I was recently invited, after a kind endorsement by Shawn and at the invitation of editor Marcio Campos, to write an article on the aesthetic theology of the pontiff emeritus for La Gazeta de Povo, a Brazilian newspaper running a feature on his abdication. It appeared, I believe, next to or somewhere in the general vicinity of an interview with the famous Father Zuhlsdorf on Benedict XVI's liturgical legacy. Those of our readers who can understand Portuguese can find the translation here; the original English text I wrote, follows below, and is substantially the same as the printed Portuguese save for a few cuts for length. Many thanks to David Clayton to his timely excerpt on the subject which appeared earlier here and served as a useful inspiration, as well as to Nathaniel Peters, who also pointed out Benedict's writings on Nicholas Cabasilas to me.
Some years ago, when I was studying architecture in Rome, we were all taken as a group to see Bernini’s marvelous altarpiece of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. In it, the great Baroque sculptor presents in stone, stucco and gilt that mystical moment when the great Carmelite was pierced by a burning arrow of divine love. I, too, was pierced by the depth and beauty of the work. As I prepared to write this, my mind returned to that afternoon in the silvery semi-darkness of Santa Maria della Vittoria and the softly-lit milky marble face of the saint, after two friends pointed me to the same passage in Benedict XVI’s writings.
In the then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s work On the Way to Jesus Christ, he describes truth as being “struck by the arrow of beauty that wounds man: being touched by reality, ‘by the personal presence of Christ himself,’” quoting the words of the Greek theologian Nicholas Cabasilas. Contemporary man mistakes beauty for superficial glamour, something “skin-deep” as the old saying runs. When journalists comment on the pontiff’s theology of beauty, they focus on the externals—the silk brocade, the red shoes, the mitres—and mistaken them for prideful display.
But the pope is a quiet man of culture, an amateur pianist who enjoys Mozart and the company of cats, not a pompous self-promoter. The trappings of office are intimations of a deeper reality for Pope Benedict. For him, true beauty is something that goes deep, that pierces the human heart. This transcendent beauty encompasses the whole of the truth of Jesus Christ, both glory and suffering—the light of the resurrection and the darkness of Calvary. As with St. Teresa’s vision, there is both pleasure and pain in the touch of beauty as it opens us up to God.
Elsewhere, Benedict XVI has written that the “only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” In an age which has lost the art of philosophical argument, this experience of beauty—in the sacrificial witness of the Christian life, and the physical beauty of art and architecture—allows us to bypass those defensive walls we have built up within ourselves against God. Benedict’s witness of beauty is thus an evangelical act, of preaching and outreach. Beauty is never merely about beauty.
On a more concrete level, Benedict’s love of art places beauty in the context of history, past and present. The elaborate papal rituals, the new legislation regarding the Tridentine Mass, and other acts which may seem archaic to non-Catholics and even many Catholics, are all attempts to place us in continuity with the Church’s two millenia of painting, sculpture, and music, all of which is intended to direct us to Christ. They represent not self-glorification, but a desire to merge with his office and become a pope at one with his predecessors. He does not want Joseph Ratzinger the man to distract anyone from Christ. It is for this reason that at many papal masses he has had placed on the altar a large crucifix, so both he and the faithful in attendance might look upon the same Christ and be pierced by the same ray of beauty that flows from Him.
While perhaps not the recipient of mystical visions, like Teresa Benedict XVI has been pierced by love and beauty. But as his abdication shows us, his heart has been pierced by many other arrows—sorrow, disunity, the burdens of the papacy, and the infirmities of age. There is beauty in the acceptance of such suffering as well, but let us pray for him as he enters into a much-deserved retirement where he will at last have time enough to pray, think, and even play a little Mozart on his piano.