beauty ever new

Jan 3, 2014

I have been thinking about beauty all year. It was only a few hours into the new year when an email from Jason (who created this foodforfaith website and looks after the ongoing technological details) quoted Dostoyevsky “Beauty will save the world” and for the three days since I have been pondering all things beautiful.

In these peaceful new year days I have had time to read some of the magazines that have arrived over the past couple of months. One of these is the Australasian periodical “Annals.”  This magazine is subtitled “Journal of Catholic Culture” and each issue contains at least a couple of unforgettable articles. In the October 2013 issue the article titled “Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New” is well worth reading. You can find the complete text by tapping on the title.

One of the references in the article is to Cardinal Ratzinger suggesting that “true knowledge is being struck by the arrow of beauty.”

Here are a few quotations from the Annals article to whet your appetite:

The title of this essay is Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Role of Beauty in the Restoration of Catholic Culture. The title is taken from a passage in Book X of the Confessions of Saint Augustine. In Chapter X, Saint Augustine laments the fact that it has taken him 33 years to discover the beauty of the divine. In those immortal lines he cries out: “Late have I loved thee, O beauty ever ancient, ever new.”

Beauty is both ancient and new: we are at once surprised and comforted by its presence. Beauty exists in a sphere beyond time. And so beautiful things expose us to the timelessness of eternity.

This is why beauty matters, in an eternal sense. Beauty was part of God’s creative plan in the beginning, and it is just as much a part of his redemptive plan now. God has placed the desire for beauty within our hearts, and he uses that desire to lead us back to himself.

Truth and beauty are both gifts from God. So our New Evangelization must work to make truth beautiful. By means both ancient and new, we must make use of beauty—to infuse Western culture, once more, with the spirit of the Gospel.

By means of earthly beauty, we can help our contemporaries discover the truth of the Gospel. Then, they may come to know the eternal beauty of God—that beauty Saint Augustine described as “ever ancient, ever new.”

Truth was the ultimate goal. But the search for truth involved certain habits of mind, and habits of life, which we—as students—did not have. Our pursuit of truth required an initiation into beauty: the beauty of music, visual art and architecture, nature, poetry, dance, calligraphy, and many other things.

Through these experiences of beauty, we gained a sense of wonder; and that sense of wonder gave us a passion for truth. The motto of the IHP was a famous little Latin phrase: Nascantur in Admiratione (“let them be born in wonder”).

The experience of beauty changed us. When we studied the great philosophers and theologians, we were open to their words. We no longer assumed that truth was found in the dictates of popular culture—just as we no longer saw modern fads and fashions as the pinnacle of beauty. Truth is perennial and beauty is timeless.

As I mentioned, a large number of students became Catholic through the Integrated Humanities Program. But this was not the result of proselytism in the classroom nor was it engaging in apologetics. It occurred because we became lovers of beauty, and thus, seekers of truth. Beauty gave us “eyes to see” and “ears to hear,” when we encountered the Gospel and the Christian tradition.

The Transcendent Language of Beauty

I know, from experience, that beauty can reach people who seem unreachable. It can open their minds to truths they might otherwise dismiss. Even hardened skeptics and postmodernists find it hard to deny the reality of beauty, when they encounter it in a setting conducive to contemplation and reflection.

We have to realize that our ambient secular culture has a tight grip on the imagination. It is hard to break through. But the power of beauty still has a force that can penetrate even the hardest of hearts.

The experience of beauty is transformative. It awakens a sense within us, that life is meaningful on the most profound level. Beauty can move us to humility, giving us a sense of wonder before the mystery of life. The encounter with beauty speaks to us about the true, awe-inspiring nature of existence.

This is why we speak of beauty as something “transcendent.” Every instance of real beauty points beyond itself, toward the infinite perfection of God. He invested this world with many forms of captivating beauty, so that created things would lead us to contemplate the transcendent glory of the Creator.

We can think of beauty as a kind of language, through which God speaks to our hearts and souls. He is always speaking in this way—to all of us—believers and nonbelievers alike.

The beauty of creation declares the glory of God, even to those who do not yet believe. In beauty, the Lord reveals himself. In a similar way, artistic beauty shows us that man is made in the Creator’s image—even if the artist himself does not acknowledge this fact.

The language of beauty is especially important in our time, because we live in a period of grave intellectual and moral confusion.

Beauty is not the only language God uses to communicate his glory. Our Creator also speaks to our souls through intellectual truth and moral goodness.

But these forms of communication have become problematic. Many people, especially in modern Western culture, are too intellectually and morally confused to receive such a message.

God still speaks to these individuals in the language of truth and goodness. But their understanding is blocked by popular misconceptions—especially the idea that truth and goodness are purely subjective, and thus relative to the individual or group. “To each his own” or “who’s to say.” What Pope Benedict called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Fr. Robert Barron, the Rector of Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary in Chicago, a theologian and great communicator of the faith, has lately taught that in the New Evangelization we must “lead with beauty.” Fr. Barron says that postmodern man might scoff at truth and goodness, but he’s still enthralled with beauty. He says that beauty is the arrowhead of evangelization, the point with which the evangelist pierces the minds and hearts of those he evangelizes.

To say with the poet, “look up, look up at the stars” is to point to creation or even to an artistic achievement, invites the nonbeliever first to appreciate what is and then to consider the origin ofthat which is.

In a cultural environment bereft of wonder, beauty takes on an even greater importance than it would otherwise have. Something in the experience of beauty is almost undeniable, even for the person who rejects the idea of objective truth or goodness. Beauty can get through, where other forms of divine communication may not.

When we begin with beauty, this can then lead to a desire to want to know the truth of the thing that is drawing us, a desire to participate in it. And then the truth can inspire us to do the good, to strive after virtue.

In one of his pre-papal writings, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the experience of being “wounded by the arrow of beauty.” That is a wonderful image for an experience shared by believers and non-believers alike. God’s “arrow of beauty” can pierce through many layers of confusion and error.

When that arrow reaches its target, a way opens within the heart. The search for truth becomes possible, and an obstacle to faith disappears.

V. Conclusion

In the midst of our present cultural crisis, we can take courage, knowing that God is not silent. He continues to speak powerfully by means of beauty, even to those who have become dulled to the realities of truth and goodness.

“Beauty will save the world,” wrote Dostoevsky. It will. When it points to God’s enduring love.

There are many souls to rescue, and a vast cultural wasteland to restore. Both tasks will require fluency in God’s language of beauty.

To speak this language, we must first begin to listen. And to listen, we must have silence in our lives. I pray that God will open our eyes and ears to beauty, and help us use it in the service of the Truth.


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