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."


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