Arts and Culture

Worldly Beauty Relates To Ultimate Beauty

by Father Robert Lauder

Eleventh in a series

HANS URS VON Balthasar began his academic career by looking for hidden traces of Christ in literary works. When I learned this from Father Michael Paul Gallagher’s Faith Maps: Ten Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger (New York: Paulist Press, 2010, 158 pages, $16.95), I felt connected to Balthasar. I very much like the idea of looking for traces of Christ in literary works.

For close to 25 years I have been conducting an adult education course in which we read what I describe as Catholic novels. My definition of a Catholic novel is one whose theme is based on some Catholic dogma, moral teaching or sacramental principle, and in which the mystery of Catholicism is basically treated favorably. The students and I have studied close to 150 Catholic novels. I never would have read these novels except that I was conducting the course. I hope the students have learned a great deal. I know I have.

On a retreat Balthasar experienced a spiritual conversion which had a profound impact on him and on his work. He came to believe that we should not approach God by looking at ourselves but rather by making space within our lives for the gift of God. Balthasar looks at faith as more God’s doing than our doing.

Beauty Not of This World
Father Gallagher writes: “Balthasar’s focus on beauty seeks to retrieve neglected dimensions in the experience of faith, insisting that God’s revelation invites us to a kind of ecstasy akin to the experience of great art. But this beauty is not of this world…” (p. 52)

I can relate an experience I had of great beauty that is of this world. When I was in Paris, I was determined to get to the Louvre Museum to see Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. As I looked at the famed painting, my first reaction was disappointment. If I was honest, I would have to admit that I had no idea why this was considered a masterpiece. Nothing about the face even appealed to me.

Even though I was pressed for time, I decided to stay another five minutes to see if I could figure out what was supposed to be so wonderful about this da Vinci masterpiece. Five times I tried to leave the room but could not.
Gradually, the Mona Lisa had become every woman I had ever met. The seductive beauty of the painting would not allow me to leave.

Experience of Loving Revelation
The experience of “great beauty that is of this world” seems to me to be analogous to the experience of the beauty of God’s loving revelation.

One example of an experience comes to my mind that I think might illustrate what Balthasar means by reacting to the beauty of God. I was on vacation with two friends out on Eastern Long Island. I had to go into the city for a few hours and while there I received the sacrament of reconciliation. During the sacramental experience, my confessor spoke to me about God’s love for me. What he said was absolutely beautiful.

After the confessional experience, which was very emotional, but I believe also religious, I don’t think I needed an automobile to get back to the eastern end of Long Island. I think I could have flown there!

When I arrived at the vacation location, I tried to share my experience with my two friends, trying to tell them what my confessor had said to me about God’s love. I failed. Though they listened attentively, they had no idea what I was talking about or why I was so excited.

God is love and no reality is as beautiful as God.

Balthasar’s approach appeals to me a great deal and I hope learning from his theology will influence my teaching and my preaching. There is a profound truth in the belief that we will be saved by beauty.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.