“The excellence and greatness of Art, and also of the liturgy, is that in the middle of the sensible (colors, sensations, strokes, music), Infinite Beauty is hidden, that which the human heart seeks tirelessly, that tireless search that ends in God.”
By Oscar Daniel Castrillo
Occasionally, I have wondered how it is possible that Vivaldi wrote ‘The Four Seasons’ or Quevedo wrote his so-praised sonnets. It is truly impressive that such expressions of beauty can come out of human creativity. It seems an unfathomable mystery, extraordinary, but what is even more extraordinary is who created the possibility of creating art, who made it possible for humans to touch divinity with their fingers for a few moments and ascend to celestial levels of beauty. And this can invite us to meditate on what is the meaning of Art in God’s plan for the world.
I have always been of the opinion that although reason is essential to access many truths about humanity, feelings, or rather, Beauty, can also lead us to Truth, because, paraphrasing the German poet Hölderlin, sometimes what is Truer is usually the most beautiful, and that is what happens with God. And, as Benedict XVI would say, the Catholic faith is not delivered by a series of personal deductions, but by a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, which is to find at once a heavenly Father who always loves us and waits for us. Something like this happened to the French philosopher Paul Cladel, who, seeking arguments against Christianity, entered the Basilica of Notre Dame, and, being moved by the beauty of some children singing the ‘Magnificat’, and after having experienced the grace of God acting like a crush over his heart, became a Catholic.
Art is a window through which the grace of God can act in our hearts. It is something that disturbs our spirit, that does not leave us indifferent. Listen to a song that moves us, that transmits that intimate joy in our interior, that guarantees us that we have a soul, a spiritual existence. That is one of the things that makes us different from animals, which makes us truly human.
I remember that, when I was in Rome a few years ago, I experienced possibly the most beautiful and mystical experience of my Christian life. As I was contemplating the ‘La Piedad’ by Miguel Ángel, while listening with headphones to Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’, I remembered the Gospel verse that said that a sword would pierce through Mary’s soul. I could not help but be moved by looking at the serene face of Mary in the sculpture, which shows the serenity and Christian resignation of the one who trusts in God, even when she has her son in her arms, sacrificed and tortured to free us from the weight of our sins. It is the anguish of a mother who deep down knows that the will of the Father has been done. And it was in these very moments, that I realized that I had finally found the Truth. I experience something very similar in the Chrism Mass every year in the cathedral of my Diocese, when my Church is immersed in incense, candles and solemnity, and angelic voices sing the Passion as we meditate on it with penitential meaning. The excellence and greatness of Art, and also of the liturgy, is that in the middle of the sensible (colors, sensations, strokes, music), Infinite Beauty is hidden, that which the heart of man seeks tirelessly, that tireless search that ends in God.
This appreciation of art as a way of approaching God has been very much discussed in the Magisterium of Benedict XVI, so I recommend that you read your catechesis about art and your encounters with artists in the Sistine Chapel. Art is an expression of God’s love for humanity. Peering into this we see a warm glow of beauty and love that seduces us, that excites us and passion, that is only a slight reflection of divine love, the love of a Father who would not have needed us, but who creates us out of love. How many times, when discovering a song, with a beautiful music and voice, or enjoying a story that has marked my heart, I have given thanks to God in my interior for his infinite mercy, which gives us so many graces and fruits. To this day, that art has helped me to value life as it deserves, to value family and romantic love, which helps me move away from sin. Creative people become, for a moment, an all-powerful creator who elaborate fictional worlds, stories and characters from nothing, express feelings, emotions, human values and moral teachings.
That is the greatness of the narrative arts. How with characters that do not really exist, the author can bring emotion to the audience and soften our hearts of stone, to show a vital teaching or help us empathize with a character. In this way, creative people participate in the work of the Creator and are capable of transmitting truth and beauty to humanity. Thus, when we contemplate the greatness and complexity of romantic love in a narrative, we perceive it as a beautiful reflection of the love of the Heavenly Father. It is difficult, as Yukio Mishima would say, that others can fully understand what we feel inside, perhaps impossible, but that is precisely what is the beautiful, that our sensitivity is something only ours, that nobody can steal from us. That exaltation that disturbs our soul, that agitates our sensibility, that connects us emotionally to a history that leaves a mark for us forever, opens us the doors of transcendence.
