Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Communicating Beauty-A Sacred Look

Seeing is a function of the body but also a function of the soul. The human person sees tangible realities and makes meaning that transcends these realities. This meaning comes from the depths of human understanding of what is being, what is real. To look at the real is to probe the depths of being. When we do this we touch upon ineffable realities that challenge and probe the human psyche to grasp a Beauty that is beyond itself, a Beauty that can be seen by plunging the depths of created reality. However, this effort often meets with ambiguity since created beauty, even though its purpose, whether conscious or not on the part of the artist, is to point to the beauty of the Creator from whom all beauty originates, is seen through humanity’s deformed vision that often becomes enamored and distracted by penultimate beauties. Sacred Scripture and theology tell us that this vision can be deformed by the darkness of sin that can blind and obscure one from seeing the beautiful harmony of creation pointing to the source of Beauty, who is Being itself. To truly see this reality, the infinite beauty of the Creator in creaturely beauty, one must make that journey inward, perceived, as Augustine says, through our spiritual senses, to develop one’s power to see beyond to the ultimate source. This interior journey allows us to understand that we, human beings, are not the creators or sustainers of life and reality. Instead, this interiorization opens us to a humble stance before transcendence, to that which is beyond our finite intellectualism, giving us eyes to see to the non-material, supernatural realities. This is the sacred look.
Everything in creation leads us to a harmonious relationship of the beauty and truth of individual creations to the beauty and truth of the Creator, the source and summit of all beauty. This is the heart of theological aesthetics, which, according to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, the main task is to cultivate the imaginative awareness to recognize created beauty as manifesting the presence and glory of God. This relationship between creation and the Creator comes together in the incarnate Word made flesh, forming a bridge between creature and Creator. Augustine says that the Word is the perfection of Beauty, the way we enter into relationship with ultimate Beauty through the “superabundance of his life.” Thomas Aquinas shows that it is in beauty where the Incarnate Word is revealed to humanity.
Through contemplation of the Son of God made man, we encounter the eternal self-communication of God that draws us into a relationship of love, where the Word is the icon of the Father. The icon is the image of the, “impossible possibility which God comes to accomplish in the world.” It is how the Transcendent, the One who is completely other and not confined to limits, shines forth in order to direct the gaze of the beholder to glimpse the eternal. At the same time, Henri Nouwen purports that the icon of the Transcendent also invites the beholder into an experience of the Divine. No longer is humanity trapped in its own existential darkness because through Christ we have been made new, as St. Paul says, we are a “new creation.” It is by this contemplative sacred look through the power of the Holy Spirit that we see Christ as the perfection of humanity, the One who shows us what it truly means to be human. Christ in his humanity expresses the truth, beauty and goodness of God most unequivocally in his passion, death and resurrection. For it is in probing the depths of human existence in its desperate, despairing darkness that he brings humanity the hope of salvation. It is in the anguish of abandonment that he communicates a communion of love. It is in the horror of death that he offers eternal life.
By seeing the Word we see ourselves and we also see the One who is Other, the Trinitarian God who communicates the abundance of truth, beauty and goodness. As Bruno Forte expresses, “the beauty of ultimate Love evokes the love of beauty, which little by little draws our inner selves to travel the path that leads to perfect joy in God, who is all in all.” This Trinitarian communion of love is the communicative expression of these qualities of being that flow forth upon all of creation in God’s self-communication. These qualities of the true, the good and the beautiful, these modes of being are often referred to as the transcendentals, meaning they lead us beyond material categories to the realm of the spiritual. Human beings are the receivers of this communication of God, but not passively or alone. Instead, this communication calls forth an active relationship of love—a two-way communication that gives birth to creative beauty in humanity, in community, expressed in its cultural artifacts that communicate the depths of human experience. This response does not remain only with the artist or the observer of the art, but moves beyond to the entire community. It is in grappling with what it means to be human that we come to an experience of the Divine. We, therefore, enter into that transcendent communication with God the Father aided by the grace of the Spirit, with Jesus, the Word made flesh, as our mediator.
This communication with God takes place most concretely in liturgical worship and sacraments. It is through the communal worship of believers who embody rituals that communicate reverence, praise and adoration of God that this relationship of love is clearly expressed. In the liturgy, the gathering of the faithful for worship, Christ is present in his Word and Eucharist, thereby the believers enter into a profound and corporeal intimacy with Christ and his Body, the Church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, liturgical/sacramental rituals and symbols use material objects and human actions as means for encountering the Word made flesh, He who comes to redeem us and draw into a new and lasting relationship with himself. Through the objects of bread, wine, fire, water, oil, incense, icons, artistic images and the theatricality of ritual, we not only perceive the Divine mediated through the tangible realities but truly receive grace, the gift of God himself, communicated through the material symbols and embodied rituals.
It is through these symbols and signs that our cultural imaginations are formed. That is, the way we view reality and our place within the wider cultural experience, and in this case, the digital media culture. When Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock in the film Gravity, is stranded in a capsule at the International Space Station without fuel to propel her to the Chinese Space Station in order to return to Earth, she shuts the system down and prepares for death. One camera shot focuses on a small icon of St. Christopher, the patron of travellers, while Ryan is giving up on life. This symbolic screen shot offers the viewer a sign of hope, communicating that we are never all alone. There is Someone guiding and watching over us. Our liturgical communal practices represent that desire for human beings to belong, to be in communion. Though Dr. Stone was an independent, self-assured professional, she was also very lonely since her young daughter died in an accident. This was symbolized in her aloneness in space. Yet, through the communication with an Aleut-speaking fisherman on Earth she realizes then how she needs other people. Her perspective on life changes even while she is preparing for death.
To truly see with new eyes, to develop that sacred look that sees beyond the cultural imagination and the tangible realities to a broader liturgical and sacramental vision of the human person, there is a need for cultural mystics. These are people who embody the desire for transcendence, that is, the desire to reach beyond what is tangible and surpass finiteness, while critically engaging the popular culture. They offer a perception of reality that is anthropological-incarnational-sacramental. As Von Balthasar states that in encountering such a person our faith compels us, “to see, to respect, and to anticipate in action”  the profoundly rich image which the triune God has of each person and all of creation. This embodied encounter then with, we could say, the popular cultural mystic, is a spiritual exercise in recognizing God’s presence in the world and especially in the artistic questioning in regard to human experience that ferments in popular culture. All Christians are called to be mystics, to see the world with eyes of faith. It is through a contemplative stance on the world and our popular culture that mystics offer a transcendental view of reality that is only fulfilled in the beatific vision of our God.

