All posts tagged: beauty

Benedict XVI Beyond the Liturgy Wars

Long before he assumed the Petrine Office, Benedict XVI wrote frequently on the important role occupied by music in the life of the Church. His love of music began with a childhood he himself described as “Mozartian.” Joseph Ratzinger grew up in a musical family; his father sang tenor and played the zither, and his mother frequently sang Marian hymns, often while washing dishes. Joseph himself studied piano beginning around the age of ten and counted Beethoven, Bach, and especially Mozart among his favorite composers. Although he later left the formal study of music to his older brother Georg, Joseph never lost his enthusiasm for the beauty of music, nor his reverence for its power to open a person up to an encounter with the divine. His writings speak eloquently of the connection between music and theology and the implications of this connection for the liturgical life of the Church. For many in parish music ministry today, the “style” question remains a hot-button issue: Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, hymnody, and praise and worship are not simply …

4 Reasons Why Christians Should Read Dante’s Paradiso

To insist that a Christian should read the Paradiso is a far more specific injunction than to enjoin her to read good religious literature where she can find it or even to read the Divina Commedia. It is more bold as well as more specific than even the latter, since it has become a cliché in 20th century reception of the Paradiso that poetically it is the least realized part of Dante’s great epic. The general opinion is that as a poet Dante is at his best in the Inferno, even if it has become a commonplace to express humanistic reservations about the sadistic forms of comeuppance to be found throughout all the circles of hell. Still, even for those critics who wish to impress on us their refined moral sensibility at its very worst the Inferno is a masterpiece of horror in which Dante provides objective correlatives for our deepest fears (explored in the series which this essay concludes). Thus, it should not come as a surprise that not only has the Inferno found a …

The Point Where the Ugliness of Our Individual and Communal Lives Is Transfigured

Throughout its long history, theology has certainly seemed more comfortable understanding itself through its claim to truth or goodness than to beauty. It is not that the connection between theology and beauty has never been notarized. One simply has to recall the early Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Dionysian tradition to realize that this is not true—even if beginning with Tertullian and proceeding through the iconoclasm controversy and on to the Reformation, faith in the Cross made it difficult to think of theology and beauty being anything other than bitter rivals, when it came to allure and existential pledge. Of course, throughout the long histories of Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant theologies, there have been internal corrections. The Catholic theologian Matthias Scheeben might  represent a correction within the late nineteenth-century form of Neo-Scholasticism, with its forged alliance between propositionalism and moralism. And, of course, in the Reform tradition no theologian showed a greater openness to beauty than Jonathan Edwards, without succumbing in the slightest to the emerging temptation to elevate beauty while essentially dethroning God. Pace …

Why Does Beauty Arouse Joy Even Among Suffering?

After rough treatment at the hands of its “cultured despisers” in the thick of the 20th century, beauty made a steady return to a place of prominence in academic discourse, especially in the field of theology, in the latter part of the 20th and the beginning of the current century.[1] Now a mainstay in theological conversation, the discussion of beauty tends to cluster around the series of issues surrounding beauty’s status as a transcendental and its consequent relation to God, on the one hand, and the beauty of creatures and creaturely making, or aesthetics, on the other. More neglected in this new frenzy of activity are the issues surrounding the individual’s experience of beauty. It is not difficult to see why this question would be neglected, as it stands under suspicion for its association with unsavory elements of a past intellectual hegemony. After all, ever since Kant we have been taught to ask about questions of beauty by looking internally, to the experiencing subject, and this had the result of reducing beauty to the eye …

The Redemption of Status and Hierarchy

The Met’s Costume Institute Exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” currently on view at the Met Fifth Avenue and The Cloisters until October 8th, threads through galleries of medieval and Byzantine art, bringing the sartorial art pieces into dialogue with the surrounding masterpieces. The promenade-style exhibit could easily become a gaudy intrusion rather than an exegesis of the beauty already embedded around it. But from the very first runway—a neck-craning collection of evening dresses which march through a hallway of Antiochene mosaics—”Heavenly Bodies” demands a transformation of the viewer’s encounter with the surrounding art. That first dizzying catwalk of gowns both catalyzes new contemplation of the existing art and playfully suggests a core theme of the exhibit—the displayed earthly beauty has, at its heart, a higher telos. In her May article on the Met Gala, Anne Carpenter posed the question: “Do our things die when we preserve them, or does preserving them keep them alive?” For all the Church is lauded for its tradition and its continual admonishment to our short memories to …

