Monday, November 08, 2010

The Call of Beauty: Excerpts from Benedict XVI's Homily at La Sagrada Familia

While there may be disagreement about the merits of Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, with some seeing it as a successful example of "the Other Modern" and others as a not entirely satisfactory attempt, I would like to lay that particular debate aside for the moment to focus on something which the Holy Father noted during his homily at that basilica.

I suggest we do this as I think it important to not lose sight of some principles which the Holy Father noted; principles which pertain to the importance of beauty as a visible sign of the invisible God. This is important as we live in a time when there is a certain amount of suspicion about beauty -- at least when it is found within the domain of the Church. It is my belief that what often underlay this is a rather shallow view of beauty which fails to either consider or to understand its deeper aspects; namely, its relation to the divine and to the heavenly.

Let us consider the Pope's words [with NLM emphases]:

[This work of art] stands as a visible sign of the invisible God, to whose glory these spires rise like arrows pointing towards absolute light and to the One Who is Light, Height and Beauty itself. In this place, Gaudi desired to unify that inspiration which came to him from the three books which nourished him as a man, as a believer and as an architect: the book of nature, the book of Sacred Scripture and the book of the liturgy. In this way he brought together the reality of the world and the history of salvation, as recounted in the Bible and made present in the liturgy. He made stones, trees and human life part of the church so that all creation might come together in praise of God, but at the same time he brought the sacred images outside so as to place before people the mystery of God revealed in the birth, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In this way, he brilliantly helped to build our human consciousness, anchored in the world yet open to God, enlightened and sanctified by Christ. In this he accomplished one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty. Antoni Gaudi did this not with words but with stones, lines, planes, and points. Indeed, beauty is one of mankind's greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like Him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness.

The Holy Father is here noting quite clearly that beauty is not a frill, nor a danger or distraction, but in fact "one of mankind's greatest needs" and something which reveals God. The Holy Father further notes that a work of beauty "calls us" and "draws us."

Fr. Armand Maurer, CSB, in his work, About Beauty: A Thomistic Interpretation, notes the following about the Greek etymology of the beautiful:
Beauty... has the subtle power of attracting and calling us. The Greeks knew this so well that they named the beautiful to kalon [τň καλόν], from the verb kaleo [καλέω] meaning to call or beckon.

I have noted in the past that beauty has a kind of evangelical power. Maurer's note here about the Greek speaks well to this same point I think. The beauty of our churches and of the sacred liturgy is not an end in and of itself of course, but it is important because it serves to call us and to beckon us to God.

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