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On The Role Of Beauty In The Spiritual Life

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In recent years, thanks largely to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the role of beauty in the sacred liturgy — and the appalling chasm created by its absence — has been a topic of frequent discussion among those concerned with a restoration of the sacred in divine worship — the beauty of the liturgical rites themselves as well as the beauty of the sacred art, architecture, and music provided for their fitting celebration.
A subject perhaps less often considered but closely interrelated is the contribution that beauty makes, the role it serves, in that journey of a lifetime that we call “the spiritual life.”
Perhaps no Catholic philosopher and writer of the past century has explored this subject more deeply than Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), who, as many of you will recall, was featured in my last essay regarding his thoughts on the sacred (see The Wanderer, June 7, 2018, p. 3B). In what follows, we will be drawing heavily upon his reflections regarding beauty as a path to God.
In his encyclical on the Holy Spirit Divinum illud munus (May 9, 1897), Pope Leo XIII offered the remarkable insight that Christ is not only the Exemplar for all mankind, the Perfect Man and New Adam by His Incarnation, but He is also the Exemplar, the “Prototype,” as it were, for everything in creation: “…the Son, the Word, the Image of God is also the exemplar cause, whence all creatures borrow their form and beauty, their order and harmony” (Divinum illud munus, May 9, 1897, n. 3 — Vatican website translation — ©Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
In his classic on the spiritual life, Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand makes this same point, explaining that everything in creation in some way or other represents God and reflects Him, such that God can be discovered in the universe “not only as its author (causa prima) but as its primal exemplar or paragon (causa exemplaris)” (Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude of Mind, New York, Longmans, Green and Co., 1948, p. 78).
The perception of God as the Primal Exemplar of all His creation casts a “new light” upon everything, unveiling “the nexus of created things with God as He reveals Himself to us in the features of Christ” (ibid., pp. 78-79).
Christ is the Paragon of beauty. St. Augustine (354-430) hails Him as beautiful in every way, “beautiful in Heaven, beautiful on earth; beautiful in the womb, beautiful in the hands of His parents; beautiful in His miracles, beautiful in His scourges; beautiful summoning to life, beautiful not taking heed of death; beautiful in laying down His life, beautiful in taking it up again; beautiful on the Cross, beautiful in the tomb, beautiful in Heaven” (Enarrationes in Psalmum 44, n. 3, PL 36, col. 495).
In a 2002 reflection upon beauty penned less than three years before ascending to the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI describes the heart’s encounter with Christ as “being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ” as with an arrow that “opens our eyes,” for “the beauty of Truth appears in him, the beauty of God himself who draws us to himself and, at the same time captures us with the wound of Love, the holy passion (eros), that enables us to go forth together, with and in the Church his Bride, to meet the Love who calls us” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI], Message to the Communion and Liberation Meeting at Rimini, August 24-30, 2002 — Vatican website translation — ©Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
If then beauty begins with Christ, it follows that genuine beauty will lead us back to Him. This is in fact the plan of God, for as von Hildebrand affirms, it is the will of God that His path of entry into our hearts should be “paved” by human encounters with created beauty, so long as they are rooted in Christ (Transformation in Christ, p. 403). For von Hildebrand, these encounters with beauty are nothing less than a summons to holiness:
“Whenever a sublime beauty in nature or art is offered to us; whenever a great love in Jesus might unite us with a fellow person; whenever the beauty of another soul . . . manifests itself to us and enraptures our heart; in all such cases, too . . . we must try to understand the call of God which lies in such gifts” (ibid., p. 402).
The beauty of form seen in nature and in great art is the “intrinsic fragrance” of the sublime spiritual realities it heralds; such visible and audible things that by their beauty of form “herald God” serve a “quasi-sacramental function” entrusted to them by God, which “reflects God’s world, and which speaks of this higher, transfigured world” (“Beauty in the Light of the Redemption,” in The New Tower of Babel: Essays, Burns and Oates, London, 1954, pp. 197, 195, respectively).
