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Fr Billy Swan

The place of beauty in catechesis received a timely boost in 2013 with the publication by Pope Francis of The Joy of the Gospel. While previous popes such as St John Paul II and Benedict XVI urged Christians to be attentive to “epiphanies of beauty” and referred to artists as “custodians of beauty”,[1] Pope Francis went a step further in placing beauty at the service of catechesis and the transmission of the faith. In this watershed document, he encourages all the baptised to seek out the beautiful to nurture their own faith and point to the beautiful in helping others come to faith too. “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the way of beauty (via pulchritudinis)”. Under the rubric of ‘Evangelisation and the Deeper Understanding of the Kerygma’, Francis insists that “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus…So a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith”[2]. This article seeks to unpack this seminal teaching and explores how expressions of beauty in creation, art, music and the lives of the saints are the arenas where we can encounter Christ and accompany others towards faith in him. First, the need to clarify what beauty is and how the via pulchritudinis leads to the via fidei.

What is Beauty?

Beauty is one of the three transcendentals, the other two being goodness and truth. From a philosophical point of view, all three are related and are grounded in Being. In other words, all three are part of reality as we experience it. Truth is defined by Being or corresponds to that which is. Goodness is defined by truth, not by the human will. Things are good because they are true. Lastly, beauty is defined by goodness, by objective real goodness and not by subjective desire, pleasure, feeling or imagination, all of which should conform to it.

We note that this order of truth, goodness and beauty is reversed in our human experience. Instead of Truth, Goodness and Beauty we experience Beauty, Goodness and Truth. Through our sensual powers, it is beauty that we first observe or hear. Because of its sensual power, beauty awakens our passions and delights the soul. It is something that draws, attracts and awakens our powers to love. Therefore, while we might argue with others about what is true and good, beauty has an immediate winsome quality and an evidential power that invites others to behold it or hear it. Examples might include a beautiful sunset, stunning piece of music or a human being who is beautiful in body and soul. And so, consistent with this sensual appeal to beauty, St Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as “id quod visum placet…that which, being seen, pleases”.

Yet, it is necessary at this point to draw an important distinction between the beautiful that is good and that which appears beautiful and attractive but is not good. Gazing on a beautiful sunset will attract us, edify us and please us in a way that is good. In contrast, a person who lusts after a person other than their spouse is drawn to a beauty that appears to be good but ends up causing harm. Here is the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden and our fallen human nature’s inclination to choose things that appeal to immediate hungers but end up causing sadness and slavery. In the words of the Directory for Catechesis “All beauty can be a path that helps lead to the encounter with God, but the criterion of its authenticity cannot be only that of aesthetics. There must be discernment between true beauty and the forms that are apparently beautiful but empty, or even harmful, like the forbidden fruit in the earthly paradise”.[3] This is why most addictions come from something that appears beautiful but in reality harms those who pursue it. These include the familiar addictions to alcohol, drugs, vice or more subtle addictions to things like power and the lust to dominate. This is creatively and wonderfully portrayed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The harmful effects of the ring of power do not reduce the lust of those who wish to have it.

For classical thinkers like St Thomas Aquinas, beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder but possesses objective properties that qualify something as beautiful or not. Thomas characterized beauty as the coming together of integritas (wholeness), consonatia (harmony) and claritas (radiance).[4] And so, for the quality of wholeness, all the parts and colours of the Mona Lisa combine to form the beautiful painting that is the Mona Lisa. In the case of consonatia, something is deemed beautiful if the various component parts combine to form a harmonious unit. Allegri’s Miserere Mei is made up of many notes and sounds that all combine to form a glorious harmony. Finally, beautiful things have a radiance of form that give us a glimpse of how things could be and ought to be. It is no coincidence that in many artistic representations of the saints, there is a radiant halo around the heads. Saints are those who show us what a beautiful life looks like and inspire us to live one too.


