I woke at 2:30 in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. The reason was obvious: depression with more than a dollop of despair, which, according to Thomas Aquinas, “consists in a man ceasing to hope for a share of God’s goodness.”
Like the late Jarrid Wilson and other Christians who didn’t hide their struggle with depression and other mood disorders, I have been open about my own struggles, which have included suicidal ideation.
That night was shaping up to be an especially “dark night of the soul.”
But as the darkness tried to hide Him, a ray of light pierced through. The algorithm that shuffles the music on my streaming service “chose” to play “Laudate Dominum” from Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore.
Within a few minutes, my soul had been rescued by beauty, the kind of beauty that, as we often hear, “hurts.”
Beauty may not save the world, as in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, but it can, if you let it, save your soul.
In 1984 then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sat down for a series of interviews with his former student Fr. Joseph Fessio. During their conversations, which were published under the title “The Ratzinger Report,” the future Pope Benedict XVI told Fessio that “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”
Expanding on these thoughts, Ratzinger continued,
Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.
Thus, Christians “must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell.”
A glimpse of this apologetic hangs on the walls of the world’s great museums. Avoid the absurd lines of people waiting to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, and, instead, as my brother and I recently did, wander through the halls containing the work of Italian and Spanish painters. Without Christianity, those walls would be nearly empty.
Spend a few minutes with Jose de Ribera’s “Adoration of the Shepherds,” or Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “The Holy Family” and you will begin to understand what Ratzinger meant.
Or listen to Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum.” It’s deceptively simple but, like all beautiful things, it has the power to command your attention and compel you to behold it, if only for a moment. As philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “beauty demands to be noticed.”
What makes this art such a powerful apologetic is more than the message being communicated. It’s that beauty forces us to go outside ourselves. As Scruton puts it, “the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered.”
This is why people sometimes cry when they experience beauty. It’s why we say that beauty can “hurt.” Beauty forces us to see what we lack and mourn over not having it.
Adding to beauty’s power to “challenge our complacency,” as Gregory Wolfe has put it, is the way that it can sneak up on us. In Scruton’s, words beauty “speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend.”
Moreover, as theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar pointed out, while goodness and truth, which along with beauty make up the three transcendentals, are argued about and debated, beauty “can sail under the radar of our anxious contention over what is true and what is good, carrying along its beam a ray of the beatific vision.”
And, since beauty can reveal what is true and good, as one Christian philosopher has written, “Beauty appeals simultaneously to the intellect and the will.” Beauty’s capacity to communicate truth in an age that disputes the meaning of truth is especially important.
That leaves the question: Are we willing to make our lives and our churches a place where beauty is “at home?” The snarky answer is, “Have you seen the average church?” The less-snarky answer is “Have you seen the average church?” Yesterday’s Sears will most likely become tomorrow’s “Bayside Nest of Love Church.”
To be fair, Catholic architecture can be almost as insipid. I say “almost” because Catholic re-purposing of pre-existing structures is limited to things like Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California, formerly the Crystal Cathedral. The truly hideous stuff we build from scratch. Most Catholic churches built since Vatican II follow what I call the “Our Lady of the Pizza Hut Box” style.
Then there’s the music. Evangelicals have projector screens. Catholics have “folk masses.” Both suffer from a deplorable excess of acoustic guitars. For evangelicals, things got so bad that the “revival” of congregational singing became a thing. For Catholics, it’s the dreaded crud at the back of the missalette.
This would almost be funny if people weren’t starving for beauty. Not everyone, of course. At the Louvre, I saw more than a few taking selfies in front of paintings by El Greco and Tintoretto. I wanted to grab their smartphones, thrown them on the floor, and grind them with my heel. But then I also wanted to make my flight home on time.
However, there are people out there waiting to be, in C.S. Lewis words, “surprised by joy.”
To borrow a phrase from Gregory Wolfe, if the Church isn’t the place where beauty can “shock us,” where is?
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