Circular Letter: Lent 2006

The Beauty at the Heart of Things

Before his conversion, St. Augustine once asked his friends: “Do we love anything but the beautiful? What then is the beautiful? And what is beauty? What is it that allures and unites us to the things we love? For unless there were a grace and beauty in them, they could not possibly attract us to them” (Confessions, Bk. IV, ch. 13). The Saint recognized that what touches the heart of man more than anything else is beauty. The heart experiences the overwhelming force of loveliness which, one could say, does violence to it, holding it captive in its enticing grasp.   St. Augustine himself was powerfully moved and even ensnared by the visual charm of the things of the world. He experienced the frustration of fighting against his own weakness and sinful tendencies, his being forcefully drawn to the seductive beauty of creatures.

His experience is aptly expressed in the closing words addressed to God of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet V:

Yet dearly I love You and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to You, imprison me, for I
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

While the loveliness of God’s creation was made to elevate man’s heart to recognize the surpassing beauty of the Creator, it easily becomes a snare when one allows oneself to be enraptured by it. To be enthralled by creation means to be incapable of seeing, beyond its ephemeral form, the eternal form that sustains and surpasses it. The Norwegian writer, Sigrid Undset, also provides a vivid image of our fallen condition. Imagine we are traveling by night along the way to our heavenly Father’s house. By the roadside there are puddles which reflect the beautiful lights of our goal. At times these reflections seem so real and so very lovely that we are tempted to stop and try to take hold of them, for they seem to make our goal already present. But if we reach out to grab them, we will lose the reflection and find ourselves covered with mud.

St. Augustine recognized his own vain diversions from the path to God only after his conversion.

Belatedly I loved Thee, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved Thee. For see, Thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things Thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with Thee. These things kept me far from Thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in Thee. (Bk. X, ch. 27)

The parables of Jesus train the eye of our mind, enlightened by faith, to see beyond the things of this world. By means of the elements from the visible world, He sought to instruct us in the realities of the invisible world. For when God created all things, He left in them tokens of Himself, by endowing them with innumerable gratifying qualities, making them reflections of His own eternal wisdom. The true charm of creation lies in its having the capacity to manifest, as in a mirror darkly, the invisible and imperishable order of grace. It is in this sense that St. Augustine wrote after his conversion:

   But what is it that I love in loving Thee? Not physical beauty, nor the splendor of time, nor the radiance of the light—so pleasant to our eyes—nor the sweet melodies of the various kinds of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey, not the limbs embraced in physical love—it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet it is true that I love a certain kind of light and sound and fragrance and food and embrace in loving my God, who is the Light and Sound and Fragrance and Food and Embracement of my inner man—where that Light shines into my soul which no place can contain, where time does not snatch away the lovely Sound, where no breeze disperses the sweet Fragrance, where no eating diminishes the Food there provided, and where there is an Embrace that no satiety comes to sunder. This is what I love, when I love my God. (Bk. X, ch. 6)

The radiance of light, sweetness of melodies, fragrance of flowers, etc., all find a spiritual counterpart in the beauty of God. It is in this sense that Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote: “The world is charged with the glory of God”. For as St. Paul said: “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made” (Rom 1:20).

The Spiritual Beauty of Christ

But beyond the recognition of the beauty of the Word of God as it is manifested in the loveliness of creation, there is the far superior spiritual beauty of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Such beauty can be found by meditating on Sacred Scripture, or it may be discovered in the Church through the beauty of her teachings, the example of her Saints, the dignity of her Sacred Liturgy. Many are the means that Christ uses to allow His beauty to be shown forth and the holy angels help us to make use of them. For they enlighten our minds, helping us to understand spiritual things in their spiritual light. The famous words of the Russian author, Dostoevsky, “It is beauty that will save us”, were said in reference to the redemptive beauty of Jesus Christ. It is the perception of this beauty which serves as the real impetus in the lives of the Saints. For it is the perception of beauty that draws us, moves us, as it were, wounds us with a wound of love.

