June 1, 2012

Worship Beauty and Know God

Sebastian Elavathingal

Via Pulchritudinis, “the way of beauty” is a favourite theme of Pope Benedict XVI[1]. He speaks and writes on beauty and its significance in Christian spirituality with great conviction and enthusiasm. According to him, beauty can lead us to prayer and contemplation and it is our way to God.

Via Pulchritudinis is the rediscovery of a spiritual tradition which was forgotten in the Church, especially in the western tradition, for a long time. Pope Paul VI[2] initiated the movement to reinstate beauty and art in the life of the Catholic Church after centuries of negligence caused by different historical circumstances. He confessed in moving words the failure of the Church to understand artists and regretted the loss caused by mutual suspicion and alienation. Pope John Paul II[3] continued the efforts to bring artists back to their spiritual function as interpreters of divine mystery.

What is the role of beauty in our spiritual search? Religion can stagnate and degenerate into lifeless formalism, habitual ritualism, blind dogmatism and merciless fundamentalism if it seeks to serve truth without beauty. It is the cause of all conflicts and divisions in the name of God who, as all religions believe, is Love and Love alone. Unfortunately all the religions have the temptation to possess and monopolize God in the form of a definable truth which is conformed to their own fixed notions of God. But what is always forgotten is the fact that the experience of the Truth of God is inseparably the experience of the Beauty of God.

The truth which we often hold as God’s truth is but the dry, lifeless and skeletal human construct of God. It falls short of the divine mystery which is manifest in the myriads of wonders happening in and around us, surpassing all the boundaries of our concepts and imaginations. God reveals himself to us not as a truth which we know, define, profess and confess but as the Beauty which we see, praise and worship with our whole being. The realization of the divine truth in its glorious manifestation brings us to our knees in admiration and love. Thus we can say that the experience of God’s Truth is inseparable from the experience of God’s Beauty.

Our search for God has to proceed not from the intellect but from the heart. The knowledge that comes from the heart is motivated by love and admiration. In such knowledge the knower is overcome by the known and the ensuing expressions of this experience are necessarily poetic and artistic. The historical and practical understanding of truth and its exposition in logical premises cannot be considered valid for such a theological or spiritual discourse. It is in this sense that we can say that the way to God is the way of beauty – the way of art and poetry, the way of creative imagination.

In the eastern Christian tradition the spiritual significance of beauty has got greater recognition than in the western tradition. The two traditions had to take divergent ways due to some historical conditions. The principle of lex orandi, lex credenti which means “the law of prayer is the law of faith” is the accepted norm of the Eastern Church when it comes to theology and spirituality. According to the eastern tradition, worship is the way that leads to faith and to the knowledge of God. It is not a discursive process of the intellect but an affective attitude of the heart at the perception of the glory of God.

We come to a closer and deeper experience of God, when we see God’s Truth adorned with Beauty and we are overwhelmed by admiration and love. The way to God is beset with the marvels of God’s great deeds which evoke in the beholder faith and love and ruptures of praise. Seeing the glory of God is the luminous way to the knowledge of God. The great mystics are visionaries of God’s beauty which is manifested in multifarious forms but united by the inner web of the Spirit in a miraculous manner. They are overwhelmed at the perception of the inner harmony, rhythm and design of the universe which is inaccessible to those theologians who trust their practical sense and logical acumen and fail at the same time to abandon themselves in worshipping the ineffable mystery.

[1]Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Artists on 21 November, 2009; See Zenit org. ZE09112202 – 2009-11-22. See also, Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Pontifical Academies on 17 December 2010.

[2] Pope Paul VI to artists during the “Messa dell’Artista” in the Sistine Chapel, 7 May 1964; Cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 (1964), 438-444.

[3] John Paul II, Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists (April 4, 1999), No. 5.