Met Gala: Catholicism Broken but Shining

“Yo que sentí el horror de los espejos,” says Jorge Louis Borges. “I’ve been horrified before mirrors.”[1] Such strange things, mirrors. Those mysterious surfaces that reflect the eye’s light back to itself.[2] Poets so like to speak of them. Perhaps out of vanity, and perhaps because in mirrors we see “darkly” (cf. 1 Cor 13:12). One can never quite tell with poets. As for mirrors: mirrors, they are everywhere. Mirrors are experienced “ante el aqua,” writes Borges. “Before water.” Before speculating water that imitates The other blue in its deep sky[3] Or mirrors exist in windows, some of which Rainer Marian Rilke describes as an “Auge.” “An eye, which seems to rest.”[4] An eye that “opens and bangs shut (zusammenschlägt) with a crack of thunder.”[5] It is as if both poets imagine entire worlds behind (beneath? within?) each reflective surface. I include the original languages if only to force the eye to pause, to interpret. To hesitate and search for understanding. After all, knowing is not like looking.[6] I cannot walk along and pick up …

Good Friday: Creation Always Exists in Darkness

The predominant Christological concept governing William Congdon’s 1960 painting “Crucifix no. 2” is that of kenosis. The painting conveys a sense of abject abandonment, leaving no doubt that Christ’s self-sacrificial act of obedience, “to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8), is indeed an ultimate form of self-emptying, and especially so, not in spite of, because of his being the God-Man. Beyond this immediate kenotic impression conveyed by the work, the Christological insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar can flesh out further the significance of this particular representation of Christ. How we understand Christ’s relationship to his mission and the significance of this relationship in Congdon’s image will be our focus. Then we will consider what it means to involve ourselves in the viewing of Christ’s mission–as Congdon’s representation does—especially in light of the fact that Christ is the ultimate form of revelation, the image that in fact structures all revelation. We shall ultimately see that theological reflection and artistic representation inform and draw out the deepest meanings of one another so …

The Cross Must Be Deeply Ugly to Be Beautiful

I first venerated the cross when I was attending a high-school model UN conference that had been accidentally scheduled during Holy Week. The conference was held in New York City near Times Square, and the neighboring church was the Anglo-Catholic Church of St. Mary the Virgin—colloquially known as “Smoky Mary’s” for the odor of incense that fills your nostrils when you enter the immaculate gothic nave. Its vaults are painted blue with gold stars and lined with red and gold trim. Its interior is perfect. After the passion was sung, we took off our shoes, like Moses before the burning bush, and proceeded through two stations of veneration, each with a server instructing us to bow and proceed, before finally kneeling to kiss the cross itself. Usually we kiss icons or relics, but why should we kiss an empty cross, and any old cross, at that? In classical literature, metonymy is a figure of speech whereby a part serves to represent the whole. The cross performs a similar function in Christian theology, for it means …

The Extraordinary Is Wed to the Mundane in the Catholic Imagination

“Words move, music moves / Only in time,” writes T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets; “but that which is only living / Can only die.”[1] One of the ideas that these poems stress is what we see in the lines I just quoted: for us, living, expressing, and being always involve time. We need time in order to do any of the things that we do. Yet, for this to be so, it always also means that the current moment is passing away. As G.M. Hopkins says, “I am soft sift / In an hourglass.”[2] Everything that we give slips through our fingers, never permanent, because the condition that makes our creativity possible, time, is also that by which we lose everything. We are poor creatures, unable to possess even the moment we exist in. But of course: Blessed are the poor. If we want to talk about the “Catholic imagination,” it is helpful to remember that we depend on time. We are not only creatures of time, but that in us which experiences eternity always …

Beauty Already Has Saved the World

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a presentation at “Illuminating the Incarnation: A Musical Meditation on The Saint John’s Bible,” a multi-disciplinary concert sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life, directed by Carmen-Helena Téllez of Sacred Music at Notre Dame, and performed on September 24, 2017 at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame. St. Paul concludes his letter to the Philippians with an exhortation: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. This is what we come here today to do: to place ourselves in the presence of something lovely, something excellent, something beautiful. Yet, this afternoon’s concert is not something that is merely meant to entertain us. This afternoon’s concert, like all great art, is something that is meant to transform us. We’ve come here to experience the beauty of Scripture in all of its truth, purity, …