The 14th Century, Byzantine-Orthodox theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas, spoke of the phenomena of being wounded by the beauty of Christ which leads to heroic virtue. He wrote in his book, The Life in Christ: “When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature, and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is He who has sent a ray of His beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home; the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound” (The Life in Christ, Bk. 2, ch. 15). In the same vein, St. Augustine, having been entranced by the vision of the true, eternal beauty of God, wrote of his conversion experience as a spiritual wounding of longing for God:

Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for Thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace. (Bk. X, ch. 27)

St. John of the Cross says that this wound of love is effected in particular by the interior inspiration of the holy angels (cf. Spiritual Canticle, stanza 7). They communicate to men the indescribable grandeur of the attractiveness of the Divine Spouse. The angels communicate the lights of faith which allows us to see all things bathed in the loveliness of our Redeemer. In the Sanctus, the hymn which the Church sings at every Holy Mass expressly in union with the angels, she declares together with the angels that “the heavens and the earth are full of [God’s] glory”. In fact it is particularly by means of joining in the pure praise of God, together with the angels, that we can more perfectly hear the “heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaim His handiwork” (Ps 19:1). For with the help of the angels we can discover the beauty of the Incarnate Word of God within creation.

In his poem, Joseph Plunket aptly expresses this same spiritual vision of creation:

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.

The Beauty of the Man of Sorrows

As beautiful as are Christ’s teaching and the example of His life, there lies beyond them a most perfect manifestation of the beauty of God in the example of His suffering and death. It is indeed a strange incongruity that the ugliest event in human history should be the purest reflection of true spiritual beauty and indeed, the fountain from which all the beauty of the Church and her Saints flows. In a conference given in the year 2002, Pope Benedict XVI (then still Cardinal) said that each year he is struck by a certain paradox which occurs in the Liturgy of the Hours on Monday of Holy Week. Every four weeks, it is the custom of the Church to sing in Monday Evening Prayer, Psalm 44 (45) which describes the wedding of the King, his beauty, his virtues, his mission, as well as the loveliness of the Bride. The third verse of the Psalm in particular praises the beauty of the Bridegroom with the words: “You are the fairest of the children of men and grace is poured upon your lips”. On Monday of Holy Week, however, the Church adds to this very Psalm an antiphon taken from the prophecy of Isaiah: “He had neither beauty, nor majesty, nothing to attract our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him” (53:2).

Cardinal Ratzinger asked the question: “How can we reconcile this? The appearance of the ‘fairest of the children of men’ is so wretched that no one desires to look at Him. Pilate presented Him to the crowd saying: ‘Behold the man!’, to rouse sympathy for the crushed and battered Man, in whom no external beauty remained” (The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty, August 24, 2002). This strong contrast, which seems to imply a contradiction between the perfect beauty of Jesus, the Son of God, and the Man of Sorrows, bereft of all beauty, touches upon the most profound and central truth which lies at the heart of our Catholic faith. To follow the logic of St. Paul, we can say “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, and God’s ugliness is more beautiful than human beauty” (cf. 1 Cor 1:25). The Son of God became the visible image of the deformity of sin precisely to reveal the glorious beauty of His faithful love towards us.

It is with this vision of faith that St. Bernard interpreted the verse from the Canticle of Canticles: “My dove, hiding in the clefts of the rock, in the coverts of the cliff, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (Cant 2:14). In the expression “clefts of the rock”, St. Bernard saw represented the wounds of Christ. He wrote:

The secret of His Heart is laid open through the clefts of His Body; that mighty mystery of loving is laid open, laid open to the tender mercies of our God, in which the morning sun from on high has risen upon us. Surely His Heart is laid open through His wounds! Where more clearly than in His wounds does the evidence shine that You, Lord, ‘are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love’? No one shows greater mercy than He who lays down His life for those who are judged and condemned. (Commentary on Song of Songs, 61,4)

It is precisely in the perfect manifestation of God’s mercy that the Church can know for certain that “His voice is sweet and His Face is lovely”.