Beauty, then, is meant to trouble us. It excites us, it exalts and it even hurts, but it does not leave us indifferent. We become aware of the presence of God in what gives us the pure and authentic feeling of Beauty1 , we disarm ourselves from our defenses to let ourselves be hurt by it, and that is how we find the supreme beauty that is God, as we come out of ourselves and we overcome the barrier of the sensitive and touch the transcendence with our fingertips. The theologian Von Balthasar would say that “Of the one whose countenance twitches at the mere mention of his name – for for him beauty is only an exotic trinket of the bourgeois past – we can assure that, openly or tacitly, he is no longer capable to pray and soon he will not even be able to love.” 2 It is when man perceives absolute beauty and seeks it insatiably, when God inclines his hand. And, in the words of Benedict XVI: “An essential function of true beauty, already highlighted by Plato, is to give man a healthy «shaking», which makes him get out of himself, he starts from resignation, of the adjustment of the day to day and even makes him suffer, like a dart that wounds him, but precisely in this way he «wakes up» and reopens the eyes of the heart and mind, giving wings and pushing it to the top. The expression of Dostoevsky that I will quote is undoubtedly bold and paradoxical, but invites reflection: «Humanity can live – he says – without science, can live without bread, but could never live without beauty, because there would be no reason to be in the world. The whole secret is here, the whole story is here.» In the same line says the painter Georges Braque: «Art is made to disturb, while science reassures.» Beauty impresses, but precisely in this way it reminds humanity of our ultimate destiny, puts us back on track, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live the unique gift of existence in depth.”3 And so, absolutely wrong those who focus so much on the reasoning to convince others and forget, that, in effect: “Beauty is knowledge, a higher form of knowledge, which reaches man with all the greatness of the true.”4
When we enter a cathedral, its majesty, its high vaults and the order and intelligence of its design should remind us of the supreme source of all beauty and intelligence, which is God. That is why, in my opinion, it is so important to maintain the traditional forms in terms of music in the liturgy and architecture. When today the faithful enter the churches of contemporary inspiration, they realize that their walls no longer inspire beauty, they no longer inspire order and intelligence, they do not inspire Truth, and they do not inspire Faith. And that is why I think we should strive to create more beautiful churches, and in recovering and preserving the liturgical treasure that the Church has had for centuries for mass and adoration, inciting the faithful to the solemn contemplation of the renewal of Christ’s sacrifice. We can not allow the Eucharist to become a festival where silence is lacking or to meditate, or solemn music that invites contemplation. We can not allow the faithful never to have heard the ‘Tantum Ergo’ or the ‘Pange Lingua’ that so much fervor and piety have produced in the souls throughout the centuries, that they have brought so many graces to the Church.
In fact, I remember that many times I have heard that had he been a Catholic, Bach would be canonized. By listening to the music of Bach, he truly transmits to us what emanates from the word of God. Bach was a theologian who instead of words used scores, and through the infinite beauty of his work, takes us to the Truth in the same way that the books of philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas could take us. His ‘Passion of Saint Matthew’ is a truly supernatural work, which I am sure will have converted hundreds of people to the Christian faith over the centuries. Listening to prayers is a suggestive way of transmitting faith, which encourages conversion, since, by hearing others pray, the faith of others soaks us. And European art, especially classical music, is full of music and songs that are authentic prayers, and, in addition,
Currently, the role of art in the lives of human beings has been humiliated, forgotten. Modern humans have reduced all their existence to the corporeal, and have completely forgotten to feed the soul and cultivate that which makes us unique. But we Christians can not let ourselves become infected by this spirit. And hopefully we know, at a time when the ugliness, the baseness, the abstract, reign more and more, that we can recognize true beauty and true art wherever they are, and we can know how to defend and enjoy it, in order to deepen our inner life and to glorify God. Thus, we can carry the Truth that will set humanity free. And, as the Japanese writer Hisako Matsubara said: “Beauty opens hearts and provokes in men a state of mind thanks to which they become aware of the true values of life.”5 That is how we can distinguish what is truly beautiful, and what will unalterably remain so, for ever and ever. So be it.
1 WEIL, SIMONE, La pesanteur et la grace, Paris: Plon, 147, 1988, 198.
2 BALTHASAR, HU VON, A Theological Aesthetics, Madrid: Ediciones Encuentro, 1985, 22
3 BENEDICT XVI, “Meeting with artists in the Sistine Chapel”, 1045-52
4 RATZINGER J., Ways of Jesus Christ, Madrid: Cristiandad, Madrid 2004, p.36
5 HISAKO MATSUBARA., Samurai, Tusquets, Barcelona 2006, p.103.