Drink the Waters of Eternal Life

(Romanos and Adam -option B)

“I Thirst No More”

  1. Christ cried, “I thirst!”

His breath exhaled true love.

  1. His cry broke the curse,

Bringing new life from above.

  1. Thirst will you no longer,

In Christ you’re forever stronger.

  1. Angels, man today unite,

peace wins, put down the fight.

  1. Cry you no more.

Thirst you no more.

Desert waters flow.

  1. The Hebrew people did thirst,

in the desert “mercy” was their cry.

From the rock waters burst,

their hope in Yahweh, never to die.

  1. Mortals who see no hope,

thirst  for God’s mercy.

Humanity who suffer and grope

cling to Christ’s victory.

  1. In Christ you thirst no more,

the Cross wrought the winning score.

The vice of death  no longer,

the Paschal Lamb ever stronger.

  1. The resurrection of the Eternal Word,

Everlasting, Life-giving Waters out poured.

The prince of iniquity conquered,

True Love and Justice restored.

  1. Salvation comes to us today,

all heaven and Earth unite— so may

the Waters of Life forever flow,

inducing love, I thirst no more.


Return to the Waters

A deer coming to a baptistery in Bir Ftouha (Carthage) Tunisia, Tunis, Late Fourth or Fifth Century. This art work features motifs of paradise. One can see the deer as well as iconographic images and fruit-bearing trees.

Return to the Waters….return to the garden…

As one who loves to play and enjoys the beauty of the garden, I most enjoyed developing a post baptismal mystagogy for adults following their Easter vigil initiation. The mystagogy would include reflection and connection to ancient imagery invoking a return to the garden of paradise and life-giving waters.

The iconography in this baptistery in Bir Ftoucha shows many of the consistent images found in early baptisteries. John the Baptist is baptizing a grown adult Jesus. John the Baptist is wearing the camel hair beneath his robe. Jesus is simply wearing a loin cloth with his hands in a prayerful pose. This baptistery imagery does not represent the immersion technique often used that is invoking the paschal imagery, rather it conveys the garden imagery. John the Baptist is sprinkling the water and there is evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Loc 3244) in the descent of the dove above Jesus’ head.

One can see many motifs of paradise with the deer and iconographic schemes including images of snails, lizards or rabbits and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs.

Often early baptismal fonts contained images of four fruit-bearing trees representative of the four seasons: a date palm (spring), an olive (winter), a fig (summer), and an apple (autumn) (Jensen, Loc 4253).  This image has fruit bearing trees, but not of the four separate varieties that are representative of the usual four seasons or the four gospel evangelists.

Within this baptistery icon one sees the deer drinking from the waters that speaks to the image of the first line of Psalm 42: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you” (Jensen, Loc 4237).

“The imagery in this psalm 42 coincides with the iconography of deer coming to drink at flowing streams, and it reflects the desire of the candidates to drink from (or bathe in) the water of life. In his commentary on the psalm, Augustine acknowledges that while it urges all Christians to run like deer to the fountain of understanding, it has particular meaning for those who are approaching baptism. As they process to the font, they chant this text to express their longing for the fountain that remits sins in the same way that the deer longs for springs of water” (Jensen, Loc 4727).

As a mystagogical and continuing aesthetic spiritual exercise one might ask how does one continue to draw on the springs of water and remain close to the waters as seen by this deer hovering near the waters? How does one continue to bathe in the waters of life?

My preferred technique for reflection is poetry. Poetry invokes a beautifully aesthetic experience. The poems are prayerful and maybe shared. As a reflective exercise one would be invited to compose poems over the next few weeks: a diamante, acrostic, and free verse on the return to the water and the garden. This experience would help express the longing and the return. The following poems would be examples of an acrostic titled:

“Jordan River”

Joyful union





Never ending


I seek –




As a diamante – titled:

“Jordan River”


Life Giving

To Be One

Seek  Beauty  Wonder   Love

Creator Redeemer Sanctifier

Salvation Today


Finally, Free Verse:

“Life Giving Waters”

As a deer longingly returns

To the font of life giving waters

So do I come back

Over, and over, and over

My home is one with you

My God, the still waters of life

I yearn for your love and peace

The garden of your eternal bliss…..

Theology of Music

Through the sounds of music one can experience time, for music does not exist outside of time, rather music demonstrates a multiplicity of times. Music marks our temporality in and out of various times as experienced in the seasons and multiple stages of life. There is a multiplicity of quality of times: times that are easier as well as times that are more difficult. This experience of time and its mending of past, present, and future  are realized in music as demonstrated in Theology, Music  and Time by Jeremy Begbie.  This theological presentation will be demonstrated in five different Christmas musical compositions.

