Just when I am about to succumb to the sadness and living death of nihilism, some piercing ray of beauty breaks open my heart, and the breath of possibility returns. I recently visited the Botanical Garden in St Louis. Amid the sights and smells, the colors and creatures, the sun, the architecture, and the sheer gratuity of so much botanical diversity, I felt happy to be alive. Drinking it in, I turned to a friend and said, “How could we live without this?” He replied, “We couldn’t.”
I’ve been thinking about this little exchange. Upon reflection, I am becoming certain that they are not just sentimental words, but the truth. And with this conviction, I’m not alone.
Luigi Giussani, the great 20th century priest, educator, and writer (and whose cause for canonization has just begun), insisted throughout his great life on our need for beauty; for beautiful, real things which have the power to awaken our hearts. During Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s homily for Fr Giussani’s funeral in 2005, two months shy of his unsuspected elevation to the papacy, he said that Fr Giussani was “wounded by the desire for beauty.” He noted how much Fr Giussani loved music, and said that, in looking for Beauty itself, he was looking for Christ.
In Giussani, we have an author whose books overflow with quotations from poets, novelists and philosophers; a priest whose ministry to students often took place on hikes through the Alps; a teacher who raised the eyebrows of colleagues by walking into the classroom at Berchet High School, back in his early days of teaching, carrying a phonograph with records of Chopin and Beethoven, in order to provoke his students with the wound of beauty. Jesus said: “You will know them by their fruits.” By sharing his own wound for beauty with his students, the fruit of Giussani has become a movement in the church called: Communion and Liberation, which has moved the hearts of its members in almost 100 countries now.
Giussani is not the only modern day Catholic luminary to champion the cause of beauty. On Easter Sunday, 1999, Pope John Paul II issued his “Letter to Artists.” This profound document is not just for artists, but for everyone, offering a deep reflection on the mystery of the human person and the innate human need for beauty. According to Blessed John Paul II, beauty offers “a momentary glimpse of the vastness of light that has its original wellspring in God” (# 7). The Pope says that “every genuine art form, in its own way, is a path to the inmost reality of the human being and the world. It is, therefore, a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning” (# 7).
The Pope goes through a brief historical sketch of the many ways the Gospel has inspired “epiphanies” of beauty which artists have shared with the Church and the world. He speaks favorably of the enormously fruitful alliance between faith and art, and between the Church and artists, and has sections entitled, “The Church Needs Art” and “Does Art Need the Church?”(to which he answers a resounding “yes!”).
He links true art with an authentic Christian humanism, saying:“Even beyond its typically religious expressions, 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. Insofar as it seeks the beautiful, as the fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the Mystery” (# 10).
The Pope also said that, in light of Vatican II, we need to build on the foundation laid there for “a renewed relationship between the Church and culture.” Art is a privileged way of doing this. Quoting Vatican II, he said, “This world needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration” (# 11, quoting from a talk given by Council Fathers at the end of Vatican II).
Pope Benedict XVI shares his predecessor’s views on the importance of art and beauty in the life of faith. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he made some comments along these lines which are very inspiring. In a message to members of Communion and Liberation in 2002, he said “Christian art today… must oppose the cult of the ugly.” He spoke of the “wound” of beauty which inspires and provokes man with nostalgia for his transcendent destiny. He quotes Plato’s “Phaedrus,” reflecting as follows:
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. In the Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and, in this way, gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent … The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny.
He describes an experience he had at a Bach concert he attended with his friend, Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann: “When the last note 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.’ The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact with 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.” He is describing the way that beauty conquers nihilism, and affirms reality, being, and truth. Ratzinger is not content to dwell just on artistic beauty. He goes on to speak of the beauty of holiness, and its power to convince a skeptical world weary of words. “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves, and the persons we meet, to encounter the saints, and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”
In his talk, Ratzinger also favorably quotes the great Swiss priest-theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose life work was largely to do with theology under the auspices of the “third transcendental,” namely Beauty. Balthasar believed that beauty makes truth credible; that something true and good will also, somehow, be beautiful. He believed that, amid the damage done to the credibility of truth and goodness in recent history, beauty remains as perhaps the most hopeful path toward re-awakening us to the glory of God, and his divine revelation. Balthasar was a man of immense learning and culture, a lover of literature, art, music, as well as theology. He incorporated all these elements into his writings, especially his “Theological Aesthetics” part of his major work, “The Glory of the Lord.” Ratzinger notes, with some apparent regret, that while details from Balthasar’s work have passed into theological work, his “fundamental approach”—in truth, the essential element of the whole work—has not been so readily accepted. Balthasar used, as one of his interpretive theological keys, the biblical concept of “Glory,” seen as the radiant, inherent beauty and love of God, manifested gratuitously to man in Christ.
Both Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II quote the famous line from Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” which says, “Beauty will save the world.” With Dostoevsky, they mean not some shallow aestheticism, but rather a beauty which is capable of truly “wounding” exhausted hearts by breaking through the thick clouds which darken so much of contemporary society, awakening (or re-awakening) us to our original, infinite, transcendent dignity and destiny. The 20th century German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper, spoke of this phenomenon in the realm of philosophy but in a way easily transferable to that of art, calling it: “piercing the dome of the work-a-day world.”
My experience of forty years of life has been a convincing verification of all these things. I’ve seen it over and over. Just when I am about to succumb to the sadness and living death of nihilism, some piercing ray of beauty breaks open my heart, and the breath of possibility returns. A personal existential certainty confirms for me that the proposals of these giants of faith and humanity are true:
The “wounding” desire for beauty;
The experience with works of art as a path to the inmost realities of the human and of faith;
The experience of art as a bridge to religious faith;
Art as a privileged way towards a renewed relationship between faith and culture;
Beauty as an antidote to despair and the “cult of the ugly”;
The “arrow of nostalgia” that piercingly summons to a transcendent destiny;
And, the demonstration of faith’s truth through convincing artistic works.
“Beauty will save the world.” That remains to be seen. But beauty has saved me, and continues to do so. My experience is that I need saving; it is not a luxury. Beauty saves. Or, to put it more precisely, beauty points me to the One who saves, who is Beauty itself. Beauty is a necessity, not a luxury. Beauty moves us, awakens us, provokes us, bringing freshness and newness to hearts that have too easily grown old and stale. A luxury is something extra, added on after duties are complete. But beauty is not something extra, it is what comes first. Because without beauty, the duties prove too hard and, eventually, seem pointless. An old, tired soul cannot move itself, cannot sustain itself. It ultimately fails in its tasks. Beauty renews the soul, pointing us ever back to our origins and our destiny, making life begin again. May God never leave us bereft of anointed artists, prophets, and poets of the transcendent, who will keep wounding our hearts with nostalgia for the infinite destiny which alone matches the proportions of our great hearts.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.