John William Waterhouse, 1900, Mermaid
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 4:8)
The man to his beloved: "My love, you are as beautiful as Jerusalem, as lovely as the city of Tirzah, as breathtaking as these great cities. Turn your eyes away from me; they are holding me captive. . . . Who is this whose glance is like the dawn? She is beautiful and bright, as dazzling as the sun or the moon" (Song of Songs 6:4,5, 10 TEV).
This morning I woke up way before my alarm. I just couldn't sleep any more. As I got up and prepared to go for a walk and to pray the Rosary, I could not stop thinking about George Weigel's reflections on beauty in Letters to a Young Catholic. Perhaps this was on my mind because I went to sleep fantasizing about art work that I'd like to buy to hang in my bedroom.
"Chartres . . . teaches us about the importance of beauty and the beautiful for Catholic faith. The sad fact is that a lot of contemporary Catholicism is ugly: ugly buildings, ugly furnishings, ugly decorations, ugly vestments, ugly music. There are exceptions, huge exceptions, to be sure. But the general Catholic drift in the United States is not, to put it gently, toward the beautiful. That's not just an aesthetic problem. It's a serious religious and theological problem.
"Why? Because beauty helps prepare us to be the kind of people who can be comfortable in heaven--the kind of people who can live with God forever. Beautiful things and beautiful music draw us out of ourselves and into an encounter with a truth that's beyond us, yet accessible to our senses. . . . The beauty that, by its very nature, draws us out of ourselves is an antidote to self-absorption. The beauty of Beatrice drew Dante [The Divine Comedy: Paradisio] out of himself and into paradise, and into an encounter with the beauty that is Love itself. The same experience is available to us in our encounters with the beautiful.
"The joy of beauty is another anticipation of the kingdom, and another way that we're prepared for the kingdom. How are we to become the kind of people who can be happy forever--especially those of us who are congenitally grouchy? Beauty, by giving us experiences of unalloyed joy here and now, prepares us for that dimension of life with God. So does beauty's inexhaustibility--the fact that we never tire of a beautiful painting, sculpture, building, poem, or piece of music. . . . The inexhaustibility of beauty . . . is another reason why beauty prepares us for, even as it anticipates, life in the kingdom, life with God forever. As Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote, the more we know and love and understand a great work of art, the more we recognize that we can't, in the final analysis, 'grasp' its genius. That's why we never 'outgrow' a beloved work of art. And that inexhaustibility prepares us to 'contemplate God in the beatific vision, [when] we will see that God is forever the ever-greater.'
"So beauty helps deepen in us a sense of our human and spiritual destiny, which is life forever in the light and love of the Holy Trinity. . . .
"Beauty is something that even the most skeptical moderns can know. Balthasar once wrote that people who doubt they can say what's good or what's true can't be similarly skeptical about the meaning of beauty, once they've experienced it. People know that they know what's beautiful. Thus beauty is one way we can introduce our doubting friends and colleagues to the mystery they often deny: they mystery that there is truth and we can know it. Once they've crossed the bridge of radical skepticism, the results can be dramatic and surprising. You'll remember Father Jay Scott Newman from an earlier letter. It's worth noting that the Gothic beauty of the Princeton chapel played a considerable role in breaking him free from the rationalistic atheism he had adopted as a teenager and bringing him to Christ.
"All of which takes us back to the great theological mentor of the Middle Ages, St. Augustine, and his Confessions. In perhaps the most famous and lyrical moment in this first true autobiography, Augustine takes himself to task for his resistance and then exults in his surrender to the God who is Beauty itself:
Late have I loved thee, O beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved thee! You were within, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance over me; I drew in my breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your embrace
"The Catholic spirit can't live without beauty; the human spirit can't live without beauty. . . . Everyone needs beauty. We need it for our souls. We need beauty to prepare our souls, and the rest of us, for what lies ahead, when we come home at last.
". . . An increasing number of Catholics pray with icons in their homes. Why?"
