Nurturing Hope through Beauty
My early years as a high school religion teacher overflowed with exciting moments of watching teens open up to the Lord in the midst of my efforts to bring them to him. Students’ faces lit up as they understood a truth of the faith for the first time; students expressed a sense that God was speaking to them in prayer; students turned away from serious sin because they realized God wanted more for them. But one year I had an extraordinarily difficult class. None of my previously successful efforts engaged these students, and try as I might to identify other successful means of reaching them, each of those failed as well. I recall sharing a part of my testimony with them, a story that had previously been very effective, and they burst into derisive laughter. While other teachers spoke of this group’s extreme immaturity, I thought I must be a failure as a teacher and a catechist. As the year dragged on, I experienced a growing conviction that I could not reach these students, or any students, and that I did not belong in this ministry. I lost hope that these students could meet the Lord, hope that God was at work in this situation, hope that I was even called to this ministry to begin with. The end of the year found me physically and spiritually exhausted, and hopelessly convinced that God had abandoned me.
Catechetical ministry is often fraught with challenges to hope. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) observed, “The drama faced by our contemporaries is…that of living without hope in an ever more profane world.”[i] The drama we face as catechists is to remain steadfast in our own hope and to help those to whom we minister grow in hope as well. According to Cardinal Ratzinger’s synthesis of Augustine, Aquinas, and others, beauty brings us to an encounter with Christ Jesus our Hope,[ii] giving us hope to carry on. By imbuing our catechesis with beauty, we nourish our own hope and create the conditions for realizing the definitive aim of catechesis: “to put people…in intimacy with Jesus,”[iii] stirring our “hope [that] he invites us to.”[iv]
Beauty moves hearts to hope
God gives us the theological virtue of hope so that we confidently desire and expect from him both eternal life and all the help we need to attain it.[v] Authentic hope recognizes that created things should be sought and used to help us seek eternal happiness with God.[vi] For example, God gives food to nourish our bodies so that we can carry out his will, and makes the food delicious as an added motivation to eat it. He gives sweet experiences in prayer to make us want to continue to pray. One important way he draws us to himself is through our particular calling, and he gives us exhilarating moments in that calling to encourage us to continue. He gives enjoyment of the food, sweetness of prayer, and thrilling moments as impetus to seek the end: we hope for greater union with him, and we recognize the deliciousness and the sweetness and the exhilaration as means to that union.[vii] When we face challenges—from food we don’t like to difficulties in ministry to personal tragedies—hope reminds us to persevere in seeking union with God, even without the accompanying incentives.
Beauty, goodness, truth, and unity are known as the transcendentals. The transcendental of unity indicates that where one transcendental is present so are all the others. So for something to be true in the fullest sense, it also needs to be good and beautiful; for something to be truly good it must also be beautiful and true; and for something to be truly beautiful it must be true and good as well. This means that beauty reveals truth and goodness, and makes it possible for truth and goodness to penetrate the whole person, not just intellect and will.[viii] St. Peter’s Basilica is beautiful; but it isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it is also true (its images reveal invisible realities) and good (it is a place to worship God and inspires goodness). Its beauty envelops the whole person.
St. Augustine linked each of the transcendentals with the faculties of the soul: truth impacts the intellect, goodness involves the will, and beauty resides in the memory. So we remember beautiful images, beautiful music, beautiful stories; we draw upon our memories to create new beauty. St. Thomas Aquinas showed the relationship between the theological virtues and the faculties of the soul, linking faith with the intellect, love with the will, and hope with memory. Cardinal Ratzinger synthesized the two, showing that the encounter with beauty is stored in the memory, stirring hope.[ix] A memory of beauty can stir the same emotions as the original encounter, potentially evoking hope again and again, long after the original experience.[x] The memories of these experiences shape who we are and how we act going forward. For example, the encounter with and memory of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee can rouse a person’s hope that Jesus will carry them through the storms of their own lives to a place of calm and peace. Of course, not all memories lead us in the right direction: think of a war veteran who reacts to fireworks as if still in battle, or someone who remembers sin as “fun” and not its painful consequences. Also, memories don’t guarantee our acting in a particular way: the person who has proverbially fallen off the horse and is afraid of being thrown again can choose to overcome that memory and get back on the horse. Nevertheless, memory powerfully impacts our course of action.
The relationship between hope and beauty has the power to move our hearts when we struggle to choose the true and good path. A teenager’s reluctance to tell the truth because it could lead to unpleasantness doesn’t change the objective truth and goodness of honesty. Yet it takes much more energy for him to choose the true and good if his heart isn’t moved to do so. The beautiful movie Les Miserables (especially the scene when Jean Valjean confesses his true identity as a paroled convict to save the life of another man being mistakenly punished in his place) has the potential to powerfully move the teen’s heart, strengthening and energizing him for the true and the good. The reverse can also take place. As I lost hope during my difficult year, I found it harder and harder to carry out my teaching responsibilities. As I eventually discovered, beauty has powerful potential to move our hearts in hope to be more receptive to the truth and energize us to act on it.
