Monthly Archives: January 2015

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.