“Love is the beauty of the soul.” – St. Augustine

For a thousand years, until the publication of the Imitation of Christ, the Confessions of Saint Augustine was the most common manual on the spiritual life.  It has had more readers than any of St. Augustine’s other works.  He wrote his Confessions ten years after converting, and after being a priest for eight years.  In it, St. Augustine confesses to God, narrating the writing addressed to Him.   St. Augustine admits to God:  “Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new.  Late have I loved Thee” (Confessions, Chapter 10). The text continues:
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!  You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.  In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.  You were with me, but I was not with you.  Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.  You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.  You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.  You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.  I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

For those of you who know me, you know I love ‘beautiful things’. More than often, these are the little things which point me upwards to thank God the Creator. St. Augustine’s knowledge of himself was rooted in his knowledge of Christ. Another one of his famous phrases was ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” It seems we are all drawn to beauty in some way, but we are not all moved by it to contemplate and worship God. We thirst for the divine connection with our Creator. People listen to glorious sacred music or visit opulent cathedrals, but while delighting in the beauty of the art therein, they appear to see these as hallmarks of mankind's creativity and thus glorify man more than God. God’s beauty is what draws us to God, and this includes the mystery and glory of Christ on the cross, the utter distortion of divine-human beauty and yet its complete fulfilment. “Only Beauty will save the world” was the phrase of the Russian poet and writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Another writer Paul Tillich believed that the word beauty has become so associated with what is “pretty” that a substitute for it needs to be found. He preferred to talk about the expressive power of works of art. For him, all forms of art evoke truth, truth of eye and ear and mind. When the attempt to produce something beautiful is separated from truth the result is mere sentimentality. Maybe we let the world dictate what we think is ‘beautiful’ whilst in fact our eyes may turn away from ‘real beauty’. So what is real beauty?

Fr. Timothy Radcliffe in his book ‘What’s the Point of being a Christian?’, writes: “Jesus’ sign at the Last Supper was beautiful. If it is to speak of hope in the face of death, then it must be re-enacted beautifully. Church teaching is often met with suspicion. Dogma is a bad word in our society. But beauty has its own authority. It speaks our barely articulated hope that there may be some final meaning to our lives. Beauty expresses the hope that the pilgrimage of existence does indeed go somewhere, even when we cannot say where and how. Beauty is not icing on the liturgical cake. It is of its essence.”

We are like stained-glass windows, we sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, our true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within. Strong moments of faith are filled with religious experience when nothing has to be explained to us, rather we are overawed by the abundance of some beauty, goodness or grace in our lives. We must be prepared to ‘give an account of the hope that is within us’ (1 Peter 3, 15).

In the early years of the 20th century a dream was already forming in the mind of an Italian man who would subsequently found a Congregation specifically for this ministry of promoting “dignity and beauty in the liturgy”. “Dignity and beauty in the liturgy” and “celebrate with dignity and beauty” were phrases coined by Fr. James Alberione also to be used by his spiritual daughters in their ministry of promoting liturgy as a means of evangelisation. This is the religious order which attracted me from an early age. First of all, I encountered Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament and then I saw how the sisters served Him through use of their artistic and creative talents. I enjoyed the immersion in the liturgical life where I can see that the primary beauty in liturgy is that of a community united heart and soul in the prayerful celebration of Christ's sacrifice. It is the beauty of priest and people engaged in full, active and pious participation in the mystery. This beauty is achieved, in spite of a possible lack of external splendour, whenever the sacred ministers and each member of the faithful strive to live the liturgy to the full.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, the 20th century's most notable writer on the theology of beauty stated that: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at Beauty's 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.” St. Augstine fell in love with beauty and his life was never the same. It trampolined him onto the path of holiness. The two functions of beautifying and sanctifying are closely related, for God’s beauty is His holiness, and our sanctification is the most significant manifestation of our participation in His beauty. In the Bible beauty is an ambiguous reality; it can either evoke the glory of God or represent a trap in which the journey forward becomes bogged down. Beauty is only revealed in the course of an exodus or a journey. This is because beauty is transfiguration through which human beings become icons of the glory of God: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as through reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; from this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:18). The artist looks, listens and feels the world about her and then transmits her experience into notes and brush-strokes and word-rhythms.

In that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world”, but it is the reality of the Christian life. “Turning the hearts and minds of people to God” (SC 122) is precisely what the Church needs to do in a world already marred by the ugliness of sin, violence and hatred. The Church, through the liturgy celebrated with dignity and in beauty, must apply the balm of Beauty to our wounded world in whatever way it can so as to form in us the beauty of holiness, because for every element of beauty there is an eye somewhere to see it. For every truth there is an ear somewhere to hear it. For every love there is a heart somewhere to receive it! We see this in the life of Saint Augustine and in the life of each one of us!

(Note: a few years ago I wrote a paper on ‘Celebrating with dignity and beauty’ from which I took some of the quotes for this blog piece. The complete paper can be read here.)