Beauty Has Pride of Place Print
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 26 June 2011

The French philosopher Jean Clair said in Paris in an address on the Cult of the Avant Garde (March 25 2011) that: “In the work of art born from Christianity, there is also something else, with respect to visual harmony and piety. There is also an heuristic approach to the world. . . .The artist is at the service of God, not of men, and if he depicts the creation, he knows the wonders of creation, he preserves in his spirit the fact that these creatures are not God, but the testimony of the goodness of God, and that they are praise and a song of joy. I wonder where this joy can still be felt, the joy that is heard in Bach or in Handel, in these cultural manifestations so poor and so offensive to the ear and to the eye, to which the churches now open their worship.”

This passage is part of a much larger address, but even these few words get to one reason for the cultural malaise in the Church right now – a missing component: beauty.

Catholic culture exists precisely because artists and architects, musicians and poets have been stirred by their faith to make the connection between expression and service of God. Politicians, lawyers, mothers and fathers are all in some sense artists expressing beauty, the true, and the good that are inextricably bound together.

Perhaps the most extensive modern writer on aesthetics, Hans Urs von Balthasar, once asked: “can the traditional idea of beauty subsist at all and be subsumed with the new under a common concept in an epoch of materialism and psychoanalysis, in the twentieth century when art is mainly concerned with proclaiming purely material relationships of space, surfaces, and bodies?”

Clair says, “yes,” because he is not buying this purely material concern (look at Henry Moore, or even Picasso for example). He rather is going for depth (a depth that we certainly know about from the history of art and music and the other fields) and saying let’s go there again.

Clair calls for an extended conversation on beauty in the Church because the loss of beauty means loss, too, of the cognates the true and the good. With the democratization of art, where anything is OK, so long as it is popular, there has been a loss first of all of the sense of being in the truth and goodness of a community, a community that has produced extraordinary works from Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal” to music by Beethoven. These titanic works were created by masters of their craft.

         Beethoven: his work is an integral part of what is Catholic.

Not everyone can produce such works, but they can be aspired to, and more importanly, understood as an integral part of what is Catholic. They can be looked to for inspiration and the art can be reproduced and the music can be played. Why settle for less? The community has treasure, why ignore it?

The extended conversation that Clair envisages would need the implementation of  a vast educational project, because a rediscovery has to be made. The Church community should learn to savor what the Catholic faith has inspired not in order to become savants, but to savor God. Listening to or contemplating what was produced in the service of God makes us servants of the Most High as well – provided that we can learn to see and to listen with engagement of mind and heart.

This is a proposal aimed at reaching a large number of people and preparing to say that the Church has a real beauty within it that you will not often find in the secular world. Instead of the “fast-food” approach to the Church – popping in for what I want when I want it – we invite people to come in for the beautiful, the good, and the true that are the Church’s because she is the Body of Christ.

And there can be a further step, exemplified by Augustine for one. Citing von Balthasar again: “It is not on account of his De Musica . . . that [Augustine] is always regarded as the founder of Christian aesthetics, but rather through the measure and rhythm of his actual experience, moving to the very edge of profligacy but always caught back into the current of a pastoral office with its humiliations. The idea of the beautiful that he established streams from all of the pores of his being.”

And hence, in part, the sainthood! Here is the goal of all the agonies and frustrations of Clair and the reason for von Balthasar’s analysis. It is because of man that the beautiful cannot be left out. It is an important part of man’s experience that must be nurtured and developed to show the full range of possibilities for human beings living in a world that will never be the same or a mere ordinary world again, because it has seen Christ.

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology. 
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