I commented on the beginning of Cardinal Ratzinger’s “The Beauty and the Truth of Christ” in my last post. I would like to continue this discussion with beauty as a form of knowledge. Perhaps you do not normally think of beauty as knowledge, but Ratzinger, quoting Cabasilas, posits true beauty as knowledge “in a superior form, since it arouses man to the real greatness of the truth.” Cabasilas differentiated between two types of knowledge. Ratzinger summarizes these for us as,
“knowledge through instruction which remains, so to speak, "second hand" and does not imply any direct contact with reality itself. The second type of knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge through personal experience, through a direct relationship with the reality.”
In other words the first kind is like studying theology or philosophy, and the second is like prayer or being awed by the beauty of Christ. Ratzinger comments on the need to better understand and experience this second type of knowledge:
“Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.”
Tied to beauty is joy. If we forget that God is Beauty and Joy, theological reflection will have little meaning for us anymore. Such as just knowing about God is not enough, knowing about his beauty is insufficient also. “The knowledge of God is very far from the love of him” (Pascal, Pensees #280). Furthermore, we are created for God and thus desire his beauty – despite what popular culture dogmatically teaches – and this desire draws us out of ourselves. Sometimes it is only upon experiencing an appetizer to his glory that we realize our deficit and crave it more.
Peter Kreeft believes that the argument from desire for God is the most moving argument for God’s existence because it is based on an internal source, not an external proof. This inherit desire for God is stirred up by His beauty whether we realize it or not. I attended a concert years ago that featured a solo pianist; I was so tired from traveling that I could barely stay awake to 45 minutes of key pounding. However, I never would have imagined a more beautiful concert; it broke my heart. When it was over, I wanted something more than just the appetizer; in fact it seems I intuitively knew there was something more, but I didn’t know what. I do now of course: the never tiresome, never boring, and unending Beauty of God. People often stress that in heaven we will experience the eternal Love of God, but this also entails an eternal encounter with Beauty ever new.
Ratzinger poses a practical question concerning the state of reason and its misuse: “Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?” Truth does not always seem reasonable, and falsities can be made appealing. This is precisely where the experience, nay, the impact of the beautiful has so much force against untruths.
“The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments.”
Beyond means of evangelization and didactic purposes, the Christian faith has been blessed with many icons for our holiness. I was attempting to summarize this for you, but it is just too good for me to butcher:
“Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendour of the glory of God, the "glory of God shining on the face of Christ " (II Cor 4,6). To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth.”
Every experience reveals mystery. Seeing beyond the outer experience of signs to the inward reality is something we as Catholics should be familiar with (if you are not, perhaps you should reconsider the sacraments). This is the sacramental vision which frees us from the limiting perspective of defining beauty by aesthetics alone.
In my previous post I drew a connection between beauty and suffering, both the suffering of the observer whose longing is not satiated, but also of the beautiful, Christ and his saints, whose suffering – no matter how insignificant or great, seemingly pointless or profound – is redeemed and glorified by God. However, it is not just their sufferings that are beautiful, but the goodness and truth of their lives, which sometimes can only be seen through a “purification of vision.” The more a person’s life represents the mystery of God, the more beautiful it will be. One of the most profound ways the beauty of God reaches us is through His people. Incidentally, I am going to close again with a quote about the saints in this lovely November; take it away Ratzinger:
“I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”
(Part three next week: objections to beauty)