Monday, November 17, 2008

The Joys of Catholic Beauty

With pleasure I succumb to beauty’s sweet enticing. I am entranced by the drenching perfumes of a Star Gazer Lilly. Its delicate deluge of elegance is so powerful I wince in pain to look away. The fluid movement of the evening colors at sunset, the transcendence of a woman’s dark eyes—with the intensity of religious zeal, beauty cries out for adoration. Beauty is like a prayer between God and I. I fall in love with every visual gift who walks by me. I fall in love with them and with God more.

Protested as idolatry, yet we continue to worship loveliness as a spiritual experience. People move with more reverent awe in an art museum than in a church sanctuary. It is an irresistible instinct to deify either the art or the artisan. Through the centuries, some psuedo-pious have stripped barren its churches of all ornamentation starving worship of sensual experience. My childhood stingy religion told me artistic creation was worldly and wasteful. I felt criminal at my secret yearning to ravish the world with artistic delights.

In a single moment, God harmonized what seemed like clashing forces into one radiant revelation. It was in Venice and I had been naively following my guide as he squeezed through a door… I followed….

I turned into St. Mark Square as in spiritual rapture. Loveliness exhausted every sensor till I almost burst with joy. God has been lavish, even excessively gratuitous with the marvels of Venice. The air is poetic with some otherworldly atmosphere. Then, as I entered the basilica I fell faint upon a seat at the base of a pillar. As if in some dreamy history I examined the intricate adornmentation of the column and my soul reached out to thank the craftman who lovingly created this for God’s glory. I traced with my fingers the curves the long-ago man had flawlessly, affectionately carved with callused fingers, knowing that In the Beginning He bent down and touched the moist clay in much the same way. In that moment I understood what reverent beauty was. The beauty that did not seek self—but beauty that humbles both maker and beholder.

At that instant I became Catholic, though I would not know it for many years. The Catholic Church sees the world as a sacrament and the mountains and grasses and birds—all His way of visually dazzling us. How wretched we are to call bad what He called good. We respond to this love by mimicry… we shower His world with our creations—the “frozen music” of architecture. We “shadow the divine” with our art. We speak as He spoke with our music. Catholics understand the sacrifice of creation and worship Him with perfumes and bells and illuminations and manna and fine wine to bring flesh to the mysteries of divine consummation. And it brings a drenching richness to worship that expands your capacity to love Him. I now look back on the frugal poverty of my past worship and I am brought to my knees in thankfulness for His voluptuous extravagant beauties.