encounter a thing of profound beauty (Michelangelo’s Pieta – Bach’s Mass in B Minor – the almost imponderable mystery of cell division or DNA folding), isn’t it true that we also perceive we are in the presence of significant truth?  Even if words do not suggest themselves, nevertheless it is a deep intuition that truth accompanies beauty. 

I cannot conclude this dogmatically, yet I am convinced that God can and does use beauty to draw me to his truth.  And he allows me to experience beauty when I learn his truth.  My experience and my intuition are so consistent in this that I cannot think otherwise. 

If this is so, then there is no such thing as “casual” beauty or “mere” beauty.  All beauty has the potential to draw me to truth and thus to God.  And furthermore, since beauty is not an ultimate end, but God is, then beauty has purpose. Its purpose is to draw me God-ward.

I’m starting to think this might just be awfully big stuff… 

There is truth that is not expressible, truth that is perhaps not even propositional.

Someone asks, “What is love?”  Good question.  The millennia teach us the question cannot be adequately answered in words.  But can anyone deny that the physical beauty of a mother holding her child can say as much about what love is as an essay or a dictionary? 

“How can God forgive me?”  Another good question.  I mean, I can’t even imagine God, much less understand how he can relate to me, especially when I am evil.  But can anyone deny that the heartbreaking beauty of Jesus’ parable we call The Prodigal Son helps me know the truth of God’s forgiveness?  Notice I’m not talking about the words of the parable – I am talking about its beauty.  The beauty helps me understand God. 

When I lose myself in a spectacular sunrise that seems almost to take me out of my body, what’s going on?  I have no idea, I really don’t, but I am sure of this: this experience of beauty exceeds mere neural response to physical scale and to color combinations.  I learn something in that experience, something abiding and precious and transcendent.  I learn something that undoubtedly includes God. 

I’m way out of my league here, yet I seem driven to a conclusion.

The Catholic Church is right to pursue beauty in the liturgy and in the physical objects and structures that accompany it.  And I am right to want this beauty to draw me to God.  There are moments of physical beauty in the liturgy that I crave and that somehow help me imitate Jesus in my ordinary daily life.  These moments are of course not sacraments in the full sense, yet they show God’s power to nourish his people with what is physical.

  • The priest in full vestment incensing the altar or the Book of the Gospels, while music plays that only belongs to God.
  • The moment in a Mass of Ordination when the ordinands lie prostrate before the altar.
  • A chalice of particular beauty which holds the Precious Blood.  The chalice adds nothing to the Blood of Christ, nevertheless its beauty can draw me to the Savior.
  • A crucifix over the altar in a great church that practically forces me to my knees.
  • A simple Christian lost in her rosary. 

These things are evangelistic and creaturely in their attempt to do all to the glory of God.  There is a piety entirely appropriate to the moment.  And a wonderfully communal quality to so many of these beauties as we experience them in congregational worship. 

Beauty does not cease with this life.

The description of heaven in Revelation can hardly be taken as a literal reality, which actually may help me make the point that heaven will be a dimension, an existence, of unimaginable beauty.  The words given to John only help us to glimpse that we serve a Father of unparalleled ability.  These are selected verse from chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation.

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband…. having the glory of God.  Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper… The city was pure gold, like clear glass.  The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone… And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb… And the Spirit and the Bride say “Come.”  And let the one who hears say “Come.”  And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.

Beauty and truth cooperate as we reach for God.

So long as beauty is ordered toward God, we may trust its power.

We are promised a life of amazing beauty.

4 thoughts on “Got beauty?

  1. Timelessness seems to be a fundamental aspect of beauty; I find the sentiment that there is no “casual beauty” to ring true. Probably another reason why I find Catholicism so beautiful, in addition to the reasons you listed, is that it is able to sustain the ages. I’d agree that a re-calibration or at least a more firm definition of what is beautiful is a necessary step in the journey of the Christian.

    Just my two cents!

  2. Thanks, Erik!

    I “rassled” around with whether to define it, and I ended up where Supreme Court Justice White did when the court was dealing with a definition of pornography — I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it. The idea of timelessness is one I didn’t think of. Is this valid? A sunset doesn’t vary with time — but musical beauty can probably vary both with culture and with time. If that is so, wouldn’t it either weaken the relation between beauty and truth (if truth doesn’t vary…) or call for some sort of condition on the definition?

  3. I was thinking about that this morning. I have that Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Old Hundredth still stuck in my head. Obviously I think it’s beautiful, but would the ancient Greeks, or even a caveman?

    There’s got to be a book on this sort of thing somewhere.

    • I’m dumb as a stick in terms of the philosophical in’s and out’s about whether beauty has purpose — but if my suspicion is correct that beauty’s purpose is to orient us to God, then the fact that a Chinese person may not find beautiful (and thus orienting… no pun intended) the same music I do, nevertheless beautiful music is meant to somehow bring him closer to God.

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