Beauty facilitates an encounter with Christ our
God himself is the source of the infinite perfection of each of the transcendentals. With regard to God as Beautiful, the Catechism tells us, “The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator.[xi] Aquinas appropriates each of the transcendentals to a Person of the Trinity: truth to the Father, goodness to the Holy Spirit, and beauty to the Son.[xii] He specifically appropriates beauty to the Son because he sees that the Son is each of the qualities of true beauty. He is the Image of the Father and so has the Father’s nature completely. He images the Father’s nature faithfully and in right proportion. He is the radiance and splendor of the Father. Pope John Paul II explained this appropriation of beauty to Jesus by observing that in the Incarnation, the second Person of the Trinity made God’s own beauty visible to us,[xiii] and so he said, “Jesus is the beauty to which you are so attracted.”[xiv] When we are attracted to beautiful images, beautiful music, a beautiful sunset, we are drawn through them to Jesus himself. This was the recognition expressed through St. Augustine’s famous cry, “Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new!”[xv]
This heritage of recognizing that Christ is the definitively beautiful One, even Beauty Itself, prompted Pope Francis to point out the obvious implication: “Every expression of true beauty can be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.”[xvi] Author Shelden Vanauken’s testimony that he and his wife, as unbelievers, “sought the beautiful…and came at last to Messiah”[xvii] is but one of many examples of the possibility of such an encounter. Catechists often speak of wanting to give their audiences an “experience” of Jesus; one important way of doing so is by offering encounters with true beauty. Further, the linking of Jesus, beauty, memory, and hope shows that the encounter with Jesus gives hope. Beautiful catechesis creates the conditions for Jesus to rouse hope in the catechist and in those catechized.
Beauty embeds the truth in our whole being
My difficult students were, like many modern audiences, impervious to any rational arguments for the truth of the faith. Many people have proposed the way of beauty as a solution, because beauty “can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments.”[xviii] Because beauty, goodness, and truth are always united, the encounter with beauty forms us to later recognize goodness and truth, or their absence. More than just intellectual or rational, this recognition comes from the whole person. The encounter with beauty gives “a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction.”[xix] Consider the power of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to teach original sin, the slavery of sin, and Jesus’ redemption. Many of my students, having read the book as children, were dubious when I assigned them to read it again. Inevitably, after reading it, they asked if Lewis intended to write a story about the fall and redemption. Unwittingly engaged by the power of the beautiful story, the students’ affection for Aslan translated to beginning or deepening affection for Jesus; they were opened to the truths the story contained and moved to renounce sin and accept the grace won for them in the redemption. Though this did not immediately convert hardened sinners into great saints, it nevertheless moved hearts and opened minds in ways that reasoned explanations of the faith did not.
Beautiful saints make more saints
Stories of the lives of the saints also move hearts to hope. The Catechism tells us that God’s beauty is reflected in the saints.[xx] The saints are God’s art, God’s masterpieces. When we see the faith lived out by the saints whose hearts were moved in hope to embrace it, we are likewise moved.[xxi] Maderno’s sculpture of the incorrupt body of St. Cecilia conveys the story of her martyrdom. Her executioner failed to sever her head from her body after the maximum three attempts. When her incorrupt body was exhumed in 1599, her neck showed her fatal wounds while the three extended fingers on her right hand and the single extended finger on her left proclaimed her belief in the Trinitarian God. Cecilia’s confidence in God’s love for her and her hope of being united to him for eternity helped her endure her sufferings to win her crown. Encountering the beautiful sculpture of her incorrupt body and hearing the beautiful story of her hopeful death rouses our hope that we too will endure our sufferings bravely, whatever they may be, and win our own crown. The lives of the saints, those expressions of the beauty of God, can give us the hope we need to become saints as well, to rise “to the true heights of our being, to God’s promise.”[xxii]
Renewed in hope
After my challenging year in ministry, when I was still struggling to hope and wondering if I should continue in catechetical ministry, I travelled to Rome. There I enjoyed many experiences of beauty, but my visit to Caravaggio’s The Call of St. Matthew most perceptibly restored my hope. Though I was very familiar with the painting, I instantly burst into tears at the sight of the original. I felt Jesus pointing at me, calling me, as he called Matthew in the painting. “What are you calling me to do?” I cried out to him in my heart. While I didn’t have a specific response to that question at that moment, my heart was flooded with peace and confidence that Jesus continued to be with me and work with me in my catechetical ministry, even though it was devoid of all the exciting moments I’d experienced before. I had been suffering a loss of hope that God was with me in my ministry struggles, as he had been with me in my ministry successes. In fact, I recognized the truth that his call included the Cross, as indicated in the window above Jesus in the painting. Far from abandoning me in my ordeal, Jesus had been with me the whole time. As I saw Jesus calling Matthew away from the illusory attractions of this world and to a much greater life, I realized he had been detaching me from dependence on those exhilarating moments in ministry and inviting me to greater union with him. With my hope renewed and reinvigorated, I could continue on in ministry, bearing more fruit.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2017 issue of The Catechetical Review, pp. 40-42, and in its online edition, Issue 3.4 at Review.Catechetics.com. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher, Franciscan University of Steubenville.