The more traditional apologetics are of course important. We need to know, on occasion, that our religion is based on right reason, though faith transcends right reason. We need, especially in contemporary America, to contend with Bible-quoting fundamentalists. However, the beauty of the Catholic heritage is what attracts and what enchants, and what will not release people no matter how hard they try to escape.
Beauty is a dimension of an object, event or person that may under proper circumstances hint at the transcendent and even provide an opportunity for the transcendent briefly to break through into our lives and illumine them. Beauty illuminates. Hence, to say that a wedding is beautiful (in this sense of the word) means that the couple’s love and the priest’s and community’s love for them are so apparent and transparent that the dazzling love of God seems to fill the church.
To say that a liturgy is beautiful means that the joy of the communal meal has so permeated the congregation that many sense that Jesus had indeed joined us at the table and is joyful with us. To say that a funeral is beautiful is to say that the congregation’s faith in the triumph of life over death is so powerful that the Lord of the Resurrection seems temporarily to be among us, as he was with Lazarus’s mourners, promising that life is too important ever to be anything but life. To say that a baptism is beautiful is to say that the celebration over this wondrous bundle of human life is so delirious that we sense for a moment that the One who gives life and nurture is delirious with us.
These moments, when well done, are exercises in the apologetics of beauty: the best advertisement and the best evangelization the church could ever hope to have.
In American Catholicism today beauty is mostly unimportant. Generally we begin with truth, usually of the propositional variety, beaten into the heads of our people and enforced with rules so that the people will be good (as we define good). We dispense with beauty as an expensive option, if we think about it at all. Indeed, when pressed, we tend to say that beauty is a luxuryand possibly a dangerous onebecause it interferes with goodness and may even lead to temptation.
In a study of American congregations, my colleagues Peter Marsden and Mark Chaves have discovered that Catholic parishes are least likely to provide artistic activities within the parish community or to recommend artistic performances or exhibitions beyond the parish boundaries. If you’re a Catholic parish, who needs beauty? Rules are important; epiphanies are not. As a result, Catholicism often seems a complex and intricate network of rules, a harsh legalism in which there is no room for the beautiful.
In this respect the Second Vatican Council changed nothing. Before the council American Catholicism did not care about the beautiful. It still doesn’t. Its dominant style of ministry is still authoritarian pragmatismpragmatism because it aims at shaping a largely spiritless people into good Catholics, and authoritarian because it seeks to do so by imposing rules on its people. It needs to indoctrinate its people (for their own good, of course) and must do so through what seems to be the quickest and most efficient waycompulsion. If charged with brainwashing and/or neglect of beauty, it argues that it has neither the time nor the resources nor the opportunities to do anything else.
In both the confident church of the 1940’s and 50’s and the confusing church since the council, we constrain people to be virtuous. The content of the constraints may vary. The enforcers are different: ethnic monsignori and mothers superior then, lay staff now, Catholicism’s new class. But the method has not changed.
In the older church we compelled people to virtue by forcing grammar school children to Mass every day and to confession on the Thursdays before First Friday. We intruded into the sex life of adults by inquiring about birth control, even though they had not confessed it. And we constrained those who were not Catholic but who wanted their children to attend Catholic schools to come to inquiry classes in which we constrained them to become Catholic.
More recently we have used an elaborate network of extra-canonical (and contra-canonical) obligations before we permit people to receive the sacraments. We decline to administer the sacraments to those whom we believe to be unworthy (in direct violation of canon law), especially if a couple is found to be living together before marriage. We process our people through various movements and experiences that are supposed to remake them spiritually in a weekend. We force baptized Christians into R.C.I.A. programs and then dismiss them from the Eucharist, which they have the right to attend. In both eras we obsess about people coming late to Mass and hassle them in the back of the church.
In both the old and the new manifestations of authoritarian pragmatism, we succumb to the temptation to force people to be virtuous.
In our frantic attempts to make people better we have no time for beauty. Beauty doesn’t work, and therefore we must fall back on ideological indoctrination. One does not ask whether a new church or painting or a statue or a story is beautiful. One asks whether it is liturgically correct, politically correct and doctrinally correct. Those questions appropriately answered, who cares whether it is beautiful? Indeed, what has changed since 1940? Not much.
