A frequent source of in-fighting amongst Christians involves beauty. How beautiful should our churches be? How beautiful should our Liturgies be? And why? In these discussions, there are two points that often go overlooked:
- We Worship Beauty.
- Created Beauty Points towards Divine, Uncreated Beauty.
Obviously, we don’t worship created beauty, but we literally do worship uncreated Beauty. God is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And so just as truth and goodness point beyond themselves towards God, so too, beauty. In the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 19:1-4),
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
It’s this “voice” that St. Paul speaks of as going out to all the world, even those places which haven’t yet heard of the Bible (Romans 10:18). And this is the voice of created beauty, the voice of a Creation that our Creator called “good” (Genesis 1:10). Creation rightly serves as a sort of “road” leading to its Creator: beauty below points to Beauty above.
This is a voice that at least some of the Gentiles heeded. The message of Diotina to Socrates in Plato’s Symposium comes quite close to recognizing this reality, seeing how the point of earthly beauties isn’t for their own sake, but to draw us into eternal contemplation of Divine Beauty:
Beginning from obvious beauties he must for the sake of that highest beauty be ever climbing aloft, as on the rungs of a ladder, from one to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies; from personal beauty he proceeds to beautiful observances, from observance to beautiful learning, and from learning at last to that particular study which is concerned with the beautiful itself and that alone; so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty. In that state of life above all others, my dear Socrates,’ said the Mantinean woman, ‘a man finds it truly worth while to live, as he contemplates essential beauty. This, when once beheld, will outshine your gold and your vesture, your beautiful boys and striplings, whose aspect now so astounds you and makes you and many another, at the sight and constant society of your darlings, ready to do without either food or drink if that were any way possible, and only gaze upon them and have their company. But tell me, what would happen if one of you had the fortune to look upon essential beauty entire, pure and unalloyed; not infected with the flesh and color of humanity, and ever so much more of mortal trash? What if he could behold the divine beauty itself, in its unique form?
In a more specifically Christian context, this is precisely how St. Augustine was led, a journey of conversion which he recounts beautifully in his Confessions, culminating in his prayer:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
If Augustine is right that God is Beauty, then a Church without beauty would be as absurd as a Church that rejected truth or goodness. A full-fledged rejection or disregard of Beauty would literally be rejecting and disregarding God. So it’s not an option, or a perk. We need to take beauty seriously. And created beauty helps us by pointing us towards the true Divine Beauty.
Writing from a very different perspective, Edgar Allan Poe (of all people) also proclaimed this same awesome reality, in his essay The Poetic Principle:
An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments, amid which he exists. […] We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.
This point holds for all beautiful art, and Poe particularly was focused upon the beauty found in poetry. But think about the implications for Liturgy and for religious art. If the art-adorned walls of an art gallery point beyond this world towards God, how much more should the walls of a church?
II. The Role of Beauty in Israel, the Church, and Heaven
Understanding these dual realities – that God is Beauty, and that created beauty reflects Divine Beauty – helps us to understand the Old and New Testament message all the more. The perennial risk for the Israelites was idolatry: of settling for the worship of created goodness and beauty rather than their Author. And so you might think that God would demand that worship take place in a bare, whitewashed Temple, or at least something so sufficiently bland that no one could be lost in its beauty. But that’s not what He does at all.
Listen to just a handful of the instructions for the Temple of Solomon, for example (1 Chronicles 28:11-19):
Then David gave Solomon his son the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat; and the plan of all that he had in mind for the courts of the house of the Lord, all the surrounding chambers, the treasuries of the house of God, and the treasuries for dedicated gifts; for the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, and all the work of the service in the house of the Lord; for all the vessels for the service in the house of the Lord, the weight of gold for all golden vessels for each service, the weight of silver vessels for each service,the weight of the golden lampstands and their lamps, the weight of gold for each lampstand and its lamps, the weight of silver for a lampstand and its lamps, according to the use of each lampstand in the service,the weight of gold for each table for the showbread, the silver for the silver tables, and pure gold for the forks, the basins, and the cups; for the golden bowls and the weight of each; for the silver bowls and the weight of each; for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. All this he made clear by the writing from the hand of the Lord concerning it, all the work to be done according to the plan.
It’s elaborate, beautiful, even extravagant. To take just one example, the statues of the cherubim are mounted on chariot made of gold. The priestly vestments were equally extravagant (see Exodus 39) as was virtually everything associated with the worship of God. All this remains true in the New Testament and for all eternity. It’s Judas who rejects Mary of Bethany’s extravagant outpouring of perfume in honor of Jesus Christ, and it’s Christ Who rebukes Judas and commends Mary (John 12:3-8):
Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
These two approaches towards the worship of God continue down to today. You’ll still find people who bemoan the Church spending money on beautiful art or ornate churches (since that money could have gone to the poor!), even while they dwell in beautiful homes. But it’s the approach of extravagant beauty that Christ commends.
As I said, this extravagance is true for all eternity. The heavenly Jerusalem, for example, is described in this way (Revelation 21:18-21):
The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
And the Liturgy described in Revelation is an elaborate affair, too (Revelation 8:2-4):
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.
If you want to understand the Mass, then, and why there’s such an emphasis on beauty (instead of the stripped-down worship services and whitewashed churches of some Protestant denominations), look at Old Testament Israel, consider how Jesus was to be treated in His earthly life, and look at the New Jerusalem in Heaven. All of this evidence points to the reality that we should embrace beauty without hesitation, even to the point of extravagance, all for the glory of God.