June 2019 Editorial: Grieving Beauty
There is never any shortage of sadness in the world, and our technology can bring a cataract of tragedy right into our living rooms. With all there is to grieve, it was interesting to see the response to the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral on 15 April. After the initial relief that nobody had perished, there was a widespread and profound sense of loss. Some commentators expressed the view that such grief should be reserved for situations of dire human suffering, and that the outpouring over Notre Dame was somehow misplaced, that it reflected a less than adequate set of emotional and moral priorities.
While some of the talking heads seemed to be indignant in principle at the idea that people would grieve over a Catholic Cathedral, the question of priorities is not unreasonable. But however we might answer it, the fact is that the devastation of Notre Dame left many people feeling bereft, and that tells us something terribly important.
Notre Dame is more than a historical landmark on the banks of the Seine: the very name is synonymous with soaring beauty. Like other medieval masterpieces, and perhaps more than the rest, Notre Dame invites us to be sceptical of the self-congratulation of an age in which the term ‘medieval’ is often a byword for all that is dark and repressive.
The sorrow that followed the fire in April was sorrow at the loss of beauty. It may have been compounded by the fear that we are aesthetically orphaned, unable to reach the heights of Gothic splendour; but most importantly, we’ve been reminded of the significance and importance of beauty.
An important reminder, perhaps, for the Church as a whole. It’s occasionally remarked that in recent decades, we’ve tended to neglect the aesthetic dimensions of our faith, in favour of a more rational approach. The introduction of liturgy in the vernacular was certainly part of this. Use of the vernacular made things more intelligible – a positive and necessary development. But there’s vastly more to faith than mere intelligibility, and likewise, beauty is not so much a concept as an encounter.
Let philosophers deconstruct art and beauty till the cows come home (ironically, the most influential deconstructors have been French!); their deliberations will always be trumped by the spontaneous emotional response to beauty – and to its loss. As for theologians, liturgists, pastors and catechists, let us by all means seek to make our faith intelligible. But let’s remember, as we do so, that it’s not intelligibility all the way down. At its heart and in its depths, our faith is a matter of beauty and our discipleship is a loving response to beauty.
‘Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new. Late have I loved you.’1 The end of Augustine’s brilliant excogitations was the realization that Beauty was all. This did not amount to an anti-intellectual turn, since beauty and truth are inseparable. Nor did it turn discipleship into a matter of aesthetics, since beauty calls for a response, and that response entails discipline and asceticism. As Augustine put it, elsewhere in his Confessions, ‘I was drawn by your beauty, and soon enough drawn back by my own weight.’2
The whole Christian life is a response to beauty; the discipline and sacrifices of discipleship shape and sustain that response. The authentic Christian disciple is one who merits the epitaph: ‘Here lies N., who lived her life as a response to beauty.’ We can’t begin to catechize, less still to evangelize, unless we’re clear – and able to make it clear – that the beauty, the loveliness and the goodness of God are the foundation of our faith and the reason for all its demands.
1 Augustine, Confessions 10.27.
2 Ibid. 7.17.
Father Chris Hayden
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