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How Beauty Draws Us to God

Beauty can bring people to their senses, make them see what is true and good, like a splash of cold water bringing them out of their stupor.

Paul Senz

It should go without saying that beauty is a good thing. While opinions about what makes something beautiful may differ, just about everyone agrees that beauty is something positive. St. Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as “that which, upon being seen, pleases” (id quod visum placet). Certainly this is something good, something to be admired.

Beauty is so much more than simply something pleasant to see or hear. Beauty, in and of itself, can play an important part in the evangelistic endeavor, and even in apologetics.

The Pontifical Council for Culture, in its document The Via Pulchritudinis: Pathway for Evangelization (2006), wrote, “The via pulchritudinis [‘way of beauty’] can open the pathway for the search for God.”

But it does not take faith to be affected by great beauty, certainly; even many atheists are stopped in their tracks when they walk into St. Peter’s Basilica, or see the western sky ablaze with a sunset or the aurora borealis dancing across the stars, or hear the music of Mozart, or gaze upon Notre-Dame in Paris. Beauty has a powerful evangelizing effect—and, especially today, beauty should be a starting point for evangelization.

The world has changed a lot over the past hundred years or so. Argumentation, logical demonstrations, and reason don’t mean as much as they used to. People often are not swayed by such intellectual pursuits. When was the last time you heard a “debate” result in anyone changing his mind, being convinced by the other side’s argument? Many people now identify with the groups that hold their viewpoints, which makes them even more entrenched and unlikely to change—especially through any sort of argumentation or debate.

What can bring people to their senses, make them see what is true and good, like a splash of cold water bringing them out of their stupor? Beauty.

The transcendentals have a unity about them: if something is true, it is also good, and it is also beautiful. The three are intertwined, distinct from one another but intimately connected, even flowing from each other. If someone is earnestly pursuing what is good, he will come to know the truth and will find profound beauty. Truly beautiful things are good and profoundly true; truly good things are true and profoundly beautiful; truly true things are beautiful and profoundly good. This is why beautiful things can so easily lead down the road to the true and the good.

Beauty in itself has an evangelizing power. It communicates something beyond merely what is being depicted. Michelangelo’s Pietá shows us not just a tableau, a moment in time, Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus after the Crucifixion. It shows us so much more: we see the horrors of the crucifixion; we see grief beyond measure; we see hope, hope in something unknown, but the most profound expression of the virtue of Christian hope; we see God’s love for us carved out in marble. And in many cases, beauty such as this can be a more effective tool for evangelization than argumentation ever could be.

The attack on beauty that our culture is experiencing is no accident. Modern architecture, modern art, modern classical music—many of these are intentional attacks on beauty. While there are, thankfully, artists in every field who are reacting against this and continuing to make beautiful art, the trend among the “elite” artists is an attack on the beautiful and thus on the true and the good.

It is no coincidence that this proliferation of bad art coincided with our society’s fight against truth and goodness. Hans Urs von Balthasar said that denial of the true and the good would inevitably lead to ugliness. The precipitous moral decline of Western society over the past hundred years is a symptom of society’s turning away from God and from objective truth. Reclaiming and reengaging with real beauty is the sure antidote.

Beauty does not simply refer to things that are aesthetically pleasing—and especially not things that meet our culture’s standards of beauty. Peter Kreeft once remarked that there is much more beauty in the face of Mother Teresa than in the face of, say, the singer Madonna.

To take another example, in all of the horrors of the Passion of Jesus Christ is a profound and stunning beauty: the beauty of the sacrifice of Jesus. True beauty, and often the most powerful beauty, can be found in things that strike us in ways we cannot fully understand.

But let’s think about just what that beauty does. When we encounter such beauty, what happens? In the face of Mother Teresa, we see her joy, her humility, her love, her ardor, and perhaps even her legendary stubbornness. It is a face that draws you in, that makes you want to know more: Why is she joyful? Why does she have this love? What causes her ardor?

In the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we see in these horrors the utterly unselfish sacrifice that caused this instrument of torture to be brandished as a trophy by billions of Christians around the world. No one wears an electric chair around their necks; what makes this executed criminal different? There is the icebreaker.

