Beauty and the Truth

…there in truth something like a liberation occurs:  the stepping out into the open under an endless sky, not only for the creative artist himself but for the beholder as well, even the most humble.  Such liberation, such foreshadowing of the ultimate and perfect fulfillment, is necessary for man, almost more necessary than his daily bread, which is indeed indispensable and yet insufficient.

 ~Josef Pieper~

After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, St. Matthew tells us that: “he was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt. 4:1).   Fine, not something most of us would choose, but I suppose Jesus wasn’t seeking the things that most of us seek.  Jesus fasts for 40 day and nights, and it is then when the tempter comes, as he comes in our lives, in the moment of weakness.  Satan tempts Jesus to turn a stone into bread, and Jesus (quoting Deuteronomy 8), powerfully dismisses the evil one: “man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).  In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a statement which belongs to the same neighborhood of thought.  The apostles approach the Lord and attempt to get him to eat, but Jesus responds: “I have food to eat of which you do not know…My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:31-34). 

Jesus, in these two statements, is asserting something rather at odds with our normal way of thinking.  What does man need for life?  How is he nourished?  We could of course answer in a literalistic way:  man needs food, shelter, water and sleep.  Today’s men and women might add smartphones, wi-fi, and contraception to the list.  In the end however, Jesus’ fixation on God presses the question… “Is this all?” “Isn’t there something more we need to live a truly human life?”

Pieper’s quote which crowns this blog points us towards an answer.  Our German friend tells us that if we do not encounter something of art, something of beauty, we may survive physically, but we are not for that fact humans.  Deep inside each of us lies a possibility, a sort of itch that no one ever quite fully satisfies in this life.  This “itch” tells us that to be human means more than biology or the daily “world” which lies before us.  To be human means to search and to seek for meaning, for truth, for the foundations of existence.  A man’s food might be rich and his entertainment lively, but he may also resemble a fattened swine more than a man.  God beckons to each soul, but the soul that ignores and numbs this calling within himself, one who lives “on bread alone”, will never find the true meaning of his being.  It really is true that man does not live on bread alone, he comes alive only with something deeper, something that speaks to him of goodness, of truth, and of beauty.

The tricky part of all of this is that beauty, truth and goodness aren’t as easy as we think they are.  People of our time only accept truth if one can “lay it before them” on the table, demonstrating it without any possibility of doubt or objection. How often do people demand that all things must be proven, with the disclaimer written into their smirk: I hereby reserve the right to determine all truth for myself.   

Facts might work that way, but truth does not. Truth demands something more from us, it beckons  us to leave behind our comfortable worlds where no one can demand that we change or become more than what we are.  Our contemporary society seems to believe that truth is something each of us already possesses rather than being something transcendent to which we must attain.  Ratzinger warns us that the cost is much greater than we generally imagine: “Truth, if it is consistently maintained, is always perilous. But only in the measure in which man risks the passion of truth does he become a man. And in the measure in which he holds fast to himself, in which he withdraws into the safety of a lie, he loses himself.” 

Authentic truth is not found merely by having a brain, but by a person who surrenders himself, following wherever it may lead.  Someone who fails to surrender will ultimately bend the facts of reality to confirm a truth of his own making, and this is so much easier.  Beauty is no different; it is not approached in its splendor by couch potatoes and pragmatists; and it is not appreciated merely by taking an art history class.  In a haunting line which helps introduce his project, Balthasar calls upon Catholics to be men and women in the world who know what beauty is, and who love her.

Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past -- whether he admits it or not -- can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love."

A soul who loves truth cannot be one who discounts beauty; and part of the reason modern man struggles to find God is simply because the Church has neglected to radiate His beauty.  We have all too eagerly jumped onto the enlightenment’s playing field where the only admitted players are cold hard facts.  Christians search for the scientific, air-tight arguments which will leave atheists on their knees begging us to relent from our intellectual beat-down.  There is, however, no such argument; and all the while the world eats its bread incessantly, never looking to the heavens (which have been blotted out by artificial light), and only those who have courage and love ever notice that they’re hungry deep down for something more.

All of this is my not-so-subtle argument for why beauty is not simply “nice”, or an add-on, but essential.  The occasion for my writing this is the renovation of our church.  I have heard over and over again from too many people that beautification is selfish or unnecessary or that we could use our money better elsewhere; this is my attempt to respond.  Rowan Williams, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, commenting on the way Jesus portrays himself in the Gospel of Mark says this:

Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe that there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others.  What will be said of him is bound to be untrue – that he is the master of all circumstances; that he can heal where he wills; that he is the expected triumphant deliverer, the Anointed… There is a kind of truth which, when it is said, become untrue.

Jesus’ identity is so beautiful, so true and mysterious, that merely to say “he’s God” or “he’s the truth” can cheapen Him by the very words.   It’s akin to telling someone that the sunrise hitting the diamond on Long’s peak is “neat”, or that listening to Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew is an important cultural experience.   Someone who says such things has missed the point – and has failed to be touched by the radiance of beauty.  Most often, the one who has been touched by real beauty is reduced to silence, because words are simply too impoverished communicate the reality.

I am convinced that what we need is a harmony in our churches – a harmony between the preaching of the Gospel, music and silence which elevate the heart, and the beauty of a church building which speaks to us more eloquently than any spoken word is able.

I feel my own poverty in trying to communicate something of the mystery; to quote Balthasar again: “Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.”  Truth and goodness are beautiful – or they are neither true nor good; and Christianity’s truth and goodness are obscured when we fail to make our churches our most beautiful and noble spaces.   Conversely, when the truth is beautiful, we desire to become good.

Let us leave our time together with N.T. Wright:

shoulder-shrugging functionalism of postwar architecture, coupled with the passivity born of decades of television, has meant that for many people the world appears to offer little but bleak urban landscapes, on the one hand, and tawdry entertainment, on the other.  And when people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope.

My brothers and sisters, may our insistence on beauty bring a hope to a sometimes bleak landscape.