Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Beauty That Wounds & Heals

"The Beauty That Wounds & Heals" By Fr. Gabriel Gillen, O.P.
The Dominican Province of St. Joseph

When you walk in, you look up. In the afternoon, the stunning gothic nave is suffused with soft blue-and-red light from the magnificent stained-glass windows. Your eye is attracted - intrigued - by the intricate gothic stonework, the images in the windows, and the rich details of the rood, the high pulpit and the side altars. The noise of the city recedes, and for a moment you might think you have stepped into a small French gothic cathedral. Irresistibly, your eye is drawn toward the sanctuary, to its splendid marble high altar and the impressive reredos behind it. Before it hang seven oil lamps, burning in vigil before the Presence in the golden tabernacle. I'm told that Grace Kelly called this church - St. Vincent Ferrer - the best place to pray in New York City. I concur.

This week I've been visiting St. Vincent's, and I've been watching how people behave when they walk in. Yesterday afternoon, I saw a representative of almost every social class in New York: the upper East Side matron, tastefully (and expensively) attired, kneels and lights a candle; a waitress on her way to work prays on the sanctuary steps; a middle-aged man, bowing his bald head, prays before the Blessed Sacrament. In walks a young couple carrying backpack and camera: tourists. Clearly, they are not used to being in a church, but what happens next is fascinating. Their voices fall to a whisper, and their bold tourist-with-a-guidebook posture is transformed into the humble stance of pilgrims entering a holy place. The man folds his hands. The woman gazes upward.They are tourists no more.

"It's hard to reach some young people these days," a priest friend of mine said recently. "But I think the key is beauty. If you're trying to evangelize them, beauty does a lot of the work for you."

Pope Benedict XVI would agree. He has written eloquently on the connection between the truth of the faith and beauty, and the pressing need to restore beauty to the center of the Christian experience. "Today we are experiencing, not just a crisis of sacred art, but a crisis of art in general of unprecedented proportions," he wrote as Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. We are losing the deepest dimension of the experience of true beauty - that beauty is more than something pretty or pleasing, it is not merely glamorous or an aesthetic experience; rather, it can draw us out of ourselves and give us a glimpse of the True; it makes us long for it and love it, even though we do not fully understand it.

Imagine the young couple I saw in church this week as they enter a typical museum. They would quickly acquire the audio guide, or they would stand mesmerized in front of an interactive computer display. Blinded in a blizzard of didactic instruction, they might well miss the real beauty before them.

Entering St. Vincent's, or any really beautiful church, is a very different experience (or, at least, it ought to be). A living gothic church is a place of mystery. Its art is pleasing, and it certainly aims to teach with its images - indeed, to communicate saving truths - but it is not simply didactic. It gives knowledge not through words, but by drawing us into contemplation of the mysteries of the faith. It seeks to bring us into contact with those very realities, through the experience of beauty. And encountering these deep realities with longing is an excellent beginning of prayer.

Why is it that beauty evokes in us a longing, a nostalgia - even a kind of pain?

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us towards the truly Beautiful, to the Good in itself."

Truly beautiful art, though experienced through our senses, can open our inner eyes to a vastly more beautiful realm. The most beautiful things cannot be seen, touched, or heard: they are the beauty of truth, the beauty of love, the beauty of the kindness and joy of the saints (think of the gentle smile of Mother Teresa) - and ultimately, the beauty of our God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son for our sake.

The face of Christ must have been the most beautiful face that ever existed, as the Gospels suggest. Looking into that face, the Apostles walked away from their homes and their livelihoods to follow Him. With a glimpse of that face, crowds followed Him and sought to touch Him. Moved by the love of that face, the sinful woman bathed His feet with tears of repentance and dried them with her hair.

High above the nave of St. Vincent's, where it joins the sanctuary, there is an ornate wooden cross. From it, the face of Christ looks down on His people. We gaze upon that face which still attracts us though it is beaten, crowned with thorns, spat upon, and reviled - for our sake. In that beautiful face - the face of Truth itself - is our salvation. As Psalm 80 says: "Let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved."

"We must learn to see Him," wrote Cardinal Ratzinger. "If we know Him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of His paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know Him, and know Him not only because we have heard others speak about Him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ Himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom His own light becomes visible."


Sunday, September 19, 2010

At This Altar

" 'At this ... altar let innocence be in honor, let pride be sacrificed, anger slain, impurity and every evil desire laid low, let the sacrifice of chastity be offered in place of doves and instead of the young pigeons the sacrifice of innocence.' (Taken from the Consecration Of The Altar.)

"While we stand before the altar, then, it is our duty so to transform our hearts, that every trace of sin may be completely blotted out, while whatever promotes supernatural life through Christ may be zealously fostered and strengthened even to the extent that,
in union with the immaculate Victim, we become a victim acceptable to the eternal Father."

Taken from Article 100 of Pope Pius XII's Mediator Dei.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Preaching The Beautiful

A preacher is someone whose life is dedicated to sharing and proclaiming the truth - the truth that is Jesus Christ. While the truth speaks very powerfully to the mind, the heart must also be addressed. Pope Benedict has pointed out that beauty is the language native to the human heart. He once said: "The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of an arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes so that we can see the truth more clearly." The Holy Father insists that truth and beauty belong together and that they must be presented together. He does so because he knows how much man needs both truth and beauty in order to appreciate and live the fullness of the Christian life. God is not only true; He is also good and beautiful.

Beauty serves the sacred liturgy by expressing the honor and glory due to the Triune God we worship, as well as by appealing to our own hearts and convincing us of the Truth that we encounter in the sacred liturgy. Pope Benedict writes, "I think that the great music born within the Church is an audible and perceptible rendering of the truth of our faith. In listening to sacred music - suddenly we feel: it is true!" The preacher, in his mission to communicate the truth of the Gospel, finds an indispensible ally in the power of beauty to move human hearts to embrace the fullness of the truth. As the Holy Father once exclaimed upon hearing a piece of sacred music: "Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true!"

A passage from the Article "Preaching The Beautiful," An Interview with Brother Michael O'Connor, O.P.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


During the summer I was able to rekindle some of my artistic abilities. This is among the fruit of my artistic rejuvenation, a pastel drawing of the mystical Pegasus sweeping across the starry sky. The inspiration for this drawing was that my room mate and I wanted a "wing" theme in our room (literally), so after browsing the internet for anything and everything "wingsical," I thought a Pegasus would be appropriate. There was one particular picture that really struck me, but it was tiny! So I decided to take matters into my own hands. This is the finished project. The first picture was my inspiration.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Alone And Pensive

Alone And Pensive
By Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)

Alone and pensive, the deserted fields
I measure with steps deliberate and slow;
and my eyes I hold in readiness to flee
from a place marked by human footsteps.
No other defense I find that can save me
from the peering eyes of people;
because when laughter and cheer are spent,
from outside can be read my inner flame.

So I have come to believe that mountains and beaches
and rivers and woods know of what fibers
is made my life, hidden from others.
Yet paths neither so rough nor wild
can I find were Cupid does not seek me always
to debate with me, and I with him.