Recently I have been giving a lot of thought to the nature of beauty, (what is beauty?). As I began to think about beauty I had to ask myself, what is truly beautiful? Before I left Denver for the summer, a good friend Nick and I drove up to the mountains for the day to go kayaking on a lake with a breathtaking view. As we paddled away from shore I looked down into the depths of pristine clear blue water. The sky only had a few light fluffy clouds drifting by. Every new stroke of the paddle revealed a new and ever more breathtaking view than the last. The mountains were still snow-capped and the birds were flying overhead. As we were turning around to make our way back to shore my mouth fell open with the grandeur and the majesty of the mountains that were set before us. This view, this experience, was beautiful because it pointed me towards something much higher than myself or even the majesty of the mountains and lake. This view once again made me realize God’s goodness in the world, and it made me realize that I am not God, but He still loves me enough to create all this for me, and to point me to God. True beauty points us to something greater than ourselves. True beauty does not take the credit for itself but it points to someone, something greater than itself. I would argue that even a truly beautiful car could lead us towards a deeper recognition of God if we but dispose ourselves to this mindset.
My experience in Rome has been one of great beauty and majesty. Many people as they have come into St. Peter’s have said what a waste. They have thought of the millions of people who left the Church because of the selling of indulgences so the church could be built. They also have said that art in St. Peter’s or in any other church is too distracting. What is the purpose of beauty? Think of a Ferrari, is that practical? Is driving around 100+ thousand dollar car with a crazy amount of horsepower practical? I would say not, but there are people who do because they are well crafted and beautiful, at least to some degree. St. Peter’s and many other churches are beautiful pieces of art. They however are not designed to attract attention to themselves or those who have built them. They are meant first and foremost to point us to the grandeur of God. They are meant to transcend both time and space. When you look at a brilliant masterpiece such as Michelangelo’s Pieta you forget that you are looking at something hard, ridged, and lifeless. You begin to contemplate God’s death in and through the person of Jesus Christ. When you look at it, you are also pulled into the mystery of Mary’s own agony and how in her moment of greatest suffering and loss she is offering her own son to us. These churches and pieces of art are also a means by which to teach, and to be a catechism for the average ordinary person. When we sit in front of a painting such as “The Annunciation” by Fra Angelico no one can argue that it is a beautiful painting. Some may call it distracting because there are two separate stories being told, that of Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden, and the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. Fra Angelico did not realize as he was finishing the painting that he had too much empty space on his canvas so he added Adam and Eve as an afterthought. In putting Adam and Eve in the painting he is making the theological statement that Mary is the new Eve and Christ is the new Adam. He also wanted to show the viewer the true use of freedom that Mary used in her Fiat, let it be done to me according to thy will.” The angel Gabriel greats Mary, "Hail full of Grace" while the angel in the garden is casting out Adam and Eve. Human nature fell in the garden and Mary in the garden rises up mankind in the incarnation. We can see the differing response of obedience to the will of God and the rejection of God’s will. This is why as Catholics we should not just have practical churches or churches that are plain, but churches that are beautiful and raise our eyes and spirit, to the Transcendent God.
Men in Christ, Men of the Church, Men for Others