St. Bernard writes elsewhere: “The Church says: ‘I am wounded with love’. …She sees the Father’s only Son carrying His cross. She sees the Author of Life and glory transfixed by nails, wounded by a lance, smeared with abuse and finally laying down His precious life for His friends. She sees these things and the sword of love pierces her soul more deeply.” Once more the mellifluous doctor shows how to see the entrancing loveliness of the Man of Sorrows.

The Beauty of God s Providence

The course of human events, so often scarred by the ugliness of man’s malice or deformed by man’s lovelessness, can at times lead men to question the ultimate goodness, beauty and meaningfulness of things. Is the external loveliness of creation truly a reflection of the divine goodness and beauty which lies at the heart of things, holding them in existence and governing them? Or is it all nothing more than a deceiving mask, beneath which lies the chaos of blind fate, senselessness, emptiness and despair? It is to such deep existential questions that the sorrowful Face of Christ gives the clearest response. The external “unloveliness” of the Man of Sorrows does not reveal a chaotic senselessness that lies at the center of reality, but to the contrary, it reveals the God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son.

The fact that salvation comes through the mystery of the Cross gives us the certain conviction that at the heart of things there lies the goodness and beauty and God’s holy order. Nothing falls outside of God’s providence, absolutely nothing. Everything has purpose in that “we know that all things work together for the good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). The appearance of ugliness and senselessness is only on the surface of things. The holy angels can help us to scratch at that surface with an act of trust in order to see the beauty of God’s provident care. But they can only do this when we are willing to pray and praise God, not only in times of joy and plentifulness, but also in the times of darkness and trial. We are called to kneel down and pray the Sanctus with the holy angel upon the “ruins” which are to be found everywhere in the modern world: the ruins of the family structure, the ruins of culture and society, the ruined innocence of the youth. We pray in the sure hope that even upon these sad ruins, God is able to raise up children for heaven.

Already in the Old Testament we have the example of the patriarch, Joseph. His brothers desired to do away with him because of their envy. So they sold him into slavery with evil intentions. Nevertheless, when in the end his brothers came to receive food for their families, Joseph said to them: “It was not you who sent me here, but God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on the earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (Gen 45:8). With the vision of faith, Joseph saw beyond the malice of the human instruments which God chose to use for His own purposes. It is a chief task of our Guardian Angel to help lift our eyes, to see through external events to recognize the loving and wise hand of God, even in the seemingly unfortunate or difficult events of our lives. The holy angels help us to cling to the Cross in faith and fidelity, to see through it to what lies behind: God’s love and mercy.

All the faithful are called to bear witness to the world of the beauty of Christ Thus, they convince the world that this beauty is not an illusion, it is not a child’s dream, but it is in fact the heart of all creation. Through our baptismal consecration we are called to the contemplation of the things of God and to thereby show forth their beauty in our lives. In the words of St. Paul: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). It is particularly during the season of Lent that we confronted with the most difficult and yet most rewarding challenge of focusing our minds upon the mystery of the Cross,   seeking in it the true beauty that lies far beyond the surface of appearances. In this spirit, we want always to strive to make the semtiments of St. Augustine our own:

     Beautiful is God, the Word with God… He is beautiful in heaven, beautiful on earth; beautiful in the womb, beautiful in His parents’ arms, beautiful in His miracles, beautiful in His sufferings; beautiful in inviting to life, beautiful in not worrying about death, beautiful in giving up His life and beautiful in taking it up again; He is beautiful on the Cross, beautiful in the tomb, beautiful in heaven. Listen to the song with understanding, and let not the weakness of the flesh distract your eyes from the splendor of His beauty.  (Comm. on the Psalms 44, 3)

Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC

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