By Sister Mary Garascia
In our journey to holiness, our growth into the fullness of our capacity to image God, beauty is important. Beauty is a connector to God, something that, when we notice it, makes us pause and experience a moment of wonder. And wonder is human intuition that there is something beyond ourselves, beyond our understanding, something which the late 20th century theologian Karl Rahner called the Holy Mystery. And so beauty, which produces wonder, leads us into reverence of and union with this Holy Mystery. Let’s unwrap this a bit.
Many of us still think of God in ancient categories of thought: omnipotent (all-powerful), unchanging, all-knowing, pre-existent, infinite. Karl Rahner, together with other theologians working after Vatican II, said that our faith actually rests on a different understanding of God. Rahner’s bedrock idea is that God is a self-communicating God, and we know that because we experience it.
We experience God’s self-communication when questions about the meaning of life arise in our hearts, prompting us to search spiritually for answers. We experience the Holy Mystery communicating with creation when we ponder how potentiality springs into actuality, resulting in all kinds of new life. And we experience the self-communicating God through beauty. It is our own experiencing, questioning and wondering that makes us long for a relationship with the Source of our questions and wondering.
Philosophers call beauty, truth and the good “transcendentals.” Beauty, truth and the good are objective properties of all that exists, constants that persist throughout the varieties of cultures, religions and personal ideologies. But beauty has a specialness to it. Beauty brings pleasure to us. It touches our senses: our sight, our smell, our touch, our hearing, or perhaps more than one of them at the same time. It also satisfies or pleasures our understanding, because proportionality and relationship to other things are also qualities of beauty. Think of the amazing qualities of a beautiful building or a bridge or a quality car!
Perhaps because it relates so significantly to the body through pleasure, another 20th century theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, said that beauty that leads the way to the good and true. When we experience beauty, we ponder and wonder and we are prompted to relate to God. That relationship then leads us to act ethically (the good), and good action in turn brings us wisdom, the ability to discern truth.
In the 21st century, we have a chance to appreciate beauty in a new way. Cosmology presents the beauty of the universe itself to us. Think of the beauty of the nebula on the NASA website. Cosmology creates that sense of wonder in us as it tells the still incomplete story of creation. The universe we know through cosmology is one of motion and transformation, of ever-changing beauty.
Using that insight, theologians who use insights from cosmology envision a God of self-surpassing, ever-changing beauty. They speak of a Creator who is not outside of creation but imbedded in creation, inspiring it to continue creatively advancing in realization of its own potential, its own fullness of beauty.
But the universe is also one of entropy, of things falling into disorder or decay. This darkness or death is also an element of the beauty of the universe. When we look at an art painting, the empty or less developed areas provide the contrast that illuminates the subject of the painting. Or think of the necessary holes in a beautiful piece of lace.
It is difficult for us to look at decay and death as beautiful, but the universe teaches that it is OK. The universe is a dance of interdependence of becoming and ending.
The pleasure any beauty brings us ends, leaving us unsatisfied. We want just a little more of the beautiful concert, one more firework, just another minute of the setting sun. This was Augustine’s great discovery in his famous passage from his Confessions (Book X, Chapter 27): that the pleasure to be had from the beauty of worldly things was only a shadow of the Beauty ever ancient ever new offered and embedded within his soul.
And so spiritually that is where experience of beauty is supposed to lead us, from the wonder and from the wanting for more, to longing for union with the source of Beauty, Rahner’s Holy Mystery.
We are all busy people living in a busy world, but we are surrounded by beauty, if only we are attentive. There is “big beauty,” the Olympics presenting the beauty of culture and music and movement in the opening and closing ceremonies, and the beauty of the human body through the games.
But beauty is also in the small and ordinary things of life, things we take for granted and don’t notice, as Melannie Svoboda notes in The Grace of Beauty. It’s summertime, months of vacations and recreation. These summer months can also provide a bit more time for us just to notice, to attend to, the gift of the beauty around us and its Giver.
Sister Mary Garascia, PhD (Theology), is a member of the Sisters of the Precious Blood of Dayton Ohio, where she now resides. Until recently she lived and ministered at The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands. You can follow her weekly Sunday scripture blogs at PreciousBloodSistersDayton.org.