Tomas Luis de Victoria, O Magnum Mysterium

This work begins quietly with the soprano melody moving higher and louder followed by an alto voice entering second as a counterpoint harmony beneath the melody. A tenor male voice enters beneath the female voices becoming stronger. Finally as a bolder voice, the bass takes over as the leading voice with all voices now singing variations on the theme. At the point in the piece of “Ut ani ma” – the male voice leads with the female voices later following in repetition.   At the point of “Pio” all the voices are in unison until “o beata vir-” all the voices are sung together but in harmony. The lyric of “Jesum” followed by – “Alleluia” – the voices are sung together but in harmony and accentuated together for affect- then the four choral parts sing variations on “Alleluia” – with the tenor closing the resolution. The accenting of the “Alleluia” is the celebratory mood of JESUS breaking into the history of our temporality. The contrast of the smoothly connected lyric to accentuation of each beat is quite dramatic. It is reminiscent of the incarnation and rhythmic hear beat. God breaks into our time and unites with creation.

This piece features repetition.  Repetition heals our temporality (172)  according to Begbie.  Repetition enables concepts or life in general to make sense to us. A song is aesthetically beautiful when we  can participate in it. We can hear a theme and it takes off from one voice to another as if eternal. The past voice which began the melody or theme is then taken over by the next voice. In this piece the lyric takes a new shape with a variation on the theme. Music is performing an eternal work with each voice entering in and out carrying on a different variation of the theme, yet it also features repetition.

James MacMillan, In splendoribus (Christmas Eve)

Male voices begin in harmony and chant – expressing the past in an open chord flow and chant. Abruptly a trumpet call breaks into the present. This is quite a dramatic feature expressing the angelic hosts calling from the desert, “Behold the Lamb of God” breaking into historical time. The trumpet contrasts the voices in harmony with a male drone below all voices demonstrating an eternal tone. Repeatedly the trumpeter calls forth as if in rapid fire – the drone and slow moving open chorded voices contrasted by the singular sharp and at times dissonant tone of the high pitch trumpet almost prophesizing the rejection of the child and future suffering. The male voices hold the chords and move slowly through various tones repeatedly as the trumpet contrasts with high and syncopated tones. The trumpet is announcing the breaking into history of the promised MESSIAH and the voices represent the temporality of time. The repetition calls over and over holding the open chords and drone of the lower tone reminding the listener of eternity. Concurrently the trumpet continually interrupts the chorus with the new call while breaking into the temporality of the voice. The repetition again is healing. The double tonguing rhythmic pulse completely contrasts the lower slowly lyrical connecting movement of the open chorded male voices. The trumpet at the end is muted calling out change and transmitting its voice slowly blending into the growing male voices that then diminish to the final call of the muted trumpet. The ending movement of the male final chord held to eternal length finally breaks to the last call of the trumpet that diminishes into eternity. The beauty of this piece contains a “complexity of intersecting variables” (175) which adds to the musically brilliant communication of the Christmas story without any need to translate the lyric.

John Tavener, Today the Virgin 

This piece demonstrates the collision of past, present, and future as well as repetition, “Some view his music as a route to eternity” (129). The meter pushes along briskly and invokes a feeling of a cosmic, exciting event. The verses and refrain roll back and forth as a wave of sound changing dynamically with the contrasting voices as do the rolling seas that remind us of our temporality. Not only do the dynamics vary, the voices change with each verse alternating between the male and female voices. Throughout every verse the male bass continually drones beneath referring to the everlasting, eternal WORD. Some refer the drone to the “umbilical cord to the sacred” (136).

The song begins with the all voices singing in unison except for the bass drone sustained throughout. All the voices arise growing loudly together as fortissimo in an open chorded tone with a“Rejoice oh one with the angels and the shepherds, give glory to the child. Alleluia”. The juxtaposition of variation and repetition of the voices heightens the sense of changelessness (139). The last verse sung in unison with the droning voice below contrasts  the open chords of the antiphon which ends with the drawn out “Alleluia” repeated over and over. The “Alleluia”  for the final time  is slowly drawn out announcing the Eternal Word born into our temporal world! Emmanuel!!!! 

Gustav Holst, In the Bleak Midwinter

Gustav Holst quietly begins with choral voices, a boys choir with the soprano voices singing melody. The tones blend from word to word as if connecting one with eternity. The silence between the verses remind us of our temporality through the delay and gratification (107). The contrast of the dynamic demonstrates the birth of the Christ Child when “Angels sing loudly” while sustaining the final chord into eternity. During the final verse the bass voice sustains notes under the melody reminding us of the eternal WORD. “If I were a wise man” for the final verse  brings resolution connecting past, present, eternal together through the harmony seeking the final resolution.

Sufjan Stevens, ‘Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming’

This song employs a most interesting use of meter that invokes promise and fulfillment. The call for the prophesied messiah is fulfillment of Christ’s birth. This theme is demonstrated by the dramatic and deliberate pauses  followed by the fulfillment through the melodic resolutions.

