Two years ago, I visited the Italian city of Ravenna, the world’s most significant region for mosaic icons of the Byzantine era. Ravenna is also known for having been a battleground between Arianism and Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Today, you can still visit the infamous Arian Baptistry with its breathtaking mosaics; but you can’t be baptized in the Arian font.
There is an echo of holiness in Ravenna; want to visit Dante’s tomb? Go to Ravenna. Want to explore early Christian doctrine? Go to Ravenna. Want to immerse yourself in the other-worldly glow of Byzantine architecture and mosaics? Go to Ravenna. Want to partake in exceptional regional meats, cheeses, and wines? Definitely go to Ravenna! Beauty beckons!
Yes, beauty beckons. Touring the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo (504 A.D.), a church rich in artistic history and heretical controversy, the mystery deepened, and I suddenly found ‘me’ in the story. Surrounded by glowing icons of ‘the white-robed army’ in east-ward procession, the pulp in my teeth throbbed, and my soul stretched out: “Please, take me with you; let me see what you see!” Some things drop you to your knees, and it was one of those things.
We are taught that goodness, truth, and beauty (transcendentals) pilot the waters between God and humanity. Reading the book of Psalms, or even the Song of Solomon, could a praying person come to a different conclusion? Beauty beckons.
The God of beauty-full things beckons in different forms: a beautiful argument, a beautiful painting, a beautiful piece of music, a beautiful gesture, a beautiful mess (if you have young teens at home you know)! Truth, goodness, and beauty constellate, and their appearing, like the constellations of the night sky, attract the soul’s vision above the imminent horizon, away from the dead-affect of the malaise of modernity; grace perfecting nature. Surely, goodness, truth, and beauty are features of authentic Christian formation, right? Well, that depends.
Inspired by the writings of 20th century theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Edith Stein, and Eric Przywara, theologians like John Milbank, and even popular authors like Margaret Visser (Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, 2008), draw attention to the dynamic of beauty in evangelization, catechesis, and Christian formation; let’s call these things ‘on-going conversion’.
Conversion, by way of beauty-full things, is a theme scrutinized in The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003) by David Bentley Hart. God’s freedom to appear, to disclose aspects of the Trinitarian life (any time, any place) is an essential component of Christian mission. Why? Because God is free to self-communicate at any moment, or not. God has the freedom to do so and has been known to do so, or not. So, the church needs both a language and a response sufficient to that wild, unrestricted freedom: there are no limitations imposed on God.
But, according to Hart, an authentic encounter with transcendent beauty does not, in fact, leave one silent or mute before the mystery. It inspires doxology and leaves one grasping for words, concepts and images. It’s the experience of rapture: overflowing, overabundance, overwhelming, or in Hart’s words, “to establish thereby a grammar of adoring response.” In this day and age, fewer and fewer have the psychic language (the grammar) with which to participate in such encounter; to make the beauty-full meaning-full, to enter into and sustain lives of adoration. Yet this conundrum is exactly where the Church’s mandate to care for souls in the 21st century, and in a post pandemic world meets the burning question of the age.