Have you ever been enraptured by the Holy? Sounds like a difficult question, right? But it is one of the most important religious questions you can ask since God often reveals Himself in the Beautiful. But, not just any beautiful. There is a kind of beauty that leads to awe and the experience of awe brings us to the threshold of prayer. Let me be more specific.
I have been in a couple of places that have acted on me like a communication of God through Beauty. One of them is familiar and the other not so familiar.
The first of these places was the hermitage of St. Francis called “I Carceri” in Italian. High on a mountain next to the town of St. Francis, Assisi, is the monastery built around the cave that St. Francis got away to so he could commune with God without interruption. It was a rainy day when I was there, and my friend and I decided to walk up to it. The rain came down hard, but we finally, drenched, arrived at the monastery. It was a Sunday afternoon and it looked completely deserted. No one was around, so we went in. The silence was very profound and beautiful. We walked up an old wooden staircase to the monk’s cells (I don’t think they were presently being used but were kept in exact conditions of the time so that visitors could imagine what it was like). It was such a spiritual experience walking down the corridors with simple cells on each side. The rain had increased and lightening could be seen flashing through the windows in the cells. It was (literally) awesome. When we went downstairs, we walked out into a garden and there was a very old and dead tree on one side. A beautiful white dove was perched on one of the branches, wondering who we were. The effect on both of us at that moment was mystical. I found out later that that was the tree where the birds perched as Francis gave a sermon. The beauty of the place, the solitude and the silence, spoke to both of us of the Divine Presence. We were filled with joy!
God is the supreme artist. He will use everything at His disposal to communicate His love to us.
On another occasion, I was traveling with some priest-friends through Ireland and we decided to climb Skellig Michael