The song begins with an instrumental and a deliberate use of silence between phrasing. The deliberate stops seem as if the phrasing is disconnected, but then there finally is connection. The banjo picking is counter to the other instrumental voices. Within the verse containing “Isaiah foretold it” – there is a stop – disconnected phrase – “the virgin mother kind – to show God’s love – She bore to us a Savior” – builds louder – followed by the instrumental with more picking. The banjo voice is distinct –while the vocal sound of the open chorded voices and the deliberate pauses demonstrate longing for the resolution, that is longing for the Messiah:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from (pause) tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as (pause) those of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, (pause)  a-mid the cold of winter,
When (pause) half spent was, the night.

Instrumental Interlude-
I-saiah ’twas foretold it , the –(pause) – Rose I have in mind;
AND when we behold it, the (pause) Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright (paced evenly), she bore to us a Savior,
When ((pause)) half spent was the night. Extended pause demonstrating delay and patience (99).

The song ends with a feeling of anticipation as well as filled with an eternal longing of the PROMISED Messiah.

Simple Gifts

You go from people’s earbuds, into concert halls, into living rooms, into cars, into what — so you can — it can exist across a lot of different physical spaces and geographical spaces.” ~Yo-yo Ma

Music exploits the ‘omnipresent’ (25).

When you receive something that’s living (music), it goes inside you, ….. it becomes your own.” ~Yo-yo Ma

The bodiliness of sound experience is harnessed intensively in music…speak of musical sound as received through your body” (27).

Recently, I heard an interview of Yo-yo Ma expressing somewhat of a spirituality of music. One finds similar sentiments when reading Jeremy Begbie’s exposé in Theology, Music and Time. To demonstrate the theological themes of music I found on YouTube, a duet of Yo-yo Ma and Alison Krauss playing “Simple Gifts.” I will unpack the themes that I discovered in the hymnody. This melody with different lyrics is more commonly known liturgically in music missals as the “Lord of the Dance.

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight- played in unison with the cello.

(There’s a slight pause of silence before the chorus)

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right

The song begins with the cello playing solo the first time through the verse and chorus moving smoothly and continuously through each note.

The second time through ‘Tis the gift to be simple’ – the verse is sung by Alison with an undertone of the cello that ends the final note in unison on “right.”

Halfway through the recording the cello again plays a verse solo until Alison joins back in singing the melody ‘And when we find ourselves in the place just right’ with the cello playing harmony under the voice. ‘When true simplicity‘ is played with a counter melody and harmony of the cello building through the ‘turning, turning’ lyric and ending again in unison on “right.”

For the final repeat of the chorus  ‘Till by turning, turning we come ’round right’ the tempo slows down with the cello playing in unison on the final note an octave under the voice.

Change and order

As a most beautiful piece that begins quite simply with a solo cello voice lyrically played at a moderate tempo rather straight forward to a duet with a lyrical voice that slows dramatically for emphasis, this piece invites change and order. With that “music demonstrates that there can be ordered change, that change need not imply chaos” (85). This piece demonstrates that order of A, B, A, B, yet paradoxically there is change. The tempo changes, the voice changes, the melody is at first in unison, but later harmony is introduced. As a theological lesson it seems ironic that order and change can both go hand in hand, yet music embodies this concept.

Taking time

Music thrives on momentum. Classical pieces are composed in movements that build from one to another with interplay artfully woven between movements ever growing until the final movement when everything fits together in the finale. This inherent character of music is a theological attribute of all of creation and its temporal order of being. “The created world takes time to be”(86). With regard to this piece “Simple Gifts” Yo-yo Ma begins deeply and softly on his cello only to build into a duet with Alison Krauss changing octaves and adding harmonies while also changing tempos and adding retards. Half way through Yo-yo Ma again plays solo and softly as if demonstrating a time to wait during the lyric, “When true simplicity is gain’d,” There is a sense of enjoyment that the movement is building to something bigger. The anticipation is rewarded again with Alison’s voice and  the cello’s counter play. “Waiting is an experience based on the interpretation and understanding of the temporal structures of events and human desires”(87).

Limited Duration

As temporal beings one is aware of life’s limitations and finitude. Music too exacts the temporal nature of humanity where one note gives way to another. “Music is constantly dying, giving way ” (92). Yo-yo Ma does this so artfully where the notes almost breathe into the next. There is great continuity where one note ends in the voice of Alison and Yo-yo Ma continues the tone of the cello as if there is an eternal nature to the song, “Twill be in the valley of love and delight.” The lyric conveys the notion of heaven as the notes end and enter into the silence. Between the verses before the song loops back to the beginning there is a moment of silence. As Augustine refers to the use of sound and silence demonstrating one’s coming into being from nonbeing, music artfully invokes this deeply ontological significance as “musical silences are not mere void but enter into the proportional ordering of music” (96). The significance of the pauses and recognition of the nothingness is of utmost importance to maintaining the harmony of humanity. Similarly speaking as a musician if one doesn’t recognize a rest or accidently miscounts, there can be disastrous results in playing when one is to be silent.

As Rowan Williams states, “What we learn, in music as in the contemplative faith of which music is a part and also a symbol is what it is to work with the grain of things, to work in the stream of God’s wisdom.”

Basilica of St. Adalbert: Sacramental Beauty

Sketch by one of my previous high school students now studying church architecture in graduate school at the Catholic University of America.

