A popular quote we hear but may find hard to understand is the phrase “Beauty will save the world.” It was Fydor Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist, who composed this enigmatic phrase. However, when has it ever happened in the course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Indeed, beauty had provided embellishment or has uplifted but how will it save the world?
In today’s world, there is huge pressure on people to look perfect and beautiful. From plastic surgery to smoothing skin and erasing wrinkles to enlarging muscles and slimming waists, airbrushing, or “photoshopping,”, the bombardment does not do much for self-esteem. These images don’t reflect reality, yet from a younger and younger age, people are aspiring to these biologically impossible ideals, dangerously so. These are distortions of truth. If only people would realise that for 2000 years, God has been telling each one of us that we are beautiful in His eyes because we are created in the image of his Son.
In recent years, there has been a rediscovery of beauty as a way to truth. Poets and philosophers have long pondered the mysterious nature of beauty: Is beauty only what pleases or teases the eye of the beholder? Or does a more universal beauty exist that can attract people of all ages and cultures? What makes a person beautiful? Isn’t there perhaps something more enduring that offers a glimpse of the divine? Theologians call this the ‘via pulchritudinis’ or the ‘way of beauty’. It is a via, meaning a path towards something, and that something is God wherein our happiness too is found.
In the early years of the 20th century a dream was already forming in the mind of an Italian man, Blessed James Alberione, who would subsequently found a Congregation, the Disciples of the Divine Master, specifically for this ministry of promoting “dignity and beauty in the liturgy.” He saw a need for centres of diffusion to provide all that is required for the worthy celebration of the liturgy and a mission for the sisters to offer the ‘way of beauty’ in their ministry as Disciples of Jesus Master: “All that the Church teaches can also be said with works, with facts, through painting, with sculpture, with the construction of churches and with all that which is directly liturgy. Your apostolate is vast. When a painting represents a dogma, then it is clear that it is a sermon in itself!” (Bl. J. Alberione).
“Dignity and beauty in the liturgy” and “celebrate with dignity and beauty” were phrases coined by Fr. Alberione also to be used by his spiritual daughters in their ministry of promoting liturgy as a means of evangelisation. It was a call to proclaim Jesus as the Truth, a beacon for people to come to the Father. The faithful are drawn into the world of Christ not only by their faith or by strict symbols but also by the beauty of the church, its sacred atmosphere, the splendour of its furnishings, the rhythm of the liturgical texts and by the sublimity of its sacred music. In a world that has lost its sense of beauty and harmony, he saw the need to bring people to Jesus the Master and help them to “pray in beauty.”
Blessed Alberione was convinced that we cannot know Jesus Master if we have not experienced the Truth and indeed truth and beauty are espoused hand in hand in any credible journey of discipleship. In the words of the great Thomist philosopher, Joseph Pieper, “Beauty is the glow of the true and the good that shines forth from every ordered state of being.” First comes what is true, from which goodness flows and then comes beauty which shines forth from both. At the beginning of the procession is truth, just as the Son proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, there can be no beauty without the Good and the True. In this way, as Jesus himself self-defines, “I am the Truth” (Jn 14:6), “I am the Beautiful Shepherd (Jn 10:11).
Yes, beauty should be a path to truth and consequently to faith, but the modern world itself is disfigured and too often trapped in darkness. In contemplating the suffering of Christ, in particular, we see how He took on our infirmities and overcame our darkness. It is a challenging beauty, a deformed beauty, but a powerful one, with power to transform our own suffering and lack of beauty. It is a beauty that shakes us to the core, which illuminates us. Here we see that the beauty that saves is a person; Jesus is the Beautiful One, who will save the world. It is from here that Christ teaches us, not from a podium but from the wooden beams of the Cross. In this way, too, beauty purifies the heart and unifies what is dispersed by concentrating on what is essential. The contemplation of beauty helps us to distinguish what is necessary from what is contingent, Tradition from traditions, Truth from opinions.
We are like stained-glass windows, we sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, our true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within, that is, a profound desire to seek out what is true. Just as we thirst for truth, we thirst for beauty. We thirst for the divine connection with our Creator. People listen to glorious sacred music or visit opulent cathedrals, but while delighting in the beauty of the art therein, they appear to see these as hallmarks of mankind’s creativity and thus glorify man more than God. God’s beauty is what draws us to God, and this includes the mystery and glory of Christ on the cross, the utter distortion of divine-human beauty and yet its complete fulfilment. At the beginning and in the final fulfilment of all God’s ways stands the beauty of Trinitarian love. The beauty of the love of Jesus Master comes to meet us each day not only through the example of the saints but more so through the holy liturgy, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist where the Mystery becomes present and illuminates with meaning and beauty all our existence. Yes, Christ comes into our flawed existence as disciples but He sees the heart, the inner beauty and with our life, creates a perfect work of art!