Friday, October 03, 2008

Beauty and Catechesis

One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple. – Psalm 27:4

There’s a reason why the human heart longs for goodness, truth, and beauty. God himself is these things by his very nature, and he created in us a longing for them so that, in our search for goodness, truth, and beauty, we may find Him, come to know Him, and learn to love Him. Of course, the devil is also supremely interested in these three marks of God, but only insofar as his malicious ends are achieved whenever he can lure us away from them with his enticing caricatures. Beauty is a particularly maligned mark of God’s essence, and every day various ignoble mediums attempt to sell us their disfigured version of beauty. But, all is not lost. After all, the very firmament proclaims his handiwork, as the Psalmist tells us (cf. Psa 19:1). It requires only that men who have seen the beauty and abandoned the lie turn the averted eyes of the masses back to the true succor of their inner-most yearnings.

As catechists, are we not called to be those virtuous men? Is it not our task to convert hearts and minds to Jesus Christ, the very one who is beauty? Ample experience reveals that you can talk all you want, but if you do not show your audience what is beautiful about God and his Church, then what He has revealed to us will never be received with a true and lasting faith. Instead, the teachings of the Bible and the truths of Catholicism will be regarded simply as so many facts and bits of information to be retained. Jesus Christ will become but a distant figure who makes ridiculous demands upon us. His yolk will be difficult and his burden quite heavy.

Could it be any other way? Tell a classroom full of hormonal teenagers that they can’t have premarital sex and what kind of response will you get? More often then not, you will hear heated cries of indignation. “How dare you tell me that I can’t have sex! What if the two people love each other? What if they want to have sex with each other? What harm is there in that? It feels good! It doesn’t hurt anyone!” If you simply tell them what they can’t do, this is as far as you will get with them. They will do nothing but rebel. But, tell them of the beauty of the marital embrace, speak of the union of husband and wife as an icon of the Trinity, reveal how our very bodies were made to communicate the love that is the very life of God, and I dare say your audience will be more than slightly intrigued. Sexual intercourse as an icon of the Trinity?!?! They might not believe you right away, but at least they will be drawn to what you have to say – and that is certainly a step in the right direction.

But why? Why all the sudden are they ready to hear you out, when before they were rending their garments? It’s because they have seen, in the small bits of the theology of the body you shared with them, the beauty of the sex act properly understood. Christopher West, who has devoted his entire adult life to exposing the world to the beauty of this theology, often says that he who eats from the dumpster is the first to notice the feast. The stark contrast between the banquet table of heaven and the garbage with which he has thus far fed himself reveals the beauty of the banquet almost immediately. It also reveals the garbage for what it truly is: garbage, a fraud, a poor substitute for what he was searching for all along.

Of course, it also helps to know what beauty is in the first place. After all, some people need convincing. The word “beautiful” is usually reserved for supermodels and movie stars. An old, diminutive nun like Mother Teresa won’t be gracing the cover of Vogue anytime soon. But, when beauty is understood in all of its objective reality, a veritable paradigm shift can take place in a person’s mind. He can learn to see beauty where he never saw it before, and he can find God in the discovery. Therefore, let us be transformed by the renewal of our minds (cf. Rom 12:2) and investigate a bit of what our Catholic tradition teaches us about beauty.

First, it is important to note that beauty, while an objective reality, is not entirely devoid of a subjective component. The objectivity of beauty is revealed once beauty is associated with the two other traits of God previously mentioned: truth and goodness. As David Fagerberg points out, since we would not say something is good simply because we want it, and we would not say something is true because we believe it, neither should we say that something is beautiful just because we like it. “In the opinion of the pure objectivist, subjective emotional experiences have their importance in explaining why we call things beautiful, but emotional experiences do not constitute the essence of beauty, and they are not what make reality beautiful.”