“…church as a form of sacrament standing both within and outside of time…”

~attributed to John Ruskin

As part of the cityscape in Grand Rapids, MI, the Basilica of St. Adalbert beckons to those near in far to celebrate life’s sacred mysteries with in. Angels and stained glass windows abound in this spectacular Romanesque Minor Basilica. The cornerstone was originally laid in 1881 founded by Polish immigrants. The church has undergone major renovations to become the magnificent basilica that it is today. In December of 1979, Pope John Paul II declared the church the rank of Minor Basilica.

Angelic imagery in the stained            glass of the highest dome.

Within the highest of the three domes of the Basilica is a circular stained glass window. In the center of the stained glass is an image of Jesus surrounded by a dominion of angelic figures. One can begin to reflect on the myriad of imagery, yet “…having representations in churches whether narrative or iconic, is neither for narrative or iconic….(they) are placed so high that they serve neither of these purposes very effectively. They are there, rather,… as reminders of the religious culture from which they derive” (Loc 2203). The choir loft contains a floral shaped window visible from the front of the church above  the three sets of doors.  When gazing on the beautiful floral stained glass window whether from within the church or from without, one doesn’t necessarily need to know which of the images represent which of the twelve apostles. One may speculate on the imagery of the figure in the middle sitting at an organ, but is it really necessary to know exact details?  According to Kieckhefer,   “one need not consult a guide book to determine which angel is represented on a window” (Loc 2203). Within this context the images are simply religious cultural reminders pointing to a basic known principle, but not necessarily of a particular context.

Floral window with 12 petals          representative of the 12 apostles.

Most interestingly I have visited the Basilica on and off for over twenty five years. There was a point in time where I worked for the parish as the Director of Ministries in a joint venture with two other parishes in a  collaborative effort. I regularly frequented the Basilica. I was always drawn to its beauty, yet I had never considered the meaning of the myriad of sacred symbols. “It is all well and good to saturate a church with sacred symbols, but how do they function for a community that has not been told their meanings...?” (Loc 2127). Perhaps it is that I had simply never wondered. As one enters through the doors to the Basilica, one immediately feels God’s entry within gaining a spiritual experience. Indeed the symbols do call one to deeper reflection. Once one’s eyes are open to see, the  meaning is apparent everywhere. Similarly as does Ruskin who “saw buildings as having a kind of poetic metaphorical value

View from the choir loft.

(Loc 2186), I see the Basilica of St. Adalbert as boldly proclaiming the Trinity. From the three beautiful copper domes, the three altars, and the three copper sets of doors in the entryway, the imagery resounds of the Godhead. Kieckhefer states that the “Trinity was symbolized by the nave and the two aisles…and by the nave, choir, and sanctuary” (Loc 2166). The Basilica contains all of that symbolism and more. Within the longitudinal floor plan, the cruciform is evident by the main aisle leading directly to the altar with the aisle  separation from the nave as the cross beam. The Basilica is not only beautiful within, but has spectacular beauty on the exterior at night. “The whole church is a type of heaven” (Loc 2160).  The dome is lit up and can be observed from the city’s skyline. One can see the four angels surrounding the dome symbolizing the four gospels. The angels are playing trumpets as if calling out to the world, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).

“If you look at the surface of the canvas or board, do not look like on a flat surface, but imagine the deep space and light in a depth. This light like a bonfire in the evening field radiate the  circulars.”

~ Yuri Kuchukov, Artist

Naomi and Ruth

When reflecting upon the endless possibilities of icons to unlock, it dawned upon me the perfect opportunity to reflect upon.  This past month in January of 2015, West Catholic High School was entrusted on loan four beautiful icons to display.

The artist of the icons is Yuri Kuchukov, a Russian artist who studied art at the School of Fine Art in Kharkov, USSR.  He came to the United States in the 1970s.  He has exhibited in galleries in New York City.  He developed his skills as an iconographer in the 1980s at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY.  Since 1996 he has taught art at a private school in Hancock, NY.

West Catholic is honored to  exhibit the icons due to the generosity of a local philanthropist who is loaning out four of Yuri’s pieces.  For my interpretation I selected Ruth and Naomi for the reason that I love Ruth’s journey as well as the deep passion that the piece stirs in my soul.  Fortunately, I was able to connect with Yuri to find out more about the piece from his point of view. Further, I was able to understand his motivation and inspiration of the work and iconography.

Yuri’s motivation to paint this particular icon was similar to my desire to select it. He was asked to paint female images of the Old Testament. Yuri responded, “I love the story of Ruth and I started to work on the composition of the painting.

Ruth who as an outsider, a Moabite and traditionally considered an enemy to the people of Israel, seeks to journey with her mother-in-law, Naomi, as she returns to Bethlehem.  My interpretation of the portrayal in this icon is Ruth’s loyal declaration when seeking to accompany Naomi.

