There are so many ways to encounter God — His creativity is truly infinite. For example, some are struck by the Gospel for its Truth, others are converted by seeing good people and virtuous deeds, and yet others by seeing sacred art.
Saint John Paul II indicated The Way of Beauty as a privileged itinerary for the new evangelization.
We live, in fact, in the age of the dictatorship of relativism and therefore a reflection on truth and goodness of being is not very convincing for many people today.
The Way of Beauty, instead, has a unique way of reaching hearts and minds.
In fact, beauty is connected to goodness and truth, but it is perceived more immediately. To say that something is beautiful means not only recognizing in it a knowability and goodness, but also an ability to attract.
The magisterium of the last few popes has highlighted how the Way of Beauty can be a powerful way to proclaim the Gospel. In 2006, the Pontifical Council for Culture published a significant document in this regard: Via Pulchritudinis (The Way of Beauty), Privileged Pathway for Evangelization and Dialogue.
Man is struck by beauty because it is the first and most immediate aspect of reality that manifests itself to his senses, and from there, he can also grasp the truth and goodness of things.
The Russian writer F. Dostoevsky repeated: “Surely we cannot live without bread, but even existing without beauty is impossible.” And “Beauty is more than aesthetics; it has an ethical and religious dimension.” In fact, Dostoevsky saw in Jesus a sower of beauty.
Pope Francis has given special importance to the transmission of the Christian faith precisely through the Via Pulchritudinis. It is not enough that the message of the Gospel is good and just. It must also be “beautiful”; only in this way does it fully appeal to the heart. The Pope insists that it is important that every catechesis pay special attention to the “Way of Beauty.” All expressions of authentic beauty can be recognized as a path that helps to meet the Lord Jesus.
But in practice, how can I pray with the beauty of nature or the beauty of a work of art?
- First, I can choose the specific beautiful thing or scene that I want to contemplate; I can also find some explanation of that work of art or beauty such as a commentary; I can also find some biblical passages related to that work
- I begin my time of prayer by invoking the Holy Spirit and intentionally choosing and desiring to be led by Him
- Next, I can imagine myself present in the scene described, in dialogue with the characters of the scene if there are persons depicted. I try to observe the details carefully, looking for the meaning of gestures, symbols and signs represented and perceptible to my sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste.
- Whenever a beautiful detail captures my attention, I can dwell on it.
- All this slowly becomes prayer. Prayer, in fact, has an intellectual dimension and an affective one.
- As my heart is touched by beauty, I let my spirit rise to contemplate God.
It is interesting that in Greek the word aesthetic means sensation. So, I experience beauty when I let myself be reached by the sensations I feel in before it. Conversely, if I deprive myself of this experience, I live anesthetized when I overlook beauty.
Observing, understanding, and dialoguing with a work of art takes time.
So, put yourself in a comfortable position and continue to take in the work as a whole and then again observe the details, whether it is music, art, nature, or some other form of beauty you are contemplating.
The more you look, scrutinize, penetrate the attention of the details of this piece of beauty, the more you will receive ideas for your life through things that you had not noticed before, even if you had seen that work of art or listened to that symphony or gazed upon that rose bush many times.
Think that what you have in front of you has often been admired by generations of people who have shed tears and written many thoughts and reflections about it.
Be aware of your relationship with God but also with these people who have contemplated the same beauty before you. After spending a reasonable amount of time with this image, turn your heart to God, the supreme Beauty, the only one who can make something beautiful.
Do not go back to your daily routine without proposing a concrete step that testifies to your particular encounter with God today. For example, if a particular painting inspires joy in you, then you could resolve not to sadden the environment in which you live; or even better, try to bring joy to the people God puts on your path that day.
We recently prayed before Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Pietà. We also had a brief presentation of the author and of the meaning of the so-called “Pietà” in the sixteenth century followed by an inspiring time of sharing.
For example, we had never noticed the height of Mary (if she were standing, she would reach six-and-a-half feet) which like every element of the sculpture has a precise theological meaning. Her serenity, based on an unshakable faith, does not need to be seen with her own two eyes (unlike Thomas who wanted to see before he believed); the eyes of Mary are almost closed. She is sitting straight, not hunched over the body of Christ. She supports the corpse of her son practically with only one arm. Jesus, far from looking dead, is perfectly clean, has the wounds on his hands and feet already almost closed or healed and He is ready for the Resurrection. Mary’s legs are powerful and firm; Mary does not hold Jesus to herself like a possessive mother, but her open hands make us understand that she has received Jesus, and while continuing to love him and to hold him on her knees, she offers him to us. The fingers of her left hand sketch her faith in the two natures of Christ and in the Holy Trinity. Her faith allows her to wait with joy, even if she is still in pain, for the resurrection of her Son. Her youthful age speaks of purity and of abiding in the celestial world. How nice it is to rest in her. It seems that she is telling us not to indulge in the thought of death.
After this time of meditation on the Pietà we returned home, stronger in faith and more determined to share about it in this profound way. Rome is well suited for this purpose, since we are full of works of art that confirm Rome as caput mundi and as the Eternal City.
Feuerbach said that man is what he eats. What do we feed on? What is the food we give to the soul? With what thoughts and desires do we fill our minds? What do we watch, what do we read, what do we listen to? If life is only about pleasure or money, we are poisoning our souls.
Everything can be seen either in its materiality as an object to be exploited and dominated, or as an epiphany of God, that is, a manifestation of his perfection and beauty.
If you look at your surroundings with wonder, if you perceive that behind everything is something more that escapes you, then you are feeding your soul with real food.
The contemplation of beauty transforms us and makes us beautiful. So, let us walk this Way of Beauty with the Holy Spirit as we allow the Lord to lift our hearts to Him.
This week I will choose one concrete example of beauty and try to incorporate it into my meditation as outlined here.
This month’s meditation is by Sr. Tiziana, AVI.