When I was 9 or 10-years-old I can remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car while we were driving across town. My dad had put in a cassette of various classical composers, which was common, but on this car ride he put in a new collection I hadn’t heard before. I remember sitting there looking out the window watching the trees and neighborhoods go by when Pachelbel’s Canon in D came on. All of a sudden tears began to stream down my face. I was a bit bewildered. My dad looked at me knowingly. He understood that I had been pierced by beauty for the first time.
I felt an ache in my heart and the only reasonable response to this sensation seemed to be tears. I felt homesick for a place I had never been before. I didn’t understand it at the time, but this moment was significant and it was starting point of when God began revealing Himself to me through beauty. He had begun to woo me as the Divine Lover is wont to do.
Ten years later, I moved to Monterey, CA. I grew up in the landlocked state of Montana, which is where my instruction in the wonders of nature began, but I did not see the ocean for the first time until I was 18-years-old. When I found myself living in Northern California I encountered a new and powerful type of beauty in the Pacific Ocean. I found it mesmerizing, but intimidating. I would sit for hours on the beach watching the waves crash against the shore or I would lie on Carmel beach staring up at the starry night sky listening to the sound of the waves.
My love affair with beauty was still in its infancy, but I sought it with ever greater frequency. I can remember taking some of my friends with me to watch the sunset many times during those months. I would stand in awestruck wonder and my excitement was palpable.
Right before the sun seemed to plunge into the Pacific Ocean, I would tell my friends to wait for the moment when time seemed to stand still. The moment before the sun slipped from view and I myself would hold my breath. They are moments that changed me little by little and opened me up more to God. Each new moment moved me further out into the depths of God’s infinite love. I didn’t understand it at the time since I was only minimally practicing the Faith.
Years passed by, some of them very difficult, but I always kept myself open to new wonders no matter where I lived. I am the type of person who can be struck dumb at the simplest blooming flower or the shifting colors of a sunrise. This is an important aspect of my personality, because it is exactly how God was able to finally draw me back to Holy Mother Church in my late twenties after years of wandering.
When I was 28-years-old, I found myself searching ardently for God, but I had made some terrible choices. I fled a destructive relationship—for both of us—and moved to Washington, DC for the third time in 8 years. In the beginning, I wasn’t quite ready for Mass. I walked out of a couple, mainly because I was racked by the guilt of my sins. The weight was taking its toll on me.
I went to Bible studies at Protestant churches, but being raised reading St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle, it was impossible for me to deny the Real Presence of the Holy Eucharist. Logically, Catholicism always made sense to me. I was having a hard time living the requirements of the Faith. I hadn’t yet had a full encounter with Christ.
During this time, my friend and roommate suggested that I start going to Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, which was only a couple stops down the Red Line of the Metro from us. She had a friend who was considering seminary and he went to Mass there. Funnily enough I befriended two men who would end up in seminary during that time. She wanted me to join them for Mass the following Sunday. My friend wasn’t even Catholic at the time. She converted a few months later.
I decided to go with them and then we went out for lunch. We chatted about the Mass and the Faith in general. It was a pivotal moment for me. I finally began attending Sunday Mass regularly. Slowly things began to change for me as I kept going each week. I made the decision that I would attend the Sacred Triduum that year. It had been a few years since I had been and for some reason—a reason I didn’t at least understand then—I decided to dedicate myself to the rather lengthy liturgies that put me back at my apartment at midnight.
What happened on that Holy Thursday was the culmination of twenty years of God gently wooing me through beauty. When the Mass began and the priests and deacons began to process in while the organ and the choir filled the space with glorious music, I stood in utter amazement. There Heaven and earth met—as they do at every Mass—and I could see it. I was overflowing with joy. I could finally see what the Mass truly is and it changed my entire life. The beauty of the Liturgy was the culmination of all the years God had been calling to me through beauty. I could finally see the Divine Lover clearly.
This journey began with music and it reached its climax at that Holy Thursday Mass. I heard for the first time in my life Pange Lingua Gloriosi chanted. It pierced me at such profound depths that I thought I might die from the sheer beauty of it. St. Thomas Aquinas’ haunting hymn in its fullness being chanted in that sacred space while Our Lord was put in repose in one of the Blessed Sacrament chapels was the single moment when I truly accepted my Baptismal promises and made the decision to live as a Catholic for the rest of my life.
It is for this reason that I struggle with the beige and banal that has been so prominent for the last 50 years. Beauty converts souls. God uses beauty to reveal His great love to us. There is a reason why so many of the poor and laboring used all of their resources to make the great cathedrals of Europe. Beauty draws us ever deeper into the vast depths of God. It has the ability to draw us into unseen depths within our own souls. It provides comfort in times of agony and suffering.
The Lord calls to us as the Bridegroom. He desires to draw us ever closer to Him. Beauty is a part of this courtship and it is an essential part of it. Far too often in our culture of utility, use, and consumption we do not realize how much our tired souls need beauty. In fact, a lot of us have become dead to it because we are so use to being told that beauty is subjective or useless. We have reduced everything to the horizontal and it makes it very difficult for us to lift our eyes up and see the transcendent vertical.
My own experiences of beauty did not end on that Holy Thursday. They have taken on a new character because they now occur in communion with God. I know who is presenting me with the gift of a glorious sunrise, trees in full bloom, pristine mountain lakes, or rays shining through the stained glass windows at my parish in the morning sun. God still takes my breath away at the most surprising times. He still pierces me in new and unexpected ways as He draws me ever further into His depths.
Recently when I was at Adoration I was reading Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi. I came across a passage that literally took my breath away. It is honest and true. It points to the toils of this time and the hope of being completely in union with the Most Holy Trinity. It is the goal and the reason for our struggles and I was undone after I read it. In fact, I’ve read it multiple times since and I am blown away by the depth and splendor of Benedict XVI’s words. In the passage he is explaining the term “eternal life.”
Eternal, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us: “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while, on the one hand, we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after–no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you
Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, para. 12.
My experiences themselves are subjective. They are one of the ways God calls me to Himself. The necessity of beauty, however, is an objective truth. The Church has understood this and preserved this reality for centuries. Beauty helps people reach outside of themselves. It is one of the ways God calls us to go beyond ourselves and our own desires. He draws us upwards so that we can seek His face with even greater devotion. It is why beauty has the ability to transform entire cultures and convert peoples. It is beauty that led to my radical reversion. It is beauty that brought me face-to-face with the Risen Lord. Beauty may seem like the most useless thing in the world and that is because it is pure gift. It only gives of itself and it has the ability to break open even the most hardened of hearts and to bring peoples of all backgrounds to God.