‘Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried’  (Ruth 1: 16-17)

Naomi who had already lost her husband and her two sons in Moab decides to return to her homeland in Bethlehem of Judah where she might find refuge with her people.  Naomi persisted that her daughter-in-laws return to their families since she had nothing to offer them. She had no more sons or resources. Ruth would not think of leaving Naomi to travel alone.

Ruth clasps Naomi’s hand. It appears that the clasped hands are in the inner circle of the icon. One is drawn to the open space in the clasp. “In the symbolic language of lines, convex curves always designate expression, the word, spatial unfolding, and revelation”  (Evdokimov IV: 1). In this clasp there is much that is unspoken. Ruth is a Moabite and Naomi a Hebrew. Naomi and Ruth are connecting and yet there is openness and room in the clasp for the Spirit to draw them further together.


Striking is the solemn and pained look upon Naomi’s face. She is depicted with a staff appearing as the sage Moses. Behind Ruth’s head is a bush burning with crimson red as if referring to the theophany and saving act in Exodus. Ruth does travel with Naomi back to Bethlehem and meets Boaz when gleaning wheat from the fields. Naomi counsels Ruth on the art of manipulating Boaz (Ruth 3:8)  who does then later propose.  Boaz and Ruth have a son Obed. Ruth became the great grandmother of David.

The colors of the landscape are colorfully intense and harmonious as was Yuri’s intent.  The imagery of desert landscape was reminiscent of Yuri’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Geometry Considerations?

When asking Yuri’s response to my perceived geometric features, he expressed the following:

When I painted the Ruth and Naomi I did not think about the geometry, I don’t know how it happens. If you look at the surface of the canvas or board, do not look like on a flat surface, but imagine the deep space and light in a depth. This light like a bonfire in the evening field radiate(s) the  circulars. It is very interesting. The circular composition is often used in Byzantine iconography, Holy Trinity of Andrey Rublev is a great example. When I painted the Ruth and Naomi I did not think about the geometry, I don’t know how it happens.”

What I find most coincidental is that Yuri referred to Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon.  I had desired to interpret that work before I realized it was featured by Evdokimov.

When looking for geometric identifiers, I noticed right away the circular center of the icon including the clasped hands. I even got a tape measure and measured. It was 3′ top to bottom and centered horizontally as well. Four focal points that make a quadrilateral are evident as well. “According to the Fathers of the Church, the number 4 was symbolic of the four gospels. Nothing could be added to or subtracted from that fullness. The number was also the sign of the Word’s universality” (Evdokimov IV: 1).  The first focal point that was previously mentioned is the clasped hands. Another is the top of the staff. The highest point is Naomi as the pillar, and finally the fourth is Ruth kneeling as she is pleading to go with Naomi.

How Beauty Saved Thomas Merton


There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

~Thomas Merton from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

As a commemoration of Thomas Merton’s 100th birthday on January 31, this past week, social media (at least the sites that I follow) was infused with much of Merton’s writings. Interestingly I see many connections between Evdokimov and Merton’s work. Further, I see that Merton’s conversion applies to Evdokimov’s understanding of the role of beauty as well as the salvific power of beauty.

In Merton’s premier work, Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiographical, best selling novel, Merton recollects how he is drawn into the mystery and beauty (eros) of the Catholic Church.  As a young scholar and a man of the world, in his early years Merton considered himself an atheist. His autobiographical work is likened to St. Augustine’s Confessions. As a lover of literature what initially drew Merton to the faith was reading “Nature and Art in William Blake.” As a break through of Merton’s material philosophy and brilliant, rational mind, poetry illumined the interior beauty within him dawning the mystical and supernatural. In Blake’s poetic writings Merton began to see through his transformed eyes the deeper hidden meanings of Blake, “The harlot’s cry from street to street, shall weave old England’s winding sheet.” The interior logos could now be seen by Merton in Blake’s poetic prose: love that was outlawed had become lust.

Before Merton’s conversion he thought of himself as a pagan. He believed that social structures and economics would save humanity. Not only did Merton see himself as a pagan, but as a social critic drawn to seek truth in the rational world. It is in this quest Merton met head on the salvific power of beauty. His awakening came about through the beauty of prose and divine love (eros). Merton’s conversion was a long bumpy road through contemplation and full immersion in the liturgical life of the Church. His awakening brought him to the full realization that the divine creation of the human was true beauty.

Similar to Dostoyevsky’s understanding, as Merton was contemplating the Kingdom, he was contemplating beauty. Dostoyevsky saw beauty as the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit is the direct seizure, grasping of Beauty.” Throughout Merton’s conversion he was continually drawn to the beauty of the Catholic Church, he recognized for the first time that he was feeling happy. The beauty that he was drawn to is eros or love. The feeling of eros was stirring with in Merton as he continued seeking.

According to Merton’s journals on the Sunday he finally decided to go to Mass for the first time at the Church of Corpus Christi he wrote, “God made it a very beautiful Sunday. ” Merton was drawn to the light, the beauty of the bells, and the mystery of grace. Months later after further searching and reading literature like that of James Joyce, Merton felt a stirring and a prompting to walk to Corpus Christi and seek becoming Catholic. Merton was seized by Beauty. The Spirit spoke to him, “What are you waiting for?”