"In part, I suspect, because of a reaction to the not infrequent ugliness I have already mentioned. Even the most sterile cinder block 'worship space' (another of those awful AmChurch neologisms) is ennobled by an icon. Post- Vatican II Catholics may be discovering the power of icons after too many preconciliar decades of religious 'art' that was, truth to tell, shlock. But whether it's in response to modern AmChurch ugliness or old-fashioned Catholic bad taste, the new interest in icons is instructive for the same reason that Chartres is instructive--it tells us that beauty and prayer go together.
"When Chartres invites us out of ourselves into a realm of luminous beauty, it's inviting us, however gently, to pray. The brilliant craftsmen who put those extraordinary blues and reds into the glass of Chartres . . . the glass they made was an invitation to a wider and deeper vision of the human estate, a vision that necessarily leads to praise and thanksgiving, intercession and contrition--in a word, to prayer. The same is true of icons. I think that's what so many people who now buy icons or applaud the erection of icons in their churches intuitively understand.
"As we've discussed before, we don't merely look at icons; we look through them and discover ourselves engaged with the Truth the iconographer has written. We meet the truth of Christ through [them] . . . . Beauty is an invitation to pray. The God who is Augustine's 'Beauty ever ancient, ever new' pours beauty into the world as one facet of his thirst for us. God asks us to drink at the wellspring of beauty here and now in order to drink, finally, of his own ineffable and inexpressible and inexhaustible beauty in the New Jerusalem.
"Through the beauty of Chartres we encounter what the early Greek Fathers of the Church called the 'divinization' of man. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, O.P., the archbishop of Vienna, reminds us that this 'divinization' of man is made possible by what the cardinal calls 'the humanization of God'--the Incarnation. When God enters history in the flesh, history isn't the only thing radically transformed; so are the possibilities of the human. Through the Incarnation, human nature is led to its fulfillment, its completion.
"That's the truth shining through the ineffable blues of the Chartres windows. That's the truth that makes every icon possible. That is grace at work--God's outpouring of his superabundant life into the world and into our lives. Like Augustine, we burn for the embrace of the Beauty that is always the same and always new. That burning, which God himself has built into us, is the beginning of every prayer" (198-206).
The beauty of an epic film often moves me to prayer on a deeper level than I typically experience day in and day out. There is something about such a film that awakens the depths of my humanity and causes me to cry out for more of the beauty of God. I hope that if I do ultimately pursue Middle Eastern dance performance publicly that my dancing will be an act of beauty and an invitation to prayer. "To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted" (Titus 1:15). We'll see.*
Peter Kreeft in Catholic Christianity had the following to say about beauty:
"The experience of beauty often leads to God more directly and intuitively than does a process of argument. 'There is the music of Mozart, therefore there must be God'--you either see this or you do not."
"Our desire for joy, for a joy we can never find in this world, even from other people, points to another world (heaven) and another Person (God): for every natural, innate, and universal desire corresponds to a reality that can satisfy it. The reality of hunger shows the reality of food; the same is true of the hunger for God and heaven" (34).
* This passage captures my heart's desires to romance others to God through the beauty of my dance performances . . . one day.
The Women: "Dance, dance, girl of Shulam. Let us watch you as you dance.
The Woman: "Why do you want to watch me as I dance between the rows of onlookers?"
The Man: "What a magnificent girl you are! How beautiful are your feet in sandals. The curve of your thighs is like the work of an artist. A bowl is there, that never runs out of spiced wine. A sheaf of wheat is there, surrounded by lilies. Your breasts are like twin deer, like two gazelles. Your neck is like a tower of ivory. Your eyes are like the pools in the city of Heshbon, near the gate of that great city. Your nose is as lovely as the tower of Lebanon that stands guard at Damascus. Your head is held high like Mount Carmel. Your braided hair shines like the finest satin; its beauty could hold a king captive."
Song of Songs 6:13 -7:5 TEV
(You know, from the sound of that last passage of Scripture, I'm thinking I should say that at least I can romance my some-day husband to reflect on God. Haha. That book is so steamy. Only my husband would be allowed to say after seeing me dance, "Your breasts are like two gazelles." And he'd better be joking. Haha.)