“When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.”
We humans are hardwired for beauty. I’m reminded of that by our ten-year-old son Aidan, whose high view of family ritual has earned him the nickname “Mr. Festive” in our household. Helping Aidan prepare for his mother Rae’s birthday is not for the faint of heart. The card, of course, must be perfect. The ideal flavor, color, and decoration of the cake are matters to be pondered at length. The entire birthday menu develops over several days with multiple trips to the grocery store, selecting balloons and candles as the celebration draws closer. When the time finally comes to set the table, presentation is everything. Aidan insists we use the loveliest tableware in the house, fold the cloth napkins elegantly, and place our Bavarian Christmas pyramid in the center of the table.
Aidan knows, if unconsciously, that we humans lavishly adorn the celebrations we find most meaningful. Perhaps more importantly, he knows that we humans perceive meaning through beauty itself. His love for Rae is deepened in the very acts of ritual preparation, and the love he communicates to her is qualitatively—not simply quantitatively—different than if he simply said, no matter how sincerely, “Happy birthday.”
I’m keenly aware of how often the experience of beauty has shaped my own life, too. As a child, I was entranced by the sight of a waxing moon on a crisp early spring morning and the relentless force of the Atlantic Ocean pounding the coastlines of Northwest England. Such encounters seemed to call me to a deeper understanding of life and my place in the world, an understanding I couldn’t put into words without altering its meaning. Music, too, pulled at my heart—whether the frothing joy of a Handel gigue or the heartbreaking tragedy of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Later, liturgies of the Church worked their way deep into my being. The sublime architecture of Gothic cathedrals, the poetry of liturgical language, the supple lines of a Byrd choral anthem, the deep-throated majesty of organ hymn-playing, the pageantry and color of elegant processions, and the sweet aroma of incense all conspired to put me on my knees in gratitude for God’s love and in assent to a life of service. Indeed, I simply cannot imagine my faith journey without the sacramental wonder of divine and human creation. They speak to me in ways no exposition of faith, however convincing, can on its own steam.
What is this relationship between beauty and faith? We have at times in our Judeo-Christian tradition been afraid of it. Consider the Hebrew scripture prohibition of making images, or some of the early church fathers who worried that music might be too seductive for the holiness of worship. Consider the eighth and ninth century Byzantine iconoclasm controversies, or the many sixteenth century European reformers who wanted to rid liturgy of any adornment. Some of the uneasiness we inherit is surely justified. There is something deplorable about the lust for mere aesthetic experience pursued at the expense of other people, an extreme example being the plunder of art works as an act of nationalist fervor in Nazi Germany. Another aspect of our uneasiness is more troubling, in that it reflects a deeply entrenched misogynistic worldview that identifies beauty with the feminine and thus with evil “seduction.”
Despite all this, our Judeo-Christian heritage also celebrates beauty. Genesis opens with a breath-taking narrative in which God creates the cosmos and everything in it, crowning the achievement by making humankind in God’s image as co-creators of this beautiful new world. The Israelites make first a tabernacle and later a temple according to exquisitely detailed instructions, sparing no labor, skill, or expense for the place where God will meet God’s people. Worship in Solomon’s temple is glorious to say the least, opening the eyes of all to God’s real and visible presence:
It was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God (2 Chronicles 5:13-14).
The book of Revelation in the Christian scriptures is equally expansive, describing in ecstatic detail the experience of worship around God’s throne in a city built with the most precious of materials. Indeed, the very language of our Bible is beautiful—something we easily overlook as we scour its pages for theological truth—representing many literary genres from poetry to parable, containing images that have inspired artists for centuries.
As children of this tradition, we believe that God calls all of creation good; that God has spoken and continues to speak through the creativity of humankind; that through the Incarnation, God forever marked as sacred the things of this world. In this knowledge, we can embrace with open arms the beauty we encounter every day. And it is in this knowledge that I revel in my calling to shape beautiful liturgies for God’s people to enact. If we allow it, song, dance, word, color, texture, and scent can connect us to our deepest longings and open our hearts to the work of the Spirit. Through the great drama that is worship, we can reach truths about God, ourselves, and our relationships with others that surpass our intellectual constructs of faith.
As Aidan lavishes creativity on our family birthday rituals, we as faith communities lavish skill and art on our liturgies. We bring to God the fruit of our labor in gratitude and love, and in so doing we come to understand more deeply the love that God lavishes upon us. Whether you worship in the quiet simplicity of a spoken Eucharist, the haunting melodies of a Celtic-inspired mass, or the grandeur of an Anglican cathedral tradition, it is my prayer that you will open yourself again and again to the experience of beauty in every form, and in so doing encounter the Author of all beauty calling you to a life of creativity and deep joy!
for Stephan Casurella
The Passion According to St. Matthew by Johann Sebastian Bach
War Requiem by Benjamin Britten
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy