Fr Billy Swan
Although not celebrated this year for it falls on a Sunday, the feast day of St Augustine on 28th August is an opportunity to contemplate some of his wonderful insights. In a passage from his classic Confessions, Augustine looks back on his life and his search for God and happiness. He writes:
“Late have I loved you O beauty so ancient and new, late have I loved you! For behold, you were within me and I was outside; and I sought you outside and my ugliness fell upon those lovely things that you have made” (Confessions 10, 27, 38).
When I read this again lately, the thought struck me that I too have come late to know God as beautiful. Like many of you I suspect, I grew up understanding God as many things – as Father, as love, as wise, just, All-knowing, All-powerful and as merciful. Of course all these are indeed attributes of God but when I look back, we seldom heard homilies or teaching about God as beautiful. Come to think of it, beauty is the common denominator in all of what we know of God’s nature. God’s Fatherhood is beautiful, his love is beautiful, his wisdom is beautiful, his power is beautiful, his mercy is beautiful. So, let’s dive deeper into the truth of God’s beauty, beginning with the Bible.
Beauty in Scripture:
Scripture presents us with the idea of God as the origin and source of all beauty. All of creation, with humanity at its pinnacle, is marked by God’s goodness and beauty. Both the scientist and the child can observe the order, harmony and beauty of the universe and learn something of the One responsible for it all: “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator for the author of beauty created them” (Wis. 13:3, 5).
God’s purpose in creating the cosmos is not functional or utilitarian. Rather creation is to be contemplated and admired for its own sake by human beings with the effect of raising their hearts to the Creator. In the presence of creation’s beauty, the human person feels humbled, amazed and moved to praise: “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars that you have arranged; what is humankind that you are mindful of us, human beings that you care for them? Yet you have made us little less than a god and crowned us with glory and honour…Lord our God, how great is your name through all the earth” (Psalm 8). For the Jewish people, the beauty that leads worship results in an even greater experience of beauty and joy for it draws them closer to God’s presence mediated by prayer in the temple: “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of hosts” (Ps. 84:1-2); “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go to God’s house” (Ps. 122:1).
In the New Testament, all beauty is concentrated on the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made visible, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In him, God’s eternal beauty became a human being. Christ is the one who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). By prayerfully observing his words, it dawned on the early Christians that the very nature of God was unconditional love: “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5); “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11); “God so loved the world” (John 3:16); “Come to me all you who are heavily laden and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). These beautiful words of Christ perfectly corresponded to his beautiful actions – his healings, his accompaniment of sinners, forgiveness for his killers, his raising of the poor and lowly.
Yet the beauty of his words and actions were often hidden beneath his suffering and rejection. His brutal torture turned him into someone who “had no form of comeliness” to such an extent that he “seemed no longer human” (Is. 53:2, 14). This outward disfigurement because of our sins was part of his work of saving us – taking the ugliness of sin and dysfunction upon himself so as to restore the beautiful image and likeness of God within us. In this way, he led purified humanity into the glory of the Father and to be with him “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3).
The main symbol the Gospels use to describe this beauty of Jesus Christ is light. The prophesy of Zachariah states that Christ would be the one to “give light to those in darkness, those who dwell in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). When presented in the temple, the old prophet Simeon saw the infant and rejoiced that he finally saw “the light to enlighten the pagans and glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). In all three of the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’s transfiguration is recorded when his person became illuminated from within with an intense divine light (Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36).
With the evangelist John, this beauty of Christ is also symbolized by light and the concept of ‘glory’. This is spelled out in the prolog of his Gospel where Christ’s coming into the world is associated with “a light that the darkness could not overpower” (John 1:5). Later, at Cana, John interprets the miracle that Christ performed as letting his glory be seen in a way that leads to faith in him (John 2:11). In the book of Revelation, John imagines believers in Christ not only observing his glory but sharing in it too. He famously writes of a woman “clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet” (Rev. 12:1). In the final age, God will unite Himself to his people as a husband his bride, sharing his own beauty with those who accept him. This is the people the Lamb has married, the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem that enjoys “the radiant glory of God and glittered like some precious jewel of crystal-clear diamond” (Rev. 21:11). We note here that this idea of the light and beauty of God being shared with those who believe is also found with Jesus himself. “I am the light of the world” he declared and “those who follow me will not walk in the dark but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Therefore, when Jesus exhorted his followers to be “the light of the world”, he commissioned them to be vessels of his own light, beauty and truth (Matt. 5:14). For Jesus, his saving mission was to be an enabler of sight, to heal blindness so that we could see beauty where it is to be found.