Like the great philosophers and theologians who came before him, St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished three “constituents,” or qualities that constitute beauty. These are proportion, integrity, and claritas. Proportion, as he defined it, is “the suitability of matter for receiving a form, the fitness between a thing’s essence and its existence…” When a thing has harmony, rhythm, peace, or is properly ordered, it has proportion. The second quality, integrity, refers to the amount of completeness that is found in a thing. A thing has perfect integrity if it is “the complete realization of whatever it is supposed to be: nothing is missing that should be present.” In other words, an altar with three legs does not have the same degree of integrity as an altar with four. The final quality, claritas, refers both to “a brilliant color, warm hue, or right complexion” and “the communicability of the essence of a thing.” So, for example, a church building would lack claritas if, when the eye first beheld it, the thought that came to mind was “spaceship” instead of “church.” A man would lack claritas if he was dressed up as a female. The American flag would lack claritas if it was purple, black, and yellow instead of red, white, and blue.

Thomas Aquinas worked from a great tradition in his treatment of these constituent elements of beauty. However, he also added a new dimension to the objectivist understanding. With Thomas, new attention was paid to the perceiver and to his experience of beauty. For this reason, some are prone to consider him among the first subjectivists on this issue. In a sense he was, but not in the radically relativistic way in which most people understand beauty today.

Thomas would probably agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not in a way that would make beauty a matter of opinion, or subject to each individual’s personal feelings. Now, it is true that beauty pleases when it is seen. This is because there is an objective quality in beauty that solicits agreement with our consciousness. But, that does not mean that beauty is necessarily in the object. It is not in my visio, or perception of the object either. Instead, “beauty issues in the encounter between my visio and that object. The reason the thing pleases upon being seen is because my vision encounters the ‘splendor of being’ in that object.”

Fagerberg proposes three lessons we could learn at this point. First, if Thomas were asked the question, “Is something beautiful because it gives pleasure, or does it give pleasure because it is beautiful?” he would simply say, “Yes.” A model of the “both-and” philosophy of Catholic thought, Thomas acknowledged, as we have just seen, both the objective and the subjective components of beauty. Secondly, something is beautiful when it is what it is supposed to be, when it “shines forth (splendor) the thing’s essence.” Finally, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but only when the eye is not clouded by the deleterious effects of sin. As Fagerberg points out, “seeing beauty is an ascetical accomplishment.” It requires discipline and holiness.

This is where the catechist comes in. It is his responsibility not only to inject beauty into his catechesis, but also to help train and focus the collective “eye” of his audience so that they can come to see all that is good and true and beautiful about what God has made and what he has revealed to us through his Son and the Church. The catechist can do this in several ways.

For example, some of the most exemplary and prized of all paintings have as their subject a Christian theme. For every Catholic doctrine there is a great work of art. No mention of the creation story should be made without Michelangelo’s "God Creates Adam" somewhere in plain view. Similarly, is it even possible to discuss the Paschal Mystery without a painting of the crucifixion (perhaps the work of Diego Velázquez, El Greco, or Salvador Dali), or Leonardo Da Vinci’s "The Last Supper"? If it is, it shouldn’t be.

Of course, art isn’t the only source of beauty. The great Christian hymns of our Catholic tradition are quite beautiful, and they can help your audience transition from knowledge of a particular doctrine to praise of God for it. Accompany a presentation of the Eucharist with "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent" or Thomas’s own "Pange Lingua". Conclude a session on Mary with the "Ave Maria" or the "Salve Regina." Just about any example of Gregorian chant is well-suited to display the beauty of our Catholic faith and to arouse in the listener the appropriate feelings of adoration and thanksgiving. Poetry is particularly suited towards this end as well.

However you plan to accentuate the beauty of your catechesis, the first goal is always an increase in holiness for your audience. Prayer, reflection, truth, love, repentance, fasting, the sacraments – these are the instruments that expel the filthy fog of sin and allow the light of God’s revelation to penetrate the human heart. Only then can man truly see the beauty that God has in store for him, and only then can the catechist offer a relationship with He who fulfills all of our deepest longings: Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the most beautiful person who ever lived.


  1. Thanks for a great post. I like reading your blog, I learn so much. Keep up the great work!

  2. great paper Nick! I was left wanting more though, it ended too soon!

  3. Interesting, as a Catholic visual artist I like to read things like this. One thing I struggle with is what to make of physical beauty (as in a face). Cardinal Ratzinger's reflection on beauty explores this issue.



Related Posts with Thumbnails