How Beauty Leads to Faith in a Beautiful God

Returning to Pope Francis’ words that “Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus”, we might ask the question of how this happens. How does beauty lead to religious faith? While many secular thinkers, scientists and observers enjoy beautiful things with believers and marvel in awe and wonder at what we find in the universe, not everyone accepts that beauty has a source or that God is the origin and Creator of beautiful things. While agnostics and unbelievers need to come up with a hypotheses of why there is something instead of nothing, Christians accept the hypothesis that the created universe that is marked by beauty, was moved into existence by a loving Creator whose qualities are inscribed in what He has made. In the Catholic tradition, and thanks mainly to the metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas, all created things participate in the Being of God who is not one Being among many but the sheer act of to-be itself. In the words of Aquinas, God is ipsum esse or Being itself. In this framework of understanding, the truth, goodness and beauty that are found the natural world are the attributes of the Creator God. And so while truth, goodness and beauty are encountered by us in the here and now, they have their origin in the unconditioned Truth, Goodness and Beauty that God is. God is Truth itself, the light by which things are intelligible to the human mind. God is Goodness itself, that conditions the will in seeking what is good and right. Likewise, God is not just beautiful but Beauty itself, whose Trinitarian life is the essence of wholeness, harmony and radiance.

For Christians, all created things came to be through the loving initiative of God and were created through a singular principle of order called the Logos. This means that all things are somehow related to the other, are inter-dependent and part of a single whole. It also means that the Logos must have an important relationship to the various logoi spermatikoi or seeds of the Word that appear in creation. As early as the mid-first century, St Paul identified this Logos with Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. To the first Christians, he proclaimed that “In him were created all things in heaven and on earth” (Col. 1:16-17). Jesus is described by St Paul as “the icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), that is to say the human face of unconditioned Truth, Goodness and Beauty. For when Christ came into the world, he came into a reality that had its being through him (John 1:10). Therefore, the incarnate Christ came into the world not as one truth, goodness and beauty among many but as the unconditioned source of all three. Jesus did not claim to merely possess truth but to be “THE TRUTH, the Way and the Life” (John 14:6).  He wasn’t just good but through a whole life of obedience and service of our good, Christ was the icon of unconditioned goodness that evil and death could not destroy.  Finally, the person of Jesus Christ was not just beautiful but was Beauty itself – something that he revealed at his Transfiguration but was also seen in his ministry of charity, forgiveness, compassion and service.

For St. Augustine, every aspect of Christ’s life was marked by beauty. He is “Beautiful as God, as the Word who is with God…he is beautiful in heaven, and beautiful on earth; beautiful in the womb, and beautiful in his parents’ arms. He is beautiful in his miracles and beautiful under the scourges; beautiful in inviting to life, beautiful in not shrinking from death and beautiful in laying down his life and beautiful in taking it up again; beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the tomb and beautiful in heaven”.[5] In short, Christ is “the beauty of all things beautiful”.[6]

In the arena of anthropology, because human beings are made in the Imago Dei and through Christ, it means that truth, goodness and beauty are also stamped on our human nature. That is why St Gregory of Nyssa could say: “Our life is stamped with the beauty of his (Christ’s) thought”.[7] It means that when we behold beauty, we somehow encounter Christ in whose beauty the beautiful thing participates. It also implies that the beauty we behold resonates with the innate hunger for beauty within us and ultimately with our deepest hunger for God. Here is the link between encountering beauty, being drawn by beauty, delighting in beauty, loving beauty, believing in beauty to finally believing in the unconditioned source Beauty who is God. Writing about how St Francis of Assisi nurtured his faith in the Creator by contemplation of what God has made, St Bonaventure wrote:

“Aroused by all things to the love of God, Francis rejoiced in all the works of the Lord’s hands. As a manifestation of God, creation brought Francis great joy, and took him to its life-giving principle and cause. 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”.[8]

Similarly, Simone Weil wrote that “The soul’s natural inclination to love beauty is the trap God most frequently uses in order to win it and open it to the breath from on high”.[9]  The Scriptural archetype of this attraction to beauty that leads to faith in Christ is seen in the Gospel of Matthew with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. While the sight of the star delighted them, their journey took them to Bethlehem where they found Christ, believed in Him and worshipped him (Matt. 2:1ff).

And so, having defined beauty and explored how expressions of beauty lead to encounters with Christ, the next step is to explore how expressions of beauty in creation, art, music and lives of sanctity are indispensable resources for catechists to evangelise and accompany others to faith in the Lord. This will be the focus of the second part of this article next week.

[1] John Paul II, Letter to Artists, April 1999; Benedict XVI, Address to Artists, November 2009.

[2] The Joy of the Gospel, 167.

[3] Directory for Catechesis, 108.

[4] STh I, q, 39, a. 8.

[5] Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 44.3

[6] Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.

[7] Treatise on Human Perfection

[8] Bonaventure, Life of Francis, 9.1

[9] Waiting on God, trans. E. Craufurd, Glasgow, 1950.


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