The Evidential Power of Beauty

“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.”

– Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

“Late have I loved thee, Beauty so old and so new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong — I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being, were they not in you.”

– Augustine, The Confessions

shutterstock_143352943-2A friend once told me the story of how she first met God. She doesn’t remember her age; it must have been about 4 or 5. Her family lived in the countryside on the rim of one of our big eastern cities. And one June evening, cloudless, moonless, with just the hint of a humid breeze, her father took her out into the back yard in the dark and told her to look up at the sky. From one horizon to the other, all across the black carpet of the night, were the stars — thousands of them, tens of thousands, in clusters and rivers of light. And in the quiet, her father said, “God made the world beautiful because he loves us.”

That was more than 50 years ago. My friend grew up and learned all about entropy and supernovae and colliding galaxies and quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity. But still, when she closes her eyes, she can see that carpet of stars and hear her father’s voice. God made the world beautiful because he loves us.

Creation is more than an accident of dead matter. It’s a romance. It has purpose. It sings of the Living God. It bears his signature.

The story of my friend offers several lessons we might consider this week as summer begins and life starts to briefly slow down.

First, the most powerful kind of witness doesn’t come from a classroom or pulpit. It doesn’t need an academic degree or special techniques. Instead, it grows naturally out of the lives of ordinary people–parents and spouses and friends; people confident in the love that God bears for them and eager to share it with others; people who know the world not as a collection of confused facts but as a symphony of truth and meaning.

Second, nature is sacramental. It points to things outside itself. God speaks and creation sings in silence. We can’t hear either if we’re cocooned in a web of manufactured distraction, anxiety and noise. We can’t see the heavens if our faces are buried in technologies that turn us inward on ourselves. Yet that’s exactly what modern American life seems to promote: a restless and relentless material appetite for “more,” that gradually feeds selfishness and separates each of us from everyone else.

Third and finally, every experience of real beauty leads us closer to three key virtues: humility, because the grandeur of creation invites awe and lifts us outside ourselves; love, because the human heart was made for glory and joy, and only the Author of life can satisfy its longings; and hope, because no sadness, no despair, can ultimately survive the evidence of divine meaning that beauty provides. If the world we see taking shape around us today in the name of a false freedom often seems filled with cynicism, ugliness, little blasphemies and sadness, we need to ask why. And then we need to turn our hearts again to the God of beauty – Augustine’s “Beauty so old and so new” — who created us, who sings his longing for us in the grandeur of the world he made, and who renews our souls.

God lives in the summer rain, the stars in the night sky, the wind in the leaves of the trees. He speaks to us through a creation alive with his love. We need to be silent, and watch and listen. And then we need to join in nature’s symphony of praise.

 

This article was originally published at http://archphila.org

Image credit: shuttershock.com

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

By

Charles Joseph Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. is the ninth and current Archbishop of Philadelphia, serving since his installation on September 8, 2011

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  • JMC

    I can empathize with that 4-year-old. I constantly regret the home insurance regulations that require all houses to have “security lights” so that even in remote rural areas, there’s so much “light pollution” you can’t even see the stars, except for the very brightest ones. On the rare occasion that the power goes out at night, the first thing I do is run outside so I can get a glimpse, however brief, of the gloriously dense swath of stars that forms the Milky Way, and watch them twinkling against the velvety backdrop of the night sky. The beauty of it never fails to bring the tears to my eyes, the more so because it’s such a rare sight these days.

  • Your friend

    Archbishop Chaput,

    What about beauty in architecture, music and art? The ancient cathedrals are magnificent symbols of the grandure of God. Even parish churches spoke of his beauty and order. I was at a wedding in Longmont last weekend in a Catholic church newly built that was quite ugly and looked like a Protestant meeting house.

    What about guitars in the Cathedral where there is a pipe organ making music to match the architecture? What about traditional hymnody rather than the me, me, me of contemporary “songs” drawing attention to self rather than to God?

    Father Dubay said it best in his book, THE EVIDENTIAL POWER OF BEAUTY.

    God bless you always.

  • St_Donatus

    Archbishop Chaput brings out many good points about beauty. At one time nature was built into our Catholic Churches.

    I too wonder why all the new Churches are so ugly. They seem to be built to remind of the technology the drags us down, the modern society that is so corrupt, the selfishness that requires more for our selves rather than worship of God. I have only seen one Catholic Church built since 1960 that I would say draws my heart to God, and even that pails in comparison to those Churches built prior to about 1940. Recently I was on vacation and I walked into a church built by poor farmers in a very small town in Wisconsin that was so beautiful that I enjoyed praying for three hours with no desire to leave. What a blessing, yet the church in the next town over had all its altars removed, statues removed, and everything replaced with square ugly boxes. My heart sank when I walked into that Church and it felt like God left it decades ago.

  • Dr. Eowyn

    Beautifully said. Thank you, Archbishop Chaput! And thank you for standing firm and speaking Truth.

  • Dessy12

    After the disheartening news this week (SCOTUS homosexual marriage and HHS mandate) just now reading this article, my spirits are lifted. Thank you,
    Archbishop Chaput.

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