Beauty and Spirituality

By Christine Valters Paintner - June 3, 2009

I was initiated into the church of beauty as a young child. Though neither of my parents were religious people, we would travel in the summers to my father's native Austria so that we could hike the Tyrolean mountains. There we would stand in wonder and awe, surrounded as we were by massive, snow-capped peaks stretching toward the heavens. In the cities of Europe, too, we would walk with quiet reverence through the sacred space of museums and great cathedrals. The beauty of art and nature called to me.

Later in my life, it was this reverence for the aesthetic dimension that opened my heart to a religious commitment within the Roman Catholic Church. I had a profound longing for connection to a sense of meaning, to something greater than myself. I found deep resonance with an incarnational and sacramental spirituality. I could worship in a community that saw God so clearly in the stuff of our lives. Art directs us toward the realm of the senses; it immerses us in the physicality and sensuousness of the world. I loved liturgies where I could touch, taste, smell, hear, and see my way to the heart of the holy.

Art and symbol-making are ancient practices. As far as we can tell, they go back to the beginning of human consciousness. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer went so far as to designate the human race as homo symbolicus; human beings are inherently symbol-making creatures. The aesthetic impulse seems to be a universal longing. As humans we seem to have an inherent need to express ourselves in gesture, song, story, symbol, color, image, ritual. We use these to help make sense of the world and to break open its meaning. The beat of the drum, the painting of icons, the soaring arch of a sanctuary space-we rely on the aesthetic in order both to express and to interpret the holy. The arts are evocative rather than descriptive; hence they provide a space within which God's mystery can be held.

Scripture tells us about our spiritual ancestors, and in particular about how the arts cultivated their relationships with God. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with images of the arts. Miriam dances for joy and plays timbrels in response to God's graciousness and liberation (Exodus 15:20). God has Bezalel bring together the artists of the community so that they can build a fitting tabernacle of gold, silver, stones, and wood (Exodus 31:1-5). As the ark of the covenant returns to Jerusalem, Israel shouts ‘to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals,' and makes ‘loud music on harps and lyres,' while David dances exuberantly in celebration of the ark's return (1 Chronicles 15:28-29). The psalms were composed and sung in response to a deep longing for God; they express praise for God's beauty and presence in all of creation.

The Greek for ‘the beautiful' is to kalon, a root related to the verb kalein-‘to call.' Beauty calls, and our hearts reverberate with delight. When we experience beauty, there is a sense of homecoming; we find ourselves in the place we have longed to be.

The great theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, saw beauty as a joyful experience that calls us out of ourselves to connect with others, and most importantly to connect us with the Other. Beauty is a bridge to God, and art is a means of cooperating with the divine in creation's act. For von Balthasar, the aesthetic saturates all of creation; it is not one source of insight among others, with its own autonomy. The aesthetic is woven into the fabric of human experience and our knowledge of things. When we see a beautiful work of art, or a radiant sunset, we are confronted with the mystery of its otherness. Every person has an aching need for beauty; in beauty we discover the face of God.

Spiritual and aesthetic experiences are intimately linked. Both reveal the unutterable, the invisible, the transcendent. Spirituality is about this longing for God, for a connection to the mystery dimension of life, the ultimacy that fills our world with meaning. An aesthetic spirituality is one that recognizes this longing as a response to a call already issued, to an invitation always present in the world through beauty's presence. We are called to awaken to beauty, to see more deeply, to cultivate practices of attentiveness. We are invited to let beauty penetrate the heart, and to respond to it by creating further beauty in our own lives.

We each arrive in this world created as a unique and beautiful image of God. Merton describes this self as the ‘true self,' moulded and crafted lovingly by God-the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be. That core of our being, created by God as whole and beautiful, is a wave in the ocean of God, a flame in God's fire. For Merton, the true inner self is a jewel resting on the bottom of the sea, and the path of contemplation is the journey to this true self from the false one:
I break through the superficial exterior appearances that form my routine vision of the world and my own self, and I find myself in the presence of hidden majesty.
I attended a contemplative retreat several years ago. On the second day we were invited to be out in nature and spend time imagining God's profound love for creation, and indeed participating in it. I spent several hours that afternoon with an old oak tree, grand, gnarled, and glorious. I had no doubt that God loved this particular tree with passion and fullness and I could feel my heart slowly expand with joy imagining God's delight in its beauty. On the fourth day we were invited to turn this love we imagined for nature inward, and to sense how that same divine love and delight were also directed toward each of us human creatures. It was such a simple exercise, but it led to a profound moment for me. Delighting in this love, I was invited to see how God loves the profound beauty of every person in this way. Suddenly, the world everywhere I looked was, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘charged with the grandeur of God.'

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD is a Benedictine Oblate and the founder and director of Abbey of the Arts, a non-profit ministry integrating contemplative practice with the expressive arts. She teaches at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry and also works as a spiritual director, retreat facilitator, writer, and artist. She is the co-author of Lectio Divina: Contemplative Awakening and Awareness from Paulist Press. Visit her website www.AbbeyoftheArts.com.