Beauty is the Radiance of Truth

Graduale Aboense, hymn book of Turku, Finland....

Has the Church of the late 20th and early 21st century forgotten the importance of beauty for the soul’s search for truth and her longing for God? We continuously hear from the elite that music and art play no real significance in the Church or Her liturgies. But I wonder if that is so. In a previous article I wrote about the aspects of the Divine Love which let us recognize His Presence hidden among us: for instance, in Truth, Light, Goodness and Beauty. If one cannot see Christ’s connection in life to beauty then such a man displays a withered soul in need of the Eternally Beautiful that it might stimulate him.

Our art and our music are significant in that they can, when inspired, move our souls to the peace, love and tranquility that are but reflections of the One who gives the soul her true rest. Have we modern men forgotten how to love, how to expand our souls, how to be transported to another world by these mediums? Are we no longer humans, with a longing for beauty? If so, I am afraid that we have lost our sense of holiness just as we moderns have lost our sense of sin.

It would seem that this may be so if we were to walk into a modernistic church designed in the minimalist motif or listen to the modern hymns that transport the soul not to God but to an auditorium full of children gathered for a sing-a-long. Our hearts and souls contract when confronted with the inexpressive lines of minimalism. It shouts that there is nothing to say, nothing to long for, nothing to aspire to; it is just utilitarian in form and design and that is all that life can offer. In contrast to a gothic church, we do not see the hope for something timeless and eternal but instead see what is stark and sterile.

The same can of course be said of music which contracts our souls and sets our hearts square on the world. It was the other worldliness of Gregorian chant that once moved man’s heart, mind and soul to places it had never dreamed of going. It was a glance into the heavens and it expanded the souls of those who would listen to be transported as it were into a heavenly world full of angels, awe and mysteries of unspoken beauty. Our hearts ache for beauty as the human heart has always done. I do not believe, nor will I ever believe that the human heart and soul has lost its relish for beauty, goodness and love: we long for it and thirst for it as a foretaste of the All Good, the All Beautiful, the All Loving God of our dreams. It is a means through which we glimpse God Himself.

These external and superfluous additions to liturgy are not therefore pointless and they do not take our mind off of the mysteries and the incomprehensible goodness of the sacraments. Instead they draw one closer and expand our hearts to better receive Him, our God, our Love and the All Beautiful Christ into our longing souls who wait with awe and who thirst for His Holiness. For holiness consists, in part of unspoiled beauty, unspoiled goodness, unspoiled truth and unspoiled love.

When man no longer recognizes beauty he will no longer recognize God. I cannot for a minute think that man’s innate love for beauty was place within our hearts and souls for no reason. I do not find it of little value and little worth as we seek our Divine End for which we were made.

38 thoughts on “Beauty is the Radiance of Truth

  1. Minimalism has it’s own attractions. Whilst I agree a Gothic structure is beautiful, God is in minimalism and makes it beautiful. My whole life is structured around minimalism, as is that of our Monks and Sisters, and yet there is a sublime beauty in having no artistic impediments to the pure worship of God.

    Note I DO AGREE that many of the buildings constructed for worship are less than inspiring but even those, filled with people who love God, can make it a holy place.


    • I agree that the people and their attitudes are of the highest importance when we are seeking the holiness of God. But most human souls are not monks and are simply souls searching for God. Many more are attracted by beauty than not.

      As to minamalism as an art form, I think that it is not a universally embraced sense of beauty etched in the heart of man. It suits some people fine but I know of no one that is not moved by the old masters of painting, architecture and design. Modern art is for the few, at least in my opinion, and the Church Herself actually codified some of this in her Code of Canon Law which is amazing in itself. Our Popes have expounded on it over the years and I think they understand the interplay between the timeless beauty of inspired art and the worship of God.


  2. I agree completely. Last year, I was in D.C. for a few days on a family trip. I managed to find a space of about four hours that I was able to spend visiting the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. I don’t have the words to describe the beauty, the serene and majestic beauty encountered in the Basilica. All I can say is that, well, a hush came over my mind and soul. I couldn’t speak. The overwhelming desire to kneel and pray washed over me. There is definitely something about beautiful sacred art that moves the soul in ways that few other mediums can. I have yet to read anything that can move me as much as a striking image or sculpture.


  3. Im not talking about modern art. I am talking about minimalism as a way of life. The term has been co-opted by post modernism. Check Luke 9:3 for a description of minimalism.

    As to art, I am moved by great works but I know people who aren’t. There are people who aren’t moved by the great Basilicas but are still reverent people.

    As to the Popes expounding on it that’s true. But there is only one Pope at a time and many more Saints. Saints have discussed in depth the beauty of simplicity.

    God speaks many tongues and creates beauty in many ways.


    • I’m not speaking here of the minimalism of a spiritual life. I thought that would be clear to anyone. I am speaking in terms of glass and steel and smooth lines that express nothing but utilitarianism in art. Spirituality is a completely different subject and worthy for many posts in the future. You do a good job of speaking to these things on your blog and podcasts but this is a wholly different conversation. The art I speak of also does not need be a Basilica but even a small out of the way parish that has used art to speak to her members. It has worked successfully for many, many centuries and our best churches are still being built with the same sensitivities. Art and music as an aspect of beauty and as a reflection of the longing God placed in our hearts is the only point of the post.


