Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Beauty and Holiness

All Saints

Today’s Solemn Feast draws us to contemplate, admire, and emulate the beauty of the Church in her Saints. Now this may seem strange to speak of the saints as being beautiful. The term ‘beautiful’ would commonly be associated with art. When we use the word "art," thoughts of paintings and statues in museums or galleries generally come to mind. When we refer to “the arts," music, poetry, dance, theater, etc. are added to the list. Not too long ago, the interior of our churches were beautifully and magnificently adorned with masterpieces of art depicting Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, in the form of statues, stain glass, murals, paintings, icons and frescos. But in the iconoclastic upheaval since (and not because of) Vatican II, many of our churches were literally whitewashed. (It is interesting to note that those who often style themselves as enemies of beauty or anything aesthetically pleasing often find themselves trivialising holiness) The Church’s artistic patrimony was replaced with functional technology and grotesque minimalistic representations of the sacred. Banal pop tunes and folksy ditties became staple repertoire of our choirs and Protestant inspired buntings were passed off as art.

So, how are the saints beautiful? Am I just referring to the statues of the saints which we have summarily exiled to the narthex (what you would commonly call the front porch of the Church)? Before we consider the relationship of beauty to that of holiness of the saints, let us first consider the concept of beauty. Beauty is more than just subjective aesthetic sensibility. Great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas teach us that beauty is a quality, either natural or man-made, that delights the senses, the mind, or the soul. Beauty reveals or is a reflection of goodness, perfection, clarity, and simplicity. It is objectively attractive by its very nature. Beauty draws us out of ourselves toward something other. Most importantly, beauty is not something we consume, but it is something that must be contemplated in order to be enjoyed. In other words, we must receive it and allow it to shape us. Beauty is something to ponder or to meditate upon. It opens us to the infinite!

Even here, when speaking of beauty in the secular sense, one can already appreciate the inherently transcendental quality of the concept. We could easily substitute the word ‘beauty’ with ‘God’ or ‘holiness.’ According to St Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle’s thought, beauty is counted as one of the transcendentals, the others being ‘one’, ‘good’ and ‘true’. The transcendentals are the properties of being that transcend the limitations of space and time.  Man ultimately strives for the perfect attainment of the transcendentals. In other words, man desires Perfect Union, Unsullied Goodness, Absolute Truth and Supreme Beauty. It is a search that can and may lead him to God. The Catholic Church teaches that God is Himself One, True, Good, and Beautiful. These are not merely attributes or qualities of God. There is a metaphysical reality to the transcendental that bespeaks of God himself. One need only to look at the way St Augustine used the word “beauty” in his most famous quote, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!” For St. Augustine, “beauty” is another word for God Himself. God is not simply beautiful; He is Beauty.

Since man’s contemplation of the beautiful is ultimately a contemplation of God, then his desire for beauty is ultimately a hunger for holiness, a life in union with God. Beauty has an ability to pierce our hearts, to break them wide open so they can be filled with God’s presence. We sense God’s awesomeness, we sense His truth, and we sense His utter goodness, because none of these can be separated from His beauty. Last week, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, after attending a documentary entitled ‘Art and Faith’ spoke of the language of art as being a 'parabolic' language, “with a special openness to the universal: the 'Way of Beauty' is a way capable of leading the mind and heart to the Lord, to elevate them to the heights of God.” Beauty is always a reflection of holiness, for holiness is, at its core, a full harmony with the Divine; letting the Radiance of the inner life of the Trinity shine through the holy one. St. Augustine was correct when he wrote that “beauty is the splendour of truth”. Holiness is lovely in the sight of God. At the opposite extreme from the beauty of holiness is the hideousness of sin.  Sin is a deformity, a monstrosity. Sin defiles and distorts beauty, the good and truth. Sin is ultimately repulsive and repellent to God.

The power of beauty can work in reverse. We see this in sin. Just as we grow in holiness when we contemplate beauty, whenever we cast beauty from our lives, misuse beauty, or corrupt that which is beautiful, we develop vices. Pornography is a mockery of beauty. Whether we realise it or not, our environment has a great power to shape us. If we expose ourselves to truly beautiful places, truly beautiful objects, truly beautiful liturgy, and truly beautiful people, we desire to become beautiful ourselves because beauty awakens our desires for the higher and nobler things of life. But if we expose ourselves to places, things, or people that are devoid of beauty, our taste for the higher and nobler things of life is dulled and corrupted, and we begin to accept a life without beauty. In fact, over time we can lose our ability to recognise beauty when we see it—especially the beauty of moral goodness in the saints. And it is then that we lose hope.

If you remember the old penny Catechism, which seems to offer profoundly complicated tenets of our belief in digestible sound bites, you would know that whole purpose of this life is to become holy so that we can live with God forever in heaven. Our goal is to become like God Himself, in whose image we have been created. If God is Beauty Itself, as St. Augustine suggests in the quote above, then perhaps we can refer to this process as beautification! Interestingly, the word used to describe the process where the Church comes to recognise that someone is a saint is called ‘beatification’ (the third of the four steps in the process of canonisation). Therefore, being a Catholic and called to live a life of holiness is really a process of becoming more beautiful. To be transformed by His Power to be Holy is true Beauty. To be holy is to be like God, and thus to become Beauty itself. Therefore it is no wonder that the Church speaks of heaven as Beatific Vision. St Paul tells us that in heaven, we will see God “face to face.” We will behold the splendour, the majesty, the glory and the beauty of God in all its radiance and be consumed by it.  

But perhaps, all of this seems too lofty. We may be accused of a form of idealism or escapism. Contemplation of holiness and beauty may seem fine up in the clouds, but brings us no closer to its realisation in the here and now. It is here that the Church presents the beauty of the saints for our contemplation. The saints show us that the concrete realisation of beauty to which we are called as Christians is possible. They are epiphanies of beauty that reveal through their all too human life experiences and struggles, that holiness can be incarnated. In fact they offer a kaleidoscopic view of the Icon of Beauty, Jesus Christ - God became man in order for men to become gods. The Saints provides us a visual representation of heaven, together they depict the Church at its apex, its glorious perfection, the beautiful Bride, the New Jerusalem with Christ as its bright shining sun.

A Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky once made this audacious claim that “Beauty will save the world.” It seems hard to imagine how this is possible until we recognise that the Beauty which he speaks of is God himself. The saints are living testimony to this claim. It is no wonder that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, believes that beauty is a path to God who is the source of all beauty. He is convinced that the most persuasive proof of the truth of Christianity, offsetting everything that may appear negative, are the saints, on the one hand, and the beauty that the faith has generated, on the other. He believes that for faith to grow today, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to come into contact with the beautiful. He has, therefore, proposed during this Year of Faith that the Church should enter into a deeper reflection on the lives of the saints, a catechesis not based on theory alone but articulated through the living testimonies of these men and women. Given the deep suffering in our world, a world whose beauty has been marred by evil and man has sunk into the mire of sin, a superficial beauty cannot satisfy the human heart. But, as the Pope once wrote that the paradoxical beauty of Jesus Christ — of that love that goes "to the very end" on the cross — can and does answer our deepest human need. In the person of Jesus, we see that real beauty does not deceive. It is one that saves!


A man, in fact a Pope, who truly believed in the power of the heroic witness of faith and sanctity found in the saints, was Blessed John Paul II. During his 26 year pontificate, Blessed John Paul II named more saints and blessed than all his predecessors combined. He celebrated 147 beatification ceremonies, during which he proclaimed 1,338 blesseds and performed 51 canonisations for a total of 482 saints. It was no wonder that the secular press often accused him of operating a “factory of saints.” He constantly refuted the claim that we have “too many” saint. According to Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, there were three principal reasons for the saintly Pope’s enthusiasm in seeing the beatification of saints or the beautification of the Church.

The first reason the Pope gave was that he, by beatifying so many Servants of God, did no more than implement the Second Vatican Council, which vigorously reaffirmed that holiness is the essential mark of the Church; that the Church is holy: one, holy, catholic, apostolic. Blessed John Paul II said that if the Church of Christ is not holy, it isn't the Church of Christ, the true Church of Christ, the one he desired and founded to continue his mission throughout the centuries. Therefore, he added, holiness is what is most important in the Church. What better way to demonstrate this by highlighting and presenting to all Catholics many models of holiness in the form of saints?

The second reason is the extraordinary ecumenical importance of holiness. In "Novo Millennio Ineunte" (the Blessed Pope’s Agenda for the Third Millennium), the Pope said that the holiness of the saints, blessed and martyrs is perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism, because holiness has its ultimate foundation in Christ, in whom the Church is not divided. Therefore, the ecumenism we all want calls for many saints, so that the convincing ecumenism of holiness is placed in the candelabrum of the holiness of the Church.

The Pope's third reason was that "the saints and blessed manifest the charity of a local Church." Blessed John Paul II correctly noted that local Churches are far more numerous than in the last 10 centuries. Therefore, we shouldn't be surprised that there are also more saints, more blessed who express and manifest the holiness of these increased local Churches.

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