Where did this style come from? Perhaps it was adopted by the immigrant church in its conviction that most Catholics were poor and unletteredif not illiterateimmigrants. One had to defend them from the assaults of the hostile Protestant culture. You told them what to do and they did it.
Whether, in retrospect, this was an accurate reading of Catholic immigrants and their children is open to question. Today most of our people are no longer immigrants, yet we tend to treat them as if they were. The pre-conciliar authoritarian pragmatism drove many people out of the church. Its more recent, new-class variety still does, especially, it would seem, the divorced and remarried.
Someone once argued that one can judge the depth of a spirituality by the beauty of the art it produces. By that standard, contemporary American Catholic spirituality, nervous, frenetic, compulsive, always searching for new gimmicks, is worth very little.
Beauty as Transcendental
Contemporary Catholic theology, whether it be of the Balthasarian or Rahnerian variety, agrees that of the three transcendentals inherent in BeingTruth, Goodness and Beautythe Beautiful is primary in that we encounter it first. It overwhelms us, enchants us, fascinates us, calls us. As we ponder it, we see that it is good and are attracted to the Goodness it represents. Finally, bemused by the appeal of goodness, we discover that it contains truth, and we listen to the Truth we hear from it. This is not an inevitable process, nor one that involves logical deduction (though on our reflection after the experience we recognize a quasi-logic). Rather it is an existential tendency that is built into the structure of the human condition.
We live surrounded by God’s beauty. Sometimes we notice it. Sometimes, all too rarely perhaps, the beauty all around us invades us, stops us in our tracks, explodes within usa stately cactus outlined against a rose-gold sunset, the faint light of a winter sun on a smoothly frozen lake, the smell of mesquite in the air after a rainstorm, a goofy smile on a child’s face as she tries her first brave steps, the touch of a friendly hand, an erotically attractive human body, a meteor shower on a late summer night, a chocolate malted milk with whipped cream, monarch butterflies flying along a beach on their way home. All are grace and grace is everywhere, often not noticed but still there.
Human artists see things more clearly than the rest of us. They penetrate into the illumination of being more intimately than do the rest of us. They want us to see what they see so that we can share in their illumination. They are driven to duplicate that beauty in their work. When Van Gogh painted his golden fields he was endeavoring to share with us his instinctive vision of the fields and to open us to their illumination. The artist is a sacrament maker, a creator of emphasized, clarified beauty designed to make us see. Artists invite us into the world they see so that we can go forth from that world enchanted by the luminosity of their work and with enhanced awareness of the possibilities of life.
Humanly created beauty that does not seem explicitly religious can be religious insofar as it tricks us into enchantment and thus opens us up to the illumination of Beingstopping us in our tracks, whether we want to be stopped in our tracks or not. The reconciliation arias at the end of the Marriage of Figaro, American folk songs like Shendandoah, a skyline viewed from a body of water in the moonlight, Seamus Heaney’s love poem The Otter, Rilke’s protest that he needs no more springtimes because one is already too much for his blood, the hope that ugliness and terror cannot exorcise from a Stephen King novel, Molly Bloom’s celebration of life and love at the end of Ulysses. If grace is everywhere, it is superabundant in the world of art, when one is open to seeing it.
There are also countless works of beauty that are explicitly religious, though not presented in church or produced under church auspices: such films as Babette’s Feast, All That Jazz, Always, Breaking the Waves and Dogma. Graham Greene’s End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, Jon Hassler’s North of Hope, Heaney’s We walk on air against our better judgement, the luminous ending of Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, the baptismal imagery in Bruce Springsteen’s music, the passionate desire for redemption of their characters (creatures!) in the fiction of William Kennedy and David Lodge, the not quite inarticulate Mystery at the end of Brian Friel’s later plays and the God who dances in Dogma, as she does in the Book of Wisdom.
Sometimes it is said that if God really wanted us to believe, he would speak to us. To which God might well reply that he shouts at us all the time through the beauty that surrounds us. We can hardly go anywhere without being inundated by beautyexcept when we go to church. Even in the church there is beauty in the sacraments, though we seem determined to minimize the beauty so that we can emphasize the rules and regulations with which we have surrounded the sacraments.