St. Augustine wrote about how the beauty of God’s creation can answer some of our most profound questions:

And what is this? I asked the earth, and it answered me, “I am not he”; and whatsoever are in it confessed the same. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the living creeping things, and they answered, “We are not thy God, seek above us.” I asked the moving air; and the whole air with his inhabitants answered . . . “I am not God.” I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars, “Nor are we the God whom thou sleekest.” And I replied unto all the things . . . “You have told me of my God, that you are not he; tell me something of him.” And they cried out with a loud voice, “He made us.” My questioning them, was my thoughts on them: and their beauty gave me the answer” (Confessions 10, 6).

This almost poetic periscope from Augustine is a moving example of the way in which beauty (in this case, the beauty of creation) can both prompt the question and provide the answer.

Ratzinger on beauty

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has written and spoken a great deal about beauty. One of his clearest and most eloquent elucidations of the role of beauty in evangelization came in August 2002, in a message delivered to the Communion & Liberation community titled “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty.”

“This is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act,” Ratzinger said. This speaks to an important point we must keep in mind: although beauty may not be a logical argument in and of itself, neither is our reaction to it it a purely emotional one. It is an icebreaker, an eye-catcher. For someone who has no experience of the beauty of the liturgy, the smells and bells and sights and sounds tell them that something remarkable is going on. This prompts further questions and investigation.

Cardinal Ratzinger recounted the story of a personal profound experience he had with beauty. He once attended a concert of the music of J.S. Bach in Munich, conducted by the American conductor Leonard Bernstein. He was seated next to a Lutheran bishop.

When the last note 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.” This is the way of beauty, the via pulchritudinis. Beauty can be the most effective means to bring man to Jesus Christ.

The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.

Ratzinger said—many times, over the years—that the most convincing apology for the Christian faith, in the face of every denial, are the saints and the beautiful art that has flowed from the Faith. “This is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act,” he wrote.

Beauty in Evangelii Gaudium

In Pope Francis’s lovely apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), he writes on the role of beauty in evangelization. “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ (via pulchritudinis),” he wrote. “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties” (167).

There is a profound beauty in true joy, and this joy can be seen in those who abandon themselves, pick up their crosses, and follow Jesus Christ. Christians have always been recognized for their joy and how they love one another. There is a great beauty in that.

“Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus,” Pope Francis wrote.
The Holy Father also addressed how the arts can be utilized to evangelize:

Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new “language of parables.”

Beauty creates a longing within us, according to many of the Greek philosophers. It pierces us, creates a vacuum that we must fill. The Christian tradition recognizes this aching emptiness and recognizes that God alone can satisfy us. As St. Augustine famously wrote, “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Plato said man lost the original perfection that was conceived for him and is now constantly trying to get back to that perfection. “Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger in 2002; “beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.”

From this suffering comes a searching, an attempt to attain that which we’ve lost, that which we (deep down) know we need. Beauty is reassuring, it is pleasing, but it only makes us want more, only makes us want that perfect beauty—which is God. Pope Francis says:

Every expression of true beauty can. . . be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. A formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the Faith. Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions (Evangelii Gaudium 167).

While beauty may not be a logical, reasoned argument for the existence of God, it is a powerful indicator. It opens the door. The evangelizing power of beauty is in the gut punch it can give you, the splash of cold water that brings you out of yourself and helps you see the bigger picture.

Sidebar 1: From John Paul II’s ‘Letter to Artists’ (1999)

“In perceiving that all he had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well. The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection. In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty” (3).

“Believers find nothing strange in this:
they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply?” (6).

“True art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience” (10).

“May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.” (16)

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!’” (16).

Sidebar 2: Scripture on Beauty

“For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis. 13:5).

“I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works!” (Ps. 139:14).

“He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccles. 3:11).

“The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Ps. 50:1-2).

“And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God
saw that the light was good”
(Gen. 1:3-4).

“The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:12).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

Sidebar 3: I See His Blood Upon the Rose

I See His Blood Upon the Rose

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

Written by the Irish poet Joseph Mary Plunkett, this poem is a powerful illustration of the way that we can see God and his love for us in the beauty of creation. Plunkett was a devout Catholic who was arrested and executed for his role in the Easter Rebellion, an armed uprising of Irish republicans against British rule in Ireland.

In the poem, Plunkett goes through the beauty of God’s creation—the redness of the rose, the stars in the sky, the singing of birds, the powerful sea—and shows how we can see not only evidence for a creator, but the love of God for all of us. The redness of the rose reminds us of Christ’s blood shed for us; the beauty and tenderness of flowers is God’s face; etc. In other words, as St. Augustine wrote, we can see evidence of God through all the beauty of creation.

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