Beauty is a window through which we see God. It glorifies him, attests to him, and reveals something of his nature. It draws us to him, just as it teaches us about him.
|Dominican Father Peter Cameron, editor of Magnificat and the founder of the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre. Shutterstock photo
That’s one of the reasons why those who love God have always sought not just to see him in the beauty of his creation, but also to imitate and glorify him through creating beautiful works with their own hands. That was true for Michelangelo 500 years ago, and it’s true for Catholic media makers today. Or at least it should be.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Dominican Father Peter Cameron, the editor of Magnificat and the founder of the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, about the nature of beauty and its power to move the human soul.
Our Sunday Visitor: As Catholics, we often speak of beauty as a way to God, as a way of perceiving the good and the true. Why is that?
Father Peter Cameron: As the French playwright Jean Anouilh said, “Beauty is one of the few things in the world that do not lead to doubt about God.” The Church intuits that immediately. When we’re in the presence of something beautiful — an act of forgiveness, a newborn baby, a sunset — beauty wounds us. It has a visceral effect on us that is delightful, that increases our humanity. Beauty also reveals to us that there is something more to the world and something more to beauty than the beautiful thing itself. It leads to contemplation. That contemplation consists of wondering at where the beauty came from. It would be impossible for a human being who has just received a bouquet of flowers to not reach into the flowers to find a card. The beauty of the flowers moves us to wonder about the sender. Then, when we know who sent them, we enjoy them all the more. Every act of beauty does the same to us. It moves us to find the author and the reason.
OSV: How has the Church relied on beauty to call people to Christ?
Father Cameron: Beauty has this sense of otherness, a sense of transcendence. It pulls out of us the transcendent dimension of our own nature. The Church understands that very well, and has always relied on the beautiful to enlighten and reawaken the religious sense every human being has. No matter how lost a person might become, no matter how much he might lapse from faith and give himself over to the darkness of the world, the one thing that’s still capable of drawing him out of that darkness and into the light is something beautiful. That’s one of the reasons why the Gospels are not written like the Catechism or the Code of Canon Law. In some ways, it would be better if they were. If they were more precise and used a more scientific technical language it would make it clear what the Church teaches. But they’re not written that way. Instead, they’re written as stories. Why? Because they’re beautiful. Before we get to the meaning of the Scriptures, we’re drawn in by their beauty. The beauty of the Bible moves us. Once we’re moved, we start asking questions. If we keep following those questions, ultimately we start hungering for God.
OSV: So beauty is a vehicle for getting people to ask questions, not, strictly speaking, for presenting answers?
Father Cameron: Many Christians think the first thing they have to speak about is God. But God is an answer to a question. If the question isn’t asked, the answer is irrelevant. Giving an answer to a question that has not been asked is the definition of boring. That’s why the first responsibility of the Church in this moment is to reawaken the religious sense in people. So many people today have lapsed into an anesthetized way of living. They want to be secure, safe, get by. They escape into consumerism, television, food, pleasure because they can’t face the ultimate questions. They’re too terrifying.
Helping people ask those questions involves a conversion of mind on the part of Christians — remembering that what keeps people close to God is beauty, not pumping them with new ideas. It’s a Socratic fallacy that if we just get the truth in front of people, if we just keep publishing the propositions of the Faith, that somehow is going to make them Christians. That is a patent lie. As worthy and as important as ideas are, ideas do not make us Christians. It is the responsibility of the Church to offer to the people of the world this encounter with Jesus Christ, and it has to happen through beauty — through a magnificent dinner, a lecture, an art show, putting on a play or giving a concert. Here we need some imagination. The first thing in terms of this conversion of mind is asking ourselves “What would speak to me?” “What would I find irresistible?” “For what would I change my schedule?”
OSV: How are you doing this through the Blackfriars Theatre?
Father Cameron: Right now we’re doing a play called “The London Merchant.” It’s not a religious play, but it does speak to many burning issues — virtue, vice, the afterlife, forgiveness, prayer, how faith forms character. I thought it would be attractive because it’s 300 years old and as far as we can tell, has never been produced in North America. We thought that would interest people, and sure enough The New York Times did a story on it, then came and reviewed it. That’s the kind of thing that we need to do. People who would never dream of coming to Church are coming into our theatre and buying tickets because The New York Times said they should.
OSV: How can our own lives be witnesses to beauty?
Father Cameron: The most attractive thing on the planet is a person filled with gladness. The modern world doesn’t know how to take this; it’s so completely rare. When they meet someone who is filled with gladness, their first reaction is suspicion. Are they insane? On drugs? Or have they met someone astonishing? When the world meets somebody like that, the world can’t help but ask how you became like this because the world wants to be like this too. Everyone would rather be glad than miserable. The importance of each human being’s witness is vital, even before he or she opens their mouth. The witness of gladness is what makes the world stop and say, “You’re different, and your way of living seems better.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
See also: "Catholic Media Matters"