The Explosive Power of Beauty

One of the most spectacular works of 17th-century Italy is Bernini’s Chair of Peter. This masterpiece employs a variety of media in a typically Baroque fashion: the cathedra and the Fathers of the Church are bronze, the Holy Spirit is alabaster, and the angels surrounding the Holy Spirit are gilded stucco. In an equally Baroque manner, it portrays dramatic motion that breaks through the barrier between art and reality and comes into our space. The Holy Spirit appears to be exploding with amazing power into St. Peter’s Basilica: the angelic figures surrounding it are blown back from the dove, even as some try to go towards it.

"The Chair of Peter," by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
“The Chair of Peter,” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Besides being an icon of the power of the Holy Spirit, Bernini’s sculpture is an icon of the power of beauty. In a no less spectacular fashion, beauty explodes into our lives. We see it in sunsets and snow-covered mountains, and we marvel at it in the astounding creative accomplishments of our fellow humans. Whenever we experience reality that overflows with perfection we experience “beauty”, and, confronted with it, none of us can remain indifferent. But its power can be disconcerting because beauty demands, and it exerts undeniable influence over us: it fascinates, entrances, moves, and challenges.

Beauty confounds us. Why does it draw us so powerfully? In a world full of ugliness and suffering, how do we make sense of it? Dostoevsky was aware of this conundrum: interestingly, in both The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov he refers to beauty as a “riddle.”  Beauty is indeed mysterious, and its mystery affects each person differently, depending on his openness to truth.

For the hedonistic Dmitri Karamazov, the riddle of authentic beauty is unbearable. In a conversation with his brother, Alyosha, he grapples with its mystery: “Beauty is a fearful and terrible thing! Fearful because it is undefinable, and it cannot be defined, because here God gave us only riddles.”

The human mind finds security in definitions, because if something can be defined, it can be controlled. In man’s understanding and knowledge of things, he finds intellectual self-assurance. However, mystery makes him nervous because before it he must admit that there is something beyond him, and this admission in turn leads to the possibility that this “something beyond”, this source of mystery, has power over him and limits him.

For sensualists like Dmitri, this possibility is unbearable. In the same dialogue, he contrasts the “ideal of the Madonna” (beauty with truth) with the “ideal of Sodom” (beauty without truth), and he asserts that Sodom “for the vast majority of people…is just where beauty lies.” Dmitri is a type of all those who prefer the dazzling beauty of the world, the beauty of Sodom and Babylon, the beauty of billboards and magazines, the beauty that, according to Pope Benedict, “does not bring people out of themselves into the ecstasy of starting off towards the heights but instead immures them completely within themselves.” It’s the beauty of the fruit that seduced Eve: beauty that offers power, possession, and pleasure.

But try as they might to close themselves in the “beauty of Sodom”, authentic beauty maintains its fascination and continues to bear witness to the truth, because the beauty of this world is evidence of a Great Intellect who orders all things to himself.

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Finding Peace in “the City of Man”

Here is an excerpt from a tour I gave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on June 23, 2016:


Two of the most striking buildings in New York City face each other on opposite sides of 5th Avenue: St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center. The contrast between the two is iconic of the difference between “the City of God” (all that is ordered towards God) and “the city of man” (all that is ordered to man without reference to God).  

Rockefeller Center is a massive monument to the achievements of man. It contrasts starkly with the Cathedral because it is imbued with secular humanism and its art is tinged with the theme of pride and defiance. The overriding emphasis is on man and what he can achieve on his own.

Two of Rockefeller Center’s most prominent works of art – Atlas and Prometheus – are both Greek mythological figures who represent defiance of and freedom from divine power. They were Titans who rebelled against the Olympian gods. Atlas led a war against the Olympians and was punished by being forced to hold up the heavens from the earth for all of time. Prometheus gave man access to the divine secret of fire, contrary to the will of the Olympians, and was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten for all time by massive eagles.

Statue of Atlas before Saint Patrick's Cathedral. New York City, New York, USA.
Statue of Atlas before Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. New York City, New York, USA.

