God is rather gratuitous in the beauty He bestows upon Creation. This is evident in crystal clear rivers descending into roaring waterfalls, the sun gently rising over the ocean, the quiet of sunset over snow covered peaks, misty trees golden by early morning light, and it is most profoundly seen in the eyes of our fellow sojourners: human beings. We are constantly surrounded by this gift of beauty, but do we see it? Do we accept it as a grand gesture from our Divine Lover? A friend of mine likes to say: “God woos us through beauty.” This is indeed true, if we pay attention.
I fear that many of us have been robbed of this truth. We live in cultures that have chosen banal, bland, boring, and utilitarian architecture or interior furnishings. We view human beings as a means to an end, an annoyance, or worse, as a burden. What person doesn’t feel the soul crushing utility upon entering a government building? This is true of the surroundings and the treatment of people who go there to do business. It is as if the true, the good, and the beautiful are intentionally kept out, so that we do not ponder higher things than our supposedly benevolent government.
This is also true of those sacred spaces stripped of their awe-inspiring power, thanks to the rabid iconoclasm of certain quarters due to the great misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Vatican II, often called “the spirit of Vatican II.” I have no intention of stepping into the Liturgy wars here, but I do believe that my generation was robbed of the beauty God means to bestow upon us and the beauty we mean to give back to Him as we participate in His creation through our churches and cathedrals.
We have forgotten how to look for God in beauty. Many of us don’t look up throughout our daily lives. We do not see the wonder surrounding us, even those who are surrounded by urban sprawl. This is just as true for Catholics as it is for our non-Catholic counterparts. I have lived in urban, suburban, and rural settings throughout my life. Each one offers unique opportunities to find God in His Creation and in our worship of Him.
God pierces us with His beauty
Beauty has both objective and subjective dimensions to it. The Church has always understood that objective beauty exists, not only in Creation, but within the Church as well. This is why Vatican II affirmed that Gregorian Chant — an objective form of beauty — still holds pride of place within the Divine Liturgy. There is objectively beautiful music that is appropriate for the Liturgy and other music that may be beautiful at some level, but that is appropriate elsewhere. The issue is a matter of objective versus subjective beauty.
The same can be said for sacred art and the manner in which we build and adorn our churches. There is objective beauty and then there are things that are either less beautiful in that they do not lead the observer to the transcendent, or they are drab, uninspiring, or just plain ugly.
The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.
Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.
Holy Mother Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world, and for this purpose she has trained artists. In fact, the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use.
The Church has been particularly careful to see that sacred furnishings should worthily and beautifully serve the dignity of worship, and has admitted changes in materials, style, or ornamentation prompted by the progress of the technical arts with the passage of time.
It is very difficult to foster a sense of God’s beauty when our sacred spaces remind us of our office buildings or a gymnasium. Beauty is meant to elevate, transcend, and pierce us. True experiences of authentic beauty pierce us so thoroughly that we feel a sense of incompleteness, homesickness, and the deep yearning for communion with God. This is good. It reminds us that we are not yet home. Objective beauty draws us into the subjective experience of God’s beauty and His love for each one of us. It is the same as when one lover desires the other. God places this desire within our hearts so that we may long for Him and walk towards Him throughout our lives.
I think for those of us who have been pierced by God’s beauty, it is difficult to find contentment in things that are less than transcendent. Perhaps this is why so many engage in the Liturgy wars? Perhaps not. What I do know is that once God pierces someone with His beauty there is no going back. Unfortunately, far too many people become bitter or angry in response to those who, either do not yet understand, or those who constantly assault objective beauty both in the Liturgy, within our churches, and even in our own cultures. God does not woo us with beauty so that we can become bitter. He reveals Himself to us in this manner to draw us closer to Him. Falling into bitterness and anger only takes us away from the beauty of God.
I do understand the struggle. The first time I was pierced by beauty was when I was about 8-years-old. I was listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D Minor on my Walkman. Yes, my Walkman. I was sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car—I remember it quite vividly—and tears began to stream down my face. There was no other response that made sense and when confronted with such profound gratuitous beauty there is little else to do other than either stand in silent awe or cry tears of immense joy as God’s arrow of love pierces the heart. To experience the beauty of God is to be pierced for life.
It is true that some of us appear to be more wired to receive the gift of God’s beauty. I get rather odd looks when I excitedly explain things I have seen kayaking, hiking, gardening in my backyard, the joy of closing my eyes and listening to the gentleman who sings Gregorian Chant every now and then on Sunday mornings in my parish, the Sacred Triduum at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, tears streaming down my face at the sheer beauty of the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” set to polyphony, or even the way the quality of light changing through the stained-glass windows in my parish has left me awestruck. Lately this is even more so, when I see Creation and the Eucharistic sacrifice meet at Adoration all I can do is stare transfixed in wonder. I was pierced by this beauty and God’s arrow of love at a young age and I am still pierced in the most unexpected ways.
God binds our wounds through beauty
Not only is beauty a reflection of God’s love, it is a salve for weary souls. I cannot tell you how many times I stood gazing enrapt at a sunset walking out of the hospital after another one of my husband’s trips to either the ER or as an in-patient; or how the ornateness of my parish reminds me of heavenly realities while I suffer here. We are not meant to be surrounded by blandness or even sentimentality. The former leaves us bored and uninspired, while the latter leads us to mistake our emotions for God. We are meant to be raised to heaven, most especially in the Mass. This transcendence gives us a glimpse of heaven and serves to bring healing to our tired bodies and souls.
Beauty teaches us to go outside of ourselves
The struggle we all face is to get outside of ourselves. Sin makes us focus on ourselves. Far too often we can mistake our own desires, tastes, and wants as objective. This is a lie. We do not dictate reality, regardless of what our culture tells us. Beauty is something outside of ourselves. It cannot be grasped. It can only be received for its own sake as a gift from our Divine Lover. God offers it freely to us and we either choose to enter into it freely or we attempt to control it. Beauty cannot be controlled, shaped, or molded in our own image. Once we lose our centering on God, the authentic nature of beauty becomes distorted and disordered. The subjective eclipses the objective and we focus too much on ourselves. This is true in our own art, as much as it is true within the Church. Yes, we all have our own tastes, but we cannot mistake them as universal or objective.
When we experience the piercing reality of God’s beauty through His creation, the Mass, our sacred spaces, music, etc. we realize that it is not up to us. God comes to us through this medium in His own time. Yes, we must be open to it, but like everything else in this life, it is up to Him. God will whisper to us “look up” and if we listen in those moments we will not only see the beauty before us, but we will see Him. Once you listen to His call and you are pierced by His beauty, you will never be the same. This Advent and Christmas season, let God woo you through His transcendent beauty.