  4. My soul and heart find God in listening to Gregorian chants. They focus our minds and thirst on God. I saw so many beautiful basicilicas and churches while in Rome, Orvieto, and Assisi last year that caused me to kneel inprayer. I saw God in those holy places. I also see and hear God in simpler churches like the ones run by Trappists. In St. Meinrad, Indiana, where the Benedictin (I can’t spell this morning) Archabbey is located, a small, and I mean tiny, chapel called Monte Casino sits amid the trees atop a steep hill. It is very simple and at most accommodates about 20 people and is open to the public only from May through Oct.. I feel very close to God in that small space, as though He is embracing me. Also, the beauty of the natural world and God’s creation is full of beauty. God is where you look for Him – whether in grand cathedrals, small chapels, outdoors, or in the face of others. Just my two cents worth.


    • I think your two cents is worth a lot. It is true that in all these places you found what I speaking of: God through beauty. Beauty can be in the small, the medium the large or the complete absence of art and music — just the music of birds, wind, waterfalls etc and the landscapes or seascapes God created. But in the realm of art, when man made art is used, then it should evoke these same feelings which are transmitted through that which is beautiful. The poor quality art and music of man is hardly to be called art in my mind because if shrinks the soul and does not expand it to love more or appreciate God in a way that the truly beautiful may.


      • I think if an image, sculpture, or any other medium, doesn’t elevate your thoughts in some way, or focus your mind on the sublime, then it doesn’t qualify as art, period. One of my problems with much of modern art is just how loosely they allow they word ‘art’ to be applied to so much junk that doesn’t qualify in any way.


        • I agree. The shiny, laminate like, clean lines bespeak of an antiseptic world that is made by a machine and not by an artist. Other examples have taken it back to the simplistic artwork of pagan villages or children’s art. There is no uplifting moment for the soul to gaze upon these. I think you called it by what it is: junk.


  5. This is in response to the comment you left on the picture of the Celtic cross. For some reason, it didn’t allow me to respond to your comment, only to make a new one. So, I’ll answer you here. The location of the cross is at the Rock of Cashel, in Cashel, Ireland. The Cathedral that’s there was built in the 1200’s. I’m guessing the cross, one of many Celtic High Crosses in Ireland, was built within 100 years of the Cathedral’s completion, though I’m not too sure on that regard. One of the most famous high crosses at the Rock of Cashel was destroyed in a lightning strike in 1976. That cross was built in the late 1800′s. The others there were built, I believe, from 1300 and on.


  6. Okay, after reading the comments, this is what I am thinking. Before I get started, let me say I ABSOLUTELY love beautiful art, whether it is music, poetry, painting, sculpture, or film. Some of us are so hungering to see beauty that if it were actually presented in the Mass with any sort of intensity, I think we would fall down crying…some of us. For others, that intense sort of beauty is too distracting. Of course, some can’t get into it no matter what for other reasons. This material beauty that you speak of should help those of us who are most weak in being able to stay focused on what is happening because not everyone has the ability to get to a spiritually deep place with so little evidence of beauty. Others do need more visual reminders, “sound” guidance, just to get focused. So, I guess it is hard to say which way is better because both ways are good, but people can benefit from either less stimulation or more. It would probably be good for the minister to assess what would help his particular flock the most. But I personally totally love seeing beauty in the Church and would not mind seeing more of it! God bless…


    • If people are distracted by beauty, then they are distracted by being confronted with one of the inate qualities of God. It should uplift the heart. If it does not, then I don’t know what to say. It seems to me that they are dead inside.


      • I was only thinking of something St. Teresa wrote in one of her books, where one of her nuns had to close her eyes to concentrate because visual stimulation distracted her. St. Teresa wanted to make sure that everyone could pray in a way that helped them. I think there was another nun who couldn’t get to silent meditation, too, who had to continue in the vocal always. So, I guess I was just saying some people just learn from God through different senses.


        • That is absolutely true. We are not to substitute man made beauty for God. I am not insinuating that at all. It is only to raise our minds and hearts up to Him. After that, most are drawn to close their eyes and to savor the movement which has drawn them closer to their Beloved. It is the same with chant. When it is over, it is time to observe silence with the Lord. Beauty, wherever you find it, is only useful if you use it to draw you near. The Bible is not God, the parish church is not God, the music is not God, the artwork or architecture is not God. It is only a way to help us recollect ourselves in God as St. Teresa would want us to before we pray. Thanks for your comments, they are very well said.


  7. In engineering we have a term, elegance, that means that every part is necessary to the function, with no extraneous stuff. That applies to a well executed modern church but, it also applies to a gothic Cathedral. It can apply to gregorian chant, Luther, or Handel’s hymns and nearly evrything else. But a poorly executed modern building, and many are, is an affront to man and God. In some places austerity is elegant, in others it can be cheap and tawdry appearing, execution matters, a lot.

    The most moving santuary I have ever seen is at Valley Forge, it’s a small, quite bare, gothic, I guess the term chapel would fit. other than the altar with its cross, the main decorations are regimental standards in the rafters, I know nothing of its history, I suspect it is very much after the fact, but no other edifice has ever moved me as much.


  8. Wow! After reading through all of today’s comments, I think we’re all in agreement that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Our quest for God can be achieved through simplicity or through ornateness. Various mediums lift our eyes, hearts, and souls to God.


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