To behold the Church of St. Mary’s, set in the heart of Roslyn, is to be struck by beauty, both natural and man-made. Our lovely, well-established Church, built in 1871, moves the heart as it touches the senses. Moreover, from the desk where I write these words, Hempstead Harbor refracts the light from the setting sun to illuminate the trees from above and below. What a marvelous setting to contemplate the grandeur of God this Easter.
Given the magnificence of our surroundings, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by a sense of awe at God, who is not only Truth itself, but Beauty as well. Yet for many historical reasons, particularly in the United States, the transmission of the Catholic faith is thought of as a largely intellectual endeavor. Knowledge of God means information about him, gleaned from catechisms, textbooks, manuals and, of course, the Bible itself. We think that discursive thought, clear terminology, and precise definitions can capture one or another aspect of the divine: the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, the resurrection of the dead, etc. The logic continues that other forms of human expression, like the arts, might be pleasant “diversions” in the serious matter of faith, but they are, for the most part, expendable.
Is this true? When we think of the Passion of Jesus, do our minds immediately go to the catechism, or rather, to memories of our beautiful Stations of the Cross, or better, to Michelangelo’s Pieta? What better captures the wonders of creation: a treatise on hylomorphism? Or the sight of Henri Matisse’s “Tree of Life” stained-glass windows? Could it be that works of beauty – painting, music, sculpture, poetry, architecture – convey a more immediate sense of God’s presence than, say, ordinary language? Do they not also reveal something to us about…ourselves? I remember visiting Ireland’s Museum of Art in Dublin and being fascinated by a quote from the playwright George Bernard Shaw: “We look in a mirror to see our face, but we look at art to see our soul.” Some things simply cannot be said in words: they can only be felt by the soul as they hit the senses: through sound, color, movement, space, and matter. What does Leonardo DaVinci’s “Last Supper” mean? If one could say it words, then there would be no need for his masterpiece.
Though tragic in many respects, the devastating fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris – during Holy Week, no less – awakened within many people an appreciation for what Pope Benedict XVI calls the via pulchritudinis: the way of beauty. According to him, “authentic beauty unlocks the heart to know, love, and go towards the Other, to reach the Beyond…Beauty helps us grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite.”
In appreciating the wonder of nature and the genius of human artistry, we turn the eyes of our soul to the invisible reality that underlies them: God, in all of his Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. May we derive great joy from the way of beauty this Easter season, and in turn, strive to live “beautiful” lives: virtuous, patient, loving, gentle, and compassionate.