  1.  Cf. Forte, Bruno, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 11.
  2. Forte, Bruno, The Portal of Beauty, 9.
  3. Cf. Augustine, Confessions  X, 6, 8: “What am I loving when I love you? Not bodily beauty nor the gracefulness of age, nor light’s brightness, so dear to these eyes of mine; not the sweet melodies of song, nor the fragrance of flowers, of perfumes, of aromas; not manna, nor honey; not the body so dear to the embraces of the flesh: no, these are not the things I love when I love my God. And yet in a certain sense I do love light and sound, smell and food and embrace, when I love my God, the light, sound, smell, food, and embrace of my inner being.”
  4. Eggemeier, Matthew, T., A Sacramental-Prophetic Vision: Christian Spirituality in a Suffering World, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 65. 
  5. Augustine, Confessions IV, 12, 18.
  6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 39, a. 8c.
  7. Forte, Bruno, The Portal of Beauty, 17.
  8.  Ibid., 74. 
  9. Ibid., 75.
  10. Cf. Henri Nouwen’s reflection on Rublev’s icon in Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2007), 20-22. 
  11. 2 Cor. 5:17
  12. Ibid., 11.
  13. Von Balthasar, Hans Urs, The Glory of the Lord: Theological Aesthetics. Vol. I, Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leva-Merikakis, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 423.
Sr. Nancy is a Daughters of St. Paul, women religious dedicated to evangelization in and through the media, and a Media Literacy Education Specialist. She has degrees in Communications Arts and a Masters in Theology and Arts. For over 25 years, Sr. Nancy has given numerous media mindfulness workshops, presentations and film retreats around the country to youth, young adults, catechists, seminarians, teachers and media professionals helping them to create the dialogue between faith and media. Sr. Nancy is currently Manager of the Pauline Books & Media center in Redwood City, CA and recently appointed Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA


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