For St Paul, Christians are faithful to Christ when they embrace beauty that is always linked to goodness and truth: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
Beauty in the Fathers and Saints
This Scriptural theme of beauty was taken up by many of the Church Fathers and saints. For St Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373), the Gospel is like a mirror “within which is depicted the beauty of the beautiful ones who gaze at it. Also, within it the blemishes of the ugly ones who are despised are put to shame” (Letter to Publius).
For St Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), God is a divine artist who draws us into contemplation of the beauty of creation but teaches us how to paint by imitating the colours of virtues so as to be conformed to Christ, the proto-type or pattern of all creation. In the same work, he wrote that: “Our life is stamped with the beauty of his (Christ’s) thought. The inner and the outer person are harmonized in a kind of music” (From A Treatise on Christian Perfection).
For St Paulinus of Nola (354-431), the Creator is the composer of beautiful music, “the musician who controls that universal-sounding harmony which He exercises through all the physical world”. We humans are absorbed by this music in a way that attunes us to its harmonious beauty (Poem 27).
Noted for his beautiful mind, St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) explains that the union of God’s beauty and human beings happens through baptism: “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift…It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own’ (Oratio 40, 3-4).
We have already explored St Augustine’s discovery of beauty late in his life but there is another important understanding of beauty that he brings to our attention. This concerns the distinction between the beauty of created things and the beauty of the One who created them. Augustine witnesses to a previous confusion in his own life caused by loving created things instead of God himself. Such an idolizing of created things left his restless heart dissatisfied. In the end, his love for the beauty of created things were like rungs of a ladder that led him to find the ultimate beauty of God himself:
“And what is God? I asked the earth and it answered ‘I am not He’…I asked the sea and the deeps and they answered: ‘We are not your God, seek higher’…And I said to all the things that throng about the gateways of the senses: ‘Tell me of my God, since you are not he. Tell me something of him’. And they cried out in a great voice: ‘He made us’. My question was gazing upon them and their answer was their beauty’ (Confessions 10, 6, 9).
Elsewhere Augustine encourages his audience to explore the beauty of God’s handiwork because doing so will lead us to the One whose beauty never changes: “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…question the beauty of the sky…question all these realities. All respond: ‘See we are beautiful’. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change” (Sermon 241, 2). In sum, for Augustine, God is: “the beauty of all things beautiful” (Confessions, 3, 6).
For St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), our experience of beauty occurs at the intersection of wholeness (integritas), harmony (proportio), and radiance (claritas) (STh I, q.39, a.8). According to Thomas, beauty gives rise to contemplative pleasure – ‘Beautiful things please when seen’. Beauty triggers love for we fall in love with the beauty we see in a way that provides joy and delight. In Thomas’ understanding, ‘God created the universe to make it beautiful for himself by reflecting his own beauty’ (In Div. Nom., c. 4, lect. 5, n. 349).
For St John of the Cross (1542-1591), when the love of God encounters human beings, it transforms us more into its own love and beauty. John explains that at the incarnation, Jesus “took on our human nature and elevated it in the beauty of God, and consequently all creatures, since in human nature he was united with them all” (Spiritual Canticle, 5, 4). Later in the same work, he masterfully prays that through the art of loving, he will become beautiful like God Himself:
“Then, I’ll see you in your beauty… and I’ll see myself in your beauty. May I see you in your beauty…and may my beauty be yours and yours be mine” (John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 35, 3).
Reviving the patristic metaphor of music, John looks forward to heaven for “the most magnificent melodies on earth cannot compare with the beauty and incomparably more precious new song that is the music of heaven” (Spiritual Canticle, 39.9-10).
For St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), we humans are marked by the beauty of the One whom made us. For this reason, God delights in his own beauty he sees in us: "You, eternal Trinity, are the craftsman; and I your handiwork have come to know that you are in love with the beauty of what you have made, since you made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son" (Dialogue 167).
Finally, according to St Bonaventure (1221-1274), Francis of Assisi experienced the beauty and joy of creation in a way that led him continuously to the source of that beauty and joy: “In beautiful things Francis saw and fell in love with God who is Beauty itself and through the signs of God’s presence imprinted on creation Francis followed his beloved everywhere. For Francis, all things were a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace him who alone could satisfy his heart’ (Bonaventure, Life of Francis IX,1).
Part 2 of this article will be posted next week