We live in an age that is becoming increasingly numb to beauty. We spend much of our days looking down at screens and little time raising our eyes towards heaven. This does not mean that we should spend our days staring up at the sky; although, doing this on a regular basis will often leave us struck with awe and wonder.
I had one of those moments earlier this week. I was in the process of making breakfast for my husband and daughter when he called me into our bedroom. He pointed out the window. The eastern sky was ablaze with vibrant reds, oranges, yellows, and purples. It was breathtaking. The entire horizon was illuminated as the sun began its gradual ascent for the day. I quickly grabbed my coat and ran out the door, leaving behind a somewhat bewildered husband.
I stood in our backyard, mouth agape, mesmerized by the symphony of color spreading across the sky. I knew its brilliance would not last, and like all moments of beauty on this side of eternity, it was not meant to last. We are given these brief moments as gifts that lead us closer to God. Every moment that seizes us in wonder is a moment where we encounter God and enter into deeper communion with Him. That is what beauty is meant to do to us. It is an invitation. It is an invitation into the depths of reality, into the heart of truth, and ultimately into the love of the Most Holy Trinity.
Why then do we so often ignore the beauty around us, or in this technological age, prefer glowing screens to vibrant sunrises? The answer may be found in our nature in relation to beauty and what it does to us. Many of the Greek philosophers believed that beauty and suffering went together since beauty ultimately pierces us and creates longing within us. Cardinal Ratzinger explains in his essay on beauty:
“Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.”Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty”, Communion and Liberation, August 2002.
This suffering that is produced through the longing beauty stirs within us is part of the reason we often ignore it or seek to deaden our senses through technology and distraction. Rather than go for a walk on a beautiful sunny day, many of us—myself included at times—would rather stay indoors mindlessly staring at the screens in our homes. If we are honest with ourselves, we know it is an escape we utilize to keep us from the discontent and existential loneliness we experience at various times in our lives.
We are made for union with God, which means that even the happiest of marriages and the most joyful of vocations cannot completely fulfill us. This is why our culture is constantly searching for the next pleasure or the claim that if we find the right “soul-mate” our life will be complete. This is to miss the longing that is inherent in our nature. A desire that is heightened whenever we are confronted with objective forms of beauty that lead us towards the heights of heaven.
To seek out beauty and to allow it to penetrate the depths of our souls, necessarily means being pierced and wounded in the process. It is a salve for our weary souls, but it also unleashes within us an insatiable desire for more, which can only be found in deeper union with God. This union cannot be nourished if we deaden the calling of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives by mindlessly passing the time through our cell phones, televisions, and computers. A sunrise cannot leave us breathless if we do not have eyes to see it.
Christ is the Bridegroom in search of His people. He longs for union with each one of us and with His Bride the Church. Beauty is one of the principal ways He woos us in our daily lives outside of the Sacraments, Mass, and prayer. Cardinal Ratzinger again:
“In the 14th century, in the book “The Life in Christ” by the Byzantine theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas, we rediscover Plato’s experience in which the ultimate object of nostalgia, transformed by the new Christian experience, continues to be nameless. Cabasilas says: “When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound” (cf. “The Life in Christ,” the Second Book, 15).
The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny. What Plato said, and, more than 1,500 years later, Cabasilas, has nothing to do with superficial aestheticism and irrationalism or with the flight from clarity and the importance of reason. The beautiful is knowledge certainly, but, in a superior form, since it arouses man to the real greatness of the truth. Here Cabasilas has remained entirely Greek, since he puts knowledge first when he says, “In fact it is knowing that causes love and gives birth to it. … Since this knowledge is sometimes very ample and complete and at other times imperfect, it follows that the love potion has the same effect.”
Through beauty we come to know God on a deeper level. We allow ourselves to be caught up in His love and through it seek to persevere on the path to holiness. When we experience beauty in our daily lives, when it truly draws us outside of ourselves, we can come to a deeper understanding of the truth that is in Christ and His Church. We are not simply a people of the law.
Moral precepts and the teaching of the Church are an essential aspect of Christian discipleship and it is in living our lives in conformity with the moral law that we are able to express our love for God, but our faith journey is primarily one of an encounter with the Living God. Cardinal Ratzinger relays an experience he had with beauty that helped him understand the truths of the Faith more clearly:
“The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”
There are times in our lives when we battle doubt, especially when experiencing profound suffering or the drudgery of daily life. It is in these moments especially that we must open our eyes and look for beauty around us so that God can draw us closer to Him. We cling to the Sacraments, prayer, and the Mass, but in the moments of agony or even the mundane moments of our daily lives, there are often opportunities to enter into deeper union with God through beauty if we stop to look.
We must stop running from Him and deadening our senses through mindless distractions. Yes, it will fill us with greater longing, but that longing increases our love for God and our desire to follow Him more closely. We must simply raise our eyes to heaven to see it.