Online Edition: October 2011
Vol. XVII, No. 7
Beauty as a Way to God
Pope Benedict XVI
General audience at Castel Gandolfo, Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Pope Benedict XVI, in his Wednesday audience August 31, reflected on the spiritual power of beauty — a way to prayer and contemplation of truth.
Dear brothers and sisters,
On several occasions in recent months, I have recalled the necessity for all Christians to find time for God, for prayer, amidst all our many daily activities. The Lord Himself offers us many occasions to remember Him. Today, I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with Him: the way of artistic expression, part of that “via pulchritudinis” — “way of beauty” — of which I have spoken many times, and which modern man should recover in its most profound meaning.
Perhaps you have experienced, at some time — before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of a poem or a piece of music — an inner emotion, a sense of joy; have perceived clearly that before you there stood not only matter — a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, a group of letters or a combination of sounds — but something far greater, something that “speaks”, that is capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.
A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human being who stands in wonder before the visible reality, and who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colors and sounds. Art has the capacity to express and to make visible man’s need to go beyond what he sees; it manifests his thirst and his search for the infinite. In fact, it is like a door opened to the infinite — to a beauty and a truth that goes beyond the everyday. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, carrying them higher.
But there are artistic expressions that are true paths to God, the supreme Beauty, and indeed are a help in growing in our relationship with Him in prayer. These are the works of art that are born of faith, and that express the faith. We can see an example of this whenever we visit a Gothic cathedral: we are enraptured by the vertical lines that shoot heavenward, drawing up our gaze and our spirit, while at the same time we feel both small and full of eagerness. Or when we enter a Romanesque church: We are invited spontaneously to recollection and prayer. We perceive that hidden within these splendid edifices is enclosed the faith of generations. Or again, when we listen to a piece of sacred music that vibrates the strings of our heart, our soul expands and is helped to turn to God.
I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach — in Munich in Bavaria — conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the cantatas, I felt — not by reason, but in the depths of my heart — that what I had just heard had transmitted truth, truth about the Supreme Composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: “Whoever has heard this understands that the faith is true” — true faith is so strong, and the beauty that expresses irresistibly the presence of God’s truth is the thirst and the search for infinity. In fact, it’s like an open door to the infinite, to a beauty and a truth that goes beyond the everyday. It is a work of art that can open the eyes of the mind and heart, carrying one aloft.
But how often paintings or frescos also, which are the fruit of the artist’s faith — in their forms, in their colors, and in their light — compel us to turn our thoughts to God, and increase our desire to draw from the Fount of all beauty. The words of the great artist Marc Chagall remain profoundly true — that for centuries, painters have dipped their brushes in the alphabet of color that is the Bible.
How many times, then, can artistic expression be for us an occasion that reminds us of God, that assists us in our prayer or even in the conversion of our heart! In 1886, the famous French poet, playwright, and diplomat Paul Claudel entered the Basilica of Notre Dame in Paris and there felt the presence of God precisely in listening to the singing of the Magnificat during the Christmas Mass. He had not come to the church for reasons of faith; indeed, he came seeking arguments against the Christians, but yet the grace of God worked in his heart.
Dear friends, I invite you to rediscover the importance of this way of prayer, for our living relationship with God. Cities and countries throughout the world house treasures of art that express the faith and call us to a relationship with God. Therefore, may a visit to places of art be not only an occasion for cultural enrichment — though it is that — but may they become, above all, a moment of grace that moves us to strengthen our bond and our conversation with the Lord, to stop and to contemplate — in passing from the simple external reality to the more profound reality expressed — the ray of beauty that strikes us, that “wounds” us deep within and invites us to ascend to God.
I will close with a prayer of a psalm, Psalm 27:4: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple”.
Let us hope that the Lord will help us to contemplate His beauty, both in nature and in works of art, so that we may be touched by the light of His countenance, and that we also may be a light for our neighbor. Thank you.
[Translation – HHHitchcock]