No other pope has written about God and beauty more than the late Pope Benedict XVI. In one of his messages written while still Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” he writes, “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes.” We understand this. For who of us has not experienced beauty in the natural world so powerful that we are, for a moment, without speech? The sheer bulk and height of a jagged mountain pushed out from the earth, the seemingly endless expanse of deep blue sea filled with power, the shock of seeing a night sky blazing with stars if we find ourselves removed from the lights of human civilization, if we happen onto a field filled with flowers or if we, in a gray bleak winter world hear birdsong, we know somewhere deep inside that this beauty is a sign of something beyond us. We do not yearn to worship the mountain, nor the sea, nor the sky. But the impulse to praise almost erupts from us and that is the knowledge of God found in beauty. The natural world’s beauty gives us intimations of God’s glory; created beauty likewise attracts us, and that attraction too is from God.
St. John Henry Newman believed in the harmony of the divinely ordered universe which is made real by created beauty. Created things such as art or music or poetry or architecture participate in this divine order: they “do not address the reason, but the imagination and affections . . . and [this beauty] leads to admiration, enthusiasm, devotion, love.” Newman believed that the world of sense is, “from beginning to end, symbolic of the absent and unseen[world].” The soaring arches of a gothic cathedral filled with the music of Bach reverberating from the stone walls with light filtering through the stained glass windows lift us out of the temporal as surely as do the mountains and starry night skies.
Newman’s profound awareness of the invisible world, the spiritual reality behind the veil of the visible world, is formulated in what is known as the sacramental principle. This doctrine is explained in his sermon, “The Invisible World”:
“The earth that we see does not satisfy us; it is but a beginning; it is but a promise of something beyond it; even when it is gayest, with all its blossoms on, and shows most touchingly what lies hid in it, yet it is not enough. We know much more lies hid in it than we see. A world of Saints and Angels, a glorious world, the palace of God, the mountain of the Lord of Hosts, the heavenly Jerusalem, the throne of God and Christ, all these wonders, everlasting, all-precious, mysterious, and incomprehensible, lie hid in what we see. What we see is the outward shell of an eternal kingdom; and on that kingdom we fix the eyes of our faith.”
But a person too can attract through the beauty of holiness: Pope Benedict wrote:
“Yet, the beauty of Christian life is even more effective than art and imagery in the communication of the Gospel message. In the end, love alone is worthy of faith, and proves credible. The lives of the saints and martyrs demonstrate a singular beauty which fascinates and attracts, because a Christian life lived in fullness speaks without words. We need men and women whose lives are eloquent, and who know how to proclaim the Gospel with clarity and courage, with transparency of action, and with the joyful passion of charity.”
The late Pope ends his powerful message with this paragraph,
“Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky’s often quoted sentence: ‘The Beautiful will save us’? However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ. We must learn to see Him. If we know Him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”
In Newman’s meditations we also find a number of references to the beauty of Christ, the beauty of his countenance which draws us towards the encounter and union with God.
The Via Pulchritudinis, or the “Way of Beauty,” is one path which leads to the Good and the True, to a deeper connection with God. Both St. John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI understood this. The contemplation of Beauty is a powerful weapon against despair and sadness, and this Beauty of the Living God saves.
“The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” (Message of Cardinal Ratzinger to the Communion and Liberation Meeting at Remini, August 24-30, 2002)