With the great heritage of beauty from Scripture and Tradition in mind, Pope Francis turned his attention to the evangelical power of beauty in his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. There he writes: “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ or the ‘via pulchritudinis.’”
St. John Paul II also called for a greater attentiveness to beauty when he said that “beauty is a call to transcendence. . . . The beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God” (Letter to Artists, 1999). In the same letter, he urges an attentiveness to “new epiphanies of beauty.”
So, what then are the new epiphanies of beauty that we need to see and point out to our children so that they can love beauty early and not late? In our efforts to evangelize, how can we more effectively lead with beauty, which is one of the 8 Principles of Word on Fire? Here, I share a few thoughts about how we all can behold beauty, love it, and how it can lead us to the beauty of Christ and the beauty of God.
new eyes to see
Some time ago, I bought a new camera with a powerful lens. Suddenly, I began to notice possible pictures everywhere. I had new eyes to see what I was blind to before. We pray for new eyes to see—that the Lord will heal our blindness to see all there is to see and not just what we want to see. That we might see with new awe and wonder—to delight in the beauty of the natural world, the magnificence of a night sky without clouds, a stunning rainbow, or an awesome sunrise. These daily miracles are worth watching. Nothing we can find on a screen can ever replicate these epiphanies of beauty.
The beauty of people
Have you ever sat waiting for a plane at the airport and just spent time “people watching”? It definitely takes you out of yourself by observing people from all over the world coming and going. The truth dawns on us that each human life is unique and uniquely beautiful. Just as Christ’s beauty was hidden beneath wounds and bruises, so everyone has a beauty beneath our fallen nature. Yet the beauty of others is so easy to miss and ignore, as it was by the rich man with Lazarus.
The beauty of charity
Goodness and charity are beautiful when we see them. Selfishness and greed are ugly. Look for the beauty of charity, whoever it comes from. Be a person of charity, love, and justice in order to make the world a more beautiful place. In the light of beauty, morality can be approached by a new route and understanding. Doing what is right and just is beautiful and wholesome. Immorality and injustice are horrible, dark, and divisive.
The beauty of truth
The poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats ends with the line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Like beauty, truth conforms us to itself. Having a passion for truth takes us on an adventure of discovery outside ourselves. Whether the truth we discover is scientific truth, religious truth, or moral truth, all truth makes demands on us and calls for us to change. As truth is beautiful, so lies and deceit are ugly.
the beauty of art and architecture
A phrase we often hear is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I have always struggled to accept this. For example, if you see a painting by Caravaggio painting and make up your mind that you don’t like it, then the problem is with you, not with Caravaggio! Or if we enter Chartes Cathedral in France and remain indifferent to the beauty found there, then the problem is with us and not the people who designed this magnificent building. The Church’s patrimony includes an awesome array of art and beautiful buildings that serve to draw people into an experience of beauty and transcendence. Art and architecture serve to lift our hearts, minds, and souls towards the divine.
the beauty of music
Again, the same is true of beautiful music as it is for art. If I don’t like Allegri’s Miserere mei or a Mozart symphony, then the problem is on my side. I am deaf to hear the beauty that is there.
For St. Augustine, beautiful music helped to break open his deafness to hear and sense the beauty of God: “How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran and it was good for me to have that experience” (Confessions, 96). The Church has a wonderful musical patrimony but there are other forms of music too, not strictly sacred or liturgical, that can lead us to a beautiful spiritual experience.
The beauty of Mary and the saints
The liturgy is our encounter with heavenly realities. It is the place where the divine encounters our humanity in a way that renews God’s image and likeness within us. Therefore, the liturgy both helps us to see again the beauty of God and makes us radiant with that same beauty. In the saints, we see God’s grace triumphant in human lives, with God’s beauty shining through them. In a special way, the feast days of the Blessed Mother show us how God’s grace makes a human life beautiful. Her Immaculate Conception and Assumption reveal Mary as someone beautiful in body and soul, radiant with God’s grace and without the sin that dims that light. This is why the Church honors Mary as the tota pulchra, the “All Beautiful.”
The beauty of Christ
The beauty of people, charity, art, music, and the saints all converge on the One who is beautiful, Our Lord Jesus Christ. He is beautiful in his mercy, his truth, his compassion, his goodness, his kingdom, his healings, his forgiveness, his wounds, and his love. His loveliness shines from his Transfiguration, his Cross, his Resurrection, and his Ascension. Through Christ, God continually offers his beauty to the world to redeem it and save it. When the beauty of his light shines on us it changes us to become radiant with that light in a way than changes us. Here is the beauty of Christ that he shares with us. Here is the beauty of holiness—the beauty that does indeed save the world.
What the Church needs today are people who have discovered a beauty in the story of Christianity and who desire to lead others to that beauty. Contained in that story is the beauty that conforms us to itself and makes us reflect it. Let us not be late to love beauty like St. Augustine, but let us discover it today in our faith. Let the whole Church witness to the beauty of God and the God of beauty. For when we do, we become the Church Christ intended—the lumen gentium, showing the light of God’s beauty to the nations. Let people see this light and be smitten, and come to believe in the God of beauty.