Rockefeller Center is certainly an impressive place, but its art celebrates something problematic. While it rightfully memorializes laudable achievements of man, it does so with a tone of defiance and hubris. What happens when man is celebrated without reference to God? The Tower of Babel happens: confusion and dissipation. When the proper of hierarchy of being is overturned, peace and order can never be fully achieved.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral offers the antidote for the disorder that is  embodied by the art of Rockefeller Center, and by much of New York City for that matter. Throughout the city, we find proud testaments to the achievements of man, and the enticement of promises of what we ourselves can achieve. We are bombarded by noise, confusion, and distractions, but inside this Cathedral, this place of God, we experience harmony and peace – we experience silence in the city. Outside we experience the dysfunctional city of man; in here we experience the ordered and harmonious City of God.

Outside these doors, the city of man celebrates the emancipation of the ego and idolizes personal freedom. However, inside these doors, the City of God, all things are celebrated in their relationship to God. Contrary to contemporary thought, the ego can only find true fulfillment when it looses itself in God. By allowing itself to be dependent on God, for Whom he was made, the person finds true freedom as  all of his energies and capacities are directed toward their natural end.

The effect of this Neo-Gothic cathedral is to de-center the ego of the person by causing him to reflect upon a cosmos that is greater than himself. Everywhere we look, we see celebrations of the beauty of creation: everything from plants, to humans, to angels. This cathedral thus encourages what Bishop Barron calls a “cosmic consciousness” – an awareness of the whole of creation and our relatively small place in it.

This de-centering of the ego may be disconcerting at first, but it ultimately leads us to peace and tranquility. We slowly begin to realize, contrary to the message that is blared at us outside, that if we trust in God and depend on Him, we will find true happiness. We do not need to grasp and shove and run the daily rat race. All we need to do is center ourselves on God, order ourselves around Him, and everything else will find its place. As Our Lord tells us: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened and I will give you rest.”

We cannot escape the fact that we live in a city of man full of noise and disorder, but we should take heart in knowing that within this great city of man, the City of God is present and growing. It is present here in this Cathedral and in every church where the Eucharist is present.

I would like to close with this passage from Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” 

When the city of man becomes too much for you, make your way here and allow yourself to find silence and peace in God. In this beautiful building, we experience an architectural foreshadowing of the City of God, the New Jerusalem, that awaits us in Heaven.

Come here, remember that you are a citizen of the City of God, and then bravely go back out into the city of man, knowing that wherever you go, you bring the City of God with you.

“The Hound of Heaven”: God’s Pursuit of You

We often hear about our deep need for God, but I don’t think that we hear enough about His intense desire for us. Our relationship with God is a two-way street: we yearn for Him, but He yearns for us even more.

The relationship between God and a soul is revealed to us in Scripture as being like that of a lover and the beloved. The Song of Songs, a biblical love poem charged with the intensity of romantic feeling, gives us a reflection of the intensity of God’s love through the symbolic search of a man for the woman he loves. As the man pursues the woman, so much more does God seek us. As beautiful as human love may be, every marriage and romantic relationship is just an image of the love God for each of his children.

Francis Thompson’s autobiographical poem, The Hound of Heaven, provides another powerful image of God’s desire for each of us. Using the image of a hound pursuing a hare, Thompson describes how God sought him through the years despite his own resistance and fear:

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him

He describes how he continuously fled from God, who never stopped calmly and lovingly pursuing. No matter where he went, Thompson could hear

…those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

He runs and runs, seeking happiness in other things, until desperate and exhausted, he gives up, and surrenders to the persistent pursuit of God, who says to him,

‘And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!

Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me? 
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’

We should never forget that God’s love for us is as intense as that of the lover in the Song of Songs, and as persistent as the the hound in The Hound of Heaven.

St. Augustine once wrote, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.” We should remember that God Himself is restless for us as well.

Christ said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)

These are the words of a God who loves you intensely,  and who will not rest until your heart is kindled with the fire of His love.