Beauty Communicates Something That Words Cannot

A case for making an education in beauty with the liturgy at its heart part of everybody’s education I was intrigued by the following passage written by St Augustine in which he talks of communication of truth beyond words. What he is describing is how the beauty of expression in a full integration of form and content adds something that words alone cannot say. As an expression rooted in love it is the fullest form of truth. He is talking specifically about music, but what he says applies just as much, it occurs to me, to sacred art and architecture. Their beauty speaks to us of something that words cannot say. The painting of a saint or of the key truths of a feast speaks to us through the harmonious relationships between its parts, by gesture and expression of figures portrayed, for example.

It occurs to me that this communication goes both ways. So not only is beautiful liturgy the fullest way of communicating in love our praise for God, when that beauty is integrated with it in liturgical music and art it is teaching us as we pray, at the deepest level, the truths that are contained within.

This is something that educators should note, I suggest. If what Augustine says it true, then the wisdom that is the goal of education  cannot be offered by book study alone but only by placing it in the context of a liturgical life for there is much to learn that is ‘beyond words’. It is an argument, I suggest for putting a practical education in beauty, with participation in the liturgy as its foundation, at the core of everyone’s education.

Here is St Augustine’s quotation:

‘Will you ever, do you think, that you need know no fear of jarring on the perfect listener’s ear? This is the way of singing God gives you; do not search for words. You cannot express in words the sentiments which please God: so praise Him with your jubilant singing. This is fine praise of God, when you sing with jubilation. You ask, ‘What is singing with jubilation?’ It means to realize that words are not enough to espress what we are singing in our hearts. At the harvest, in the vineyard, whenever men must labour hard, they begin with songs whose words express their joy. But when their joy brims over and words are not enough, they abandon even this coherence and give themselves up to the sheer sound of singing. What is this jubilation, this exultant song? It is the melody that means that our hearts are bursting with feelings that words cannot express. And to whom does this jubilation most belong? Surely to God who is unutterable. And does not unutterable mean what cannot be uttered? If words will not come and you may not remain silent, what else can you do but let the melody soar? What else when the rejoicing heart has now words and the immensity of your joys will not be imprisoned in speech? What else but “sing out with jubilation”?’

St Augustine, On Psalm 32, Sermon 1, 7-8; quoted in the Office of Readings for the Feast of St Cecilia, November 22nd

David Clayton

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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  • James H, London

    I might be missing something here, but there seems a disconnect between what you’re saying and the quote from St Augustine.

    Now, what you say is perfectly true, I appreciate your point and agree with it completely; but I don’t think that’s what Augustine was saying.

    I think Augustine is talking about a religious experience that ‘overloads’ our senses, and makes our head-knowledge, even if it’s encyclopedic, insufficient. Consider: “But when their joy brims over and words are not enough, they abandon
    even this coherence and give themselves up to the sheer sound of
    singing.”
    They “abandon…coherence”. There are times when words are not enough. I think he was talking about glossolalia, which was still acceptable in the church at the time. There are spiritual highs which are only spoiled by fitting them into set words and rubrics. I believe St Thomas Aquinas had an insight into that, when as a pensioner in Italy, he had a dream that led him to say that all he had done (which was really quite staggering) was ‘as straw’.

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