But not everyone will be stopped dead in his tracks and overcome with illumination, like St. Paul. There is no need for anyone to be entranced, enchanted, much less seduced by the beauty in these or any of the other examples I have given. My point rather is that grace is everywhere for those who are able to sense its presence and are generous in their search for it in what might seem strange places.
Beauty serves goodness and truth not by indoctrinating, not by educating, not by imparting doctrinally orthodox propositions. The beautiful illumines, it does not teach.
Education for Beauty
In his letter to artists at Easter a year ago, Pope John Paul II said that beauty was essential to the church. He was writing, he told the artists, to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new epiphanies of beauty. It therefore seems to follow that if education should have as its principal goal the development of a sense for the beautiful, Catholic education should aim to develop a sensitivity to epiphanies.
Epiphanies are everywhere. The magic ending of Rohmer’s My Night At Maud’s, with its dramatic shift from the hill over Clermont to the Riviera beach, is surely an epiphany about intense human love, just as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film Blue is an epiphany about the letting go of grief. But it requires time to absorb those epiphanies, to make them part of our personality. Some people will never be able to absorb them. Even those who finally get it will not necessarily change their attitudes or behavior because of such epiphanies. Is not the process too slow, too problematic, too uncertain?
Patently we should not abandon catechism nor the teaching of sound doctrine. We should, however, insist that religious education emphasize the beauty in the church and its sacraments and the beauty of sound doctrine. Indeed, one might well ask if the beauty of the doctrine does not appear in one’s teaching whether the presentation has been sound, or even Catholic. At every step of the educational process, we must attend to beautythat small tear in the surface of the world, as Simone Weil puts it, that pulls us through to some vaster space. Beauty lifts us off the ground, spins us around and then deposits us back on the ground perhaps only a few inches away. It is not that we no longer stand at the center of the world; we never did. Rather we are still in the power of that which has happened to us in our encounter with beauty.
But encounters with beauty open us up to their own alchemy, which gently guides us to goodness and truth. There is simply no other way, because faith and ethics cannot be imposed from the outside. They can be embraced only as a consequence of an act of love. We continue to teach the catechism with the modest realization that our efforts will be effective only when grace intervenes, when the Spirit touches the pupil with her magic wand. We don’t push, we don’t threaten, we don’t force compliance. The tragic flaw of authoritarian pragmatism is that it is grimly determined to budget the Spirit’s time, to force her hand, to constrain her to blow whither we will, not wither she will, to force epiphanies on demand.
How, for example, can a presiding priest not be filled with awe at the mystery of human passion which brings a woman and a man together to join body and soul in marriage? Even if they seem to be more interested in getting a hall than the marriage ceremony, even indeed if they have been living together, they are still brave and courageous young people, taking a huge risk. The priest should admire them and make evident his admiration and his pleasure in sharing their joy. Should he not in his own way love them as much as, if not more than their familiesbecause they too are the future of our heritage! The recent film High Fidelity brilliantly illumines the agony of commitment as it is experienced by contemporary superannuated adolescents. One does not hassle them because they are only now ready to commit to one another; rather, one seeks to understand how they have come to desire commitment.
A joyous and beautiful sacramental ceremony is far more important than any pre-sacramental instruction, because it permits the beauty of the sacramental experience to transform and radiate everyone who is presentthough of course pre-sacramental instruction has its (optional) place.
The pope ends his address to artists with a quote from Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot: Beauty will save the world! In the authoritarian pragmatism of American Catholic ministry it might well seem that only an idiot would make such an absurd statement. How is beauty going to raise concern for the environment, for the poor, for racial justice, for the right to life, for gender equality? How indeed?
In his Nobel Prize speech, Alexander Solzhenitsyn reflected on Prince Myshkin’s idiocy:
Artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; both concepts and images fall to pieces, they show themselves to be sickly and pale, they convince no one. But works which draw on truth and present it to us concentrated and alive seize us, powerfully join us to themselves and no one ever, even centuries from now, will come forth to refute them....
And then it is not a mistake, but a prophecy that we find written in Dostoyevsky: Beauty will save the world.