In this beauty the man redeemed by Christ will “consciously find God…he will, indeed, seek and find in all the sublime beauty of the visible and audible world the countenance and the voice of the God-Man, Christ” (ibid., p. 199).
Our Lord Himself applied the beauty of creation to the spiritual life in His parables, as when in teaching us to seek first the Kingdom of God and to trust that He would provide for the rest of what we need He declared, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt. 6:28-29).
Venerable Pope Pius XII (pontificate, 1939-1958) taught that the very purpose of art is “to express in human works the infinite divine beauty of which it is, as it were, the reflection”; it possesses a unique power to communicate “human thought and feeling,” for it “penetrates the intelligence and sensibility of the observer or listener to depths that neither the written nor spoken word…can ever reach” (Musicae sacrae, encyclical, December 25, 1955, n. 25 — Vatican website translation — ©Libreria Editrice Vaticana; allocution to the International Congress of Catholic Artists, September 3, 1950, trans. in The Companion to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1994, p. 880).
Discussing her husband’s perception of beauty, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand speaks of “the deepest stirrings of the heart, this profound emotion that takes the one whose eyes and ears are opened to the message of beauty,” “a message coming from above, some mysterious echo of ‘the eternal hills’ that sharpens our longing for Beauty itself — that is, God” (Alice von Hildebrand, “Debating Beauty: Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand,” Crisis, volume 22, July/August 2004, p. 41).
But for beauty to reveal its message from above to us, we must receive it with a reverent heart, as she and her husband point out in their work The art of Living: “To whom will the sublime beauty of a sunset or the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven reveal itself, but to him who approaches it reverently and unlocks his heart to it?” (Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1994, p. 8).
If a great work of art or music has particularly impressed us, its influence will not end when we walk away from it or its last note is sounded. Rather, its subtle but powerful influence will linger with us, and when we go before the Blessed Sacrament or elsewhere to pray, it will return to us in our memory not as a burdensome distraction but rather as a further invitation from God, “thawing” our heart as von Hildebrand puts it (Transformation in Christ, pp. 402-403), softening and opening our hearts to the voice and gaze of Christ:
“It is not true that this beauty distracts us from God and is specifically mundane. On the contrary, it contains a summons; in it there dwells a sursum corda; it awakens reverence in us; it elevates us above that which is base; it fills us with a longing for the eternal beauty of God” (“Beauty in the Light of the Redemption,” pp. 197-198).
Von Hildebrand’s thought accords with the observation of Pope Pius XII that through genuine art “the senses, far from weighing down the soul and nailing it to the ground, serve it rather as wings to lift it up, from trivial and passing banalities towards the eternal, towards the true, towards the beautiful, towards the only true good…towards God” (allocution to the International Congress of Catholic Artists, September 3, 1950, trans. in The Companion to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 880).
Receptivity to beauty will also deepen the love of neighbor that Christ commands, transforming our vision of each person we encounter so as to recognize the grandeur, beauty, and solemnity of every human soul as created in the image of God, and redeemed and infinitely loved by Christ (von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, p. 197).

Eternal Glory

With our spiritual life nourished primarily by the sacred liturgy, the latter will serve to heighten our response to beauty, as von Hildebrand observes:
“The person formed by the Liturgy . . . will rejoice in every exalted spectacle of nature, the beauty of the starlit sky, the majesty of the sea and mountains, the charm of life, the world of plants and animals, the nobility of a profound truth, the mysterious glow of a man’s purity, the victorious goodness of a fervent love of neighbor”; he “will affirm all this as a reflection of the eternal glory of God” (Liturgy and Personality, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1986, p. 71).
Everything God does for us, everything He gives us, is presented with exquisite beauty. If we come to understand beauty, whether it be the beauty of creation, the beauty of a great work of art, or those higher beauties of the eternal truths and God’s plan of redemption, as a tangible expression of God’s unutterable love for us, then it will become an irresistible summons to holiness, to the way of perfection, for it will seek from us and even command from us a response of all our love.

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