In later years Merton’s conversion grew more deeply while in the Trappist Monastery. Found after Merton’s death in 1968, was his journal. Recorded on the date of Merton’s epiphany on the corner of 4th and Walnut he wrote, “I am keenly conscious, not of their beauty (I hardly think I saw anyone really beautiful by special standards) but of their humanity, their woman-ness. But what incomprehensible beauty is there, what secret beauty that would perhaps be inaccessible to me if I were not dedicated to a different way of life (Thomas Merton’s private Journal; 3.19.58)

Merton’s diary entry is later transposed in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander as seeing everyone as lights shining in the sun. Merton’ s epiphany is profoundly beautiful and akin to Evdokimov’s composition, “To be in the Light is to be in illuminating communion” (Loc 201). This is recognizing persons as icons which is similar to Merton’s enlightened experience. Merton attributes his awakening to the secret beauty of seeing beings of beauty shining as the sun, to his way of monastic and liturgical life.

Merton was a contemplative and lived deeply steeped in liturgical life. The sacred life of the monastery is silence. The daily life is sacramental. Contemplating the logos, “its interior word” and its “entelechy,” the object itself, would be a daily ritual.   “Their intimate interpretation, the secret coinciding, reveals itself in terms of light and beauty” (Loc 274). The contemplative can see hidden in a bush, as St. Maximus says, “the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of his beauty inside every thing” (Loc 274).

In Merton’s early years he was consumed in seeking positive or cataphatic knowledge of all sorts. Later in life he was drawn deeper and deeper into the realm where words lose meaning and the negative knowledge or apophasis takes on greater value. This contemplation includes the symbolism of the liturgy or the “symbolic realism” (Loc 311) calling deeply an epiphanic symbolism.

As one who lived a contemplative monastic and liturgically immersed life, one would think Merton would have lived as a saint. But, “A saint is not a superman but someone who lives his truth as a liturgical being” (Loc 346) Even though in Merton’s final publicly recorded message in Bangkok he said, “I’m going to fly out of here,” he was no Superman.  Just as Superman had a weakness with kryptonite, Merton had a weakness where he found beauty (eros) in a beautiful young nurse. Fortunately, Merton was able to return in union with the Light and restore his monastic vocation.

Evdokimov’s theologizing on light and beauty seem interconnected and actualized in Merton’s epiphany in Louisville on 4th and Walnut street. Again, as Merton said, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Balthasar on “Revelation and the Beautiful”

There’s an age old idiom that goes, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, then you won’t know where you’re going.” As a New Testament teacher of high school students I asked my students to look into their lives and ponder what has brought them to this moment as high school juniors. They were asked to create a poetic rendering of an “I am from…” The goal of the experience is to help them consider all of the influences that affect their lives and thus, enable them to becomeIMG_3319 who they are called to be. Interestingly many acknowledged the beauty all around them. One example from a student wrote , “I am from prides and hordes, and animals galore. Dense broad leaf forests from shore to shore. I am from sun and sand, a foreign land. Language you won’t understand. I am from the earth, the sea, the brilliant sky to which I’ll return for my final good nigh’.”

This process engaged the student’s recollection of “what” of their past or “who” of the present or previous generations  that affect their being. The poetic rendering of the“I am from” previously mentioned portrays an understanding of this teen’s family migration from Africa and how it greatly impacts his current station in life as a student. There is a tension between what was and what is. This is similar to Hans urs von Balthasar’s first platitude recognizing that it is essential to engage a historical view of esthetics. As a first step in the study of theological aesthetics, it is necessary to recognize the theological elements of esthetics through the lens of the historical context.

In Plato’s era, “Poets and painters made use of appearances but they did not retain reality” (99). Further, there was a dualistic notion  or separtion between heaven and reality, an either/or. The connection between heaven and earth was the role play of religion. Religion was the bridge that crossed the great divide. There was a very mythical notion and magical connection to life that religion occupied. Plato did not consider that artists could render truth.   The eros or longing to love portrayed in art “can only love in its relation to the infinite”(100). This longing that can only be fulfilled in the infinite creates a tension that is demonstrated in the art work of the ancient Greek era. The art and theology are magical and mythological.

In the second platitude Balthasar builds upon the structure of the created order: “…the esthetic as a certain structure and the esthetic as experience must be equally taken into account” (108). For Balthasar sees the created order as the second platitude. One is connected to the natural order and made sacred in the created order.  It is necessary to maintain the realm of mythology in our Christian era, according to Balthasar, in order to maintain art. When we forget the magical, mysterious nature of the world we no longer have eyes to see the ecstatically revelatory nature of creation.


Another  one of my students when reflecting on their “I am from” demonstrated the second platitude of created order in a mythical, magical sense. “I am from the mounds of snow and frigid temperatures. I am from high in the sky and clouds below. I am from the long walks on the beach, the waves and sand on my feet.”

The third platitude that Balthasar discusses as “the esthetic element in revelation” reveals that all creation in actuality is an esthetic encounter. “Revelation itself is the foundation of a dialectic” (115). Contemplating the beauty in the created world is an overwhelming experience that requires a structure, a form of a story. This form is revealed in Jesus Christ through the call  to discipleship in love and service. This form is revealed in the liturgical prayer of our Church and takes shape in the structure of our families and recognized in our nurturing homes.

This form and recognition of the esthetic in all of creation is demonstrated in this final example of my student’s “I am from.”

                   I am from the love of the creator of this earth.


 I am from the mind of imagination that the world was made from.

  I am from the friendship that is shared all around.

I am from the One who brought knowledge and

intelligence into the world.

I am from the author of everyone’s stories.

  I am from the people who hope for the best world.

 I am from the One who began all life. 

I am from ancestors who gave us better lives.

 I am from the father of all creation.  



On Beauty: Notre Dame


Upon entering the most spectacular church I had ever visited, I was immediately overjoyed to hear angels. At least I thought it sounded like angels. The comforting sound brought me to tears. I was traveling to Europe in the early 90s with my father and my sister. My three young children were left to the charge of my mother and my husband (when he wasn’t working). I missed my family dearly, but the overwhelming beauty and sound of the boys’ choir rehearsal brought a wave of joy and comforting peace. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was everything I could possibly hope for and more.

There is no doubt in my mind that this Cathedral was the most beautiful liturgical space I had ever seen. I had never even heard a boys’ choir before, though I’ve directed many choirs, adults and children. I’ve seen boys’ choirs on television or listened to recordings, but to hear them in an acoustically perfect and most extraordinary space was outstanding. Scruton claims in his second platitude that “one thing can be more beautiful than another” (5). When one occupies such a marvelous sacred space that according to the Notre Dames’ website is the goal of the Cathedral to take one to a “brilliant transcendence, which the visitor to Notre-Dame can rarely resist, whether they see it as God’s work or as human genius. These both humble and superb means give genuine soul to this grand building, created to lift humans upwards towards the absolute, the universal, and the sublime.” The goal of the Cathedral was achieved upon my visit. To this day almost twenty years later I recall the feeling of transcendence.

How might one be formed to recognize the Cathedral of Notre Dame as beautiful? Might this simply be a matter of judgment? This is the fourth platitude of Scruton: “Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment: the judgment of taste”(5). According to Scruton the sacred and the beautiful are akin to the experience. Feelings are running over into each other (76).   Recognizing the heavenly voices in the boys’ choirs and noting the difficult harmonies is a judgment of the beauty. I wonder if one would appreciate the beauty of the music if one didn’t know the difficulty of the harmonies? I don’t know how even the most untrained ear could deny the beauty of a boys’ choir singing in the Cathedral? Perhaps.

As one who has a very negative view of the Catholic Church and has possibly been persecuted personally by the Catholic Paris-N-Dame-Rose WindoChurch there could be a feeling of disgust at the opulence. It is hard to believe, but maybe even a view of the South Rose Window may not strike someone as beautiful if one has experience such pain. Scruton’s final or sixth platitude asserts, “there are no second-hand judgments of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgment that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without experiencing and judging for myself”(5). Therefore, no matter how majestic or magnificent, if someone doesn’t make his or her own personal judgment, the South Rose Window might not be found beautiful to every gazer’s eye.

A rational or well-reasoned critical judgment could never argue against the South Rose Window’s spectacular beauty created in 1260 as a counterpoint to the North Rose Window constructed in 1250. The window is a dedication to the New Testament featuring 84 panes divided into 4 circles. The imagery throughout has been reworked and recreated over the centuries in order to carry on the message (according to the Cathedral’s website) proclaiming, “Christ triumphant, reigning over Heaven, surrounded by all his witnesses on earth.”

Scruton could easily argue the standard of beauty of the Cathedral based on its architectural genius. He would appreciate the liturgical practices of the well-disciplined choral masters, the exquisite organ that the Cathedral boasts, and the artistic mastery demonstrated in its liturgical space. Where one can critically judge something as beautiful according to a standard, Scruton would consider the liturgy as beautiful. Where there is no evident mastery or discipline Scruton would consider the artistry deficient.

On the other hand, if there is a subjective quality to art how can one determine what is liturgically beautiful? If art is valued only in the eye of the beholder with no standard, it would definitely be difficult to distinguish what is liturgically beautiful. How does one determine if liturgical space if beautiful if there is no standard? What is the consideration of beautiful liturgical music? That is a common issue and can be most problematic in the modern era. Some parishes do not allow guitar masses. There is a judgment that has been made in some parishes that guitars do not make beautiful music or contribute to what is considered beautiful. As a classically trained guitar player I do agree that some amateur guitar playing is not beautiful. But the same can be said for amateur organ or piano players. What might the standard be? How might one determine what is beautiful? Might the measure of beauty or aesthetic attitude be that which mirrors our view of the sacred? What one’s faith mirrors that of the holy and heavenly. The beauty in the liturgy is called to mirror that of the joyous and balanced. “It would be plausible to suggest that this defines one aim of art: to present imaginary worlds, towards which we can adopt, as part of an integral aesthetic attitude” (107).

Our imaginary world of the eternal is transcendent. This was my experience at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Our Catholic faith treasures the sacred and most beautiful. Our liturgical celebrations and places of worship should embody an aesthetic balance with the ascetic value as well. That again is the tension that must be held in balance.

What is Beauty?

To understand beauty through definition seems to me a rather stiff or brusque way to a deep knowing or full comprehension of beauty. In order to come to know the meaning of beauty one must fully emmerse oneself into an experience, perhaps an artistic rendering would best present  its essence. My attempt to dabble at poetry will seek to illustrate its meaning to the best of my ability:

What is Beauty?  

What is beauty but a moment stopped in time

Standing in awe of the spectacular painted sky

In the early morning to gaze at the glow

Of God’s bidding a kissed color-filled hello

What is beauty but a whiff of a scent

That causes one to turn and bend

The scent of aromatic fragrant care

Of a lilac, God’s gift to sweeten the air

 What is beauty but the sound of a child

Stirring in the pew in front of you

Who coyly reaches out with innocent care

A soggy cracker, a treasure for you to share.

 What is beauty but a chorus of one voice

The old and the young, the rich and the poor

In full anthem singing God’s glory

In sacred space together reflecting on the Story

 What is beauty but a God who forgives

Sharing Christ’s life and love in eternal sacrament

The Son’s body and blood poured out for our salvation

An ever abundant gift, a blessing for every nation


Liturgical beauty (aesthetics) and its relationship to ascetics is not something that I had previously pondered too deeply.   Until rather recently I had agreed with the move made after Vatican II to simplify the churches taking down all the statues and removing much of the lavish artwork. How tragic that must have been to the worshippers! Reading through the Sacrosanctum Concilium I commented in the forum about the various images of the Church that were mentioned in the first twenty points: ie) Church as the Body of Christ, Church as the Bride of Christ or Church as the Mother.

All those images are magnificent, and I can understand why the physical structure of the Church took on such beautiful artistic representation in the physical structure including the use of statues and paintings. In later centuries as the liturgy began to be celebrated solely in Latin with prayers no longer in the vernacular, the imagery surrounding the laity told the story.

The treasures experienced through the eyes must have been delightful. I imagine the beauty in the surroundings and the sounds of the sacred language must have mysteriously transformed the laity to a higher realm. Stripping all of this away from the laity would have been a shock, and I believe we’re still experiencing this today.

To an undiscerning eye it would seem that many Catholics at mass just stand or sit or kneel and do nothing else. Personally I have observed many who do not even respond to the prayers let alone sing any songs. I offer blessings in my heart for them and am saddened. Why do those who never participate come to mass? What is it they are seeking? What is it they are offering? Perhaps everything. I do not judge, for how could I possibly know what is going on their world?

Someone who comes to mass and appears to be a robot may have just lost a close family member or suffering some other untold trauma. A church that would be filled with mystical beauty may transport someone who needs such beauty to heal their heart. As one who practices prison ministry I have had a woman inmate share with me her story of what drew her to the Catholic Church. Latasha, whom I just spoke again with yesterday in jail, lived in the Heartside of Grand Rapids, a very low-income inner city neighborhood that surrounds St. Andrew’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is open during the day and Latasha would go into the Cathedral and just sit gazing at the beauty around her. She mentioned that she was respectful and would “curtsy” before she sat down. She is Southern Baptist and is not familiar with Catholic ritual.

The Church spoke to her. She mentioned how she loves looking at the stained glass windows and the images of Jesus carved in the walls. The Cathedral has beautiful imagery carved in stone (see above) of the Stations of the Cross. Latasha’s life was a mess, but she came into the Cathedral for solace. She wouldn’t know the prayers or the hymns, but maybe she would be one of the people I mentioned previously. She would appear as a robot and might just “curtsy” before she enters the pew. Never has anyone ever taught how her how to genuflect.

I remember as a child, in 1st or 2nd grade, looking upon the enormous crucifix during mass. It always seemed that Jesus was peering into my soul. There was a gaping wound in his side.   I could feel his pain. My heart would feel like it was breaking. Even to this day as I write this I can feel the pain. I would begin to sob during mass and my teacher and students never understood. The beauty of the crucifix still is vivid in my imagination decades later. As it is stated in SC, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.

Having been physically standing at a summit there are no words to express the mystical experience. The beauty is majestic and unspeakable. As one considers the physical beauty of a Church and concern for asceticism how do you weigh what might be most contributing to one’s experience of the “summit” of the liturgy? This is conundrum. Some worshippers are drawn to simplicity; therefore the liturgy is found to be the summit experience within the beauty of the simplest surroundings. Other faithful worshippers are inspired by aesthetics and the ornate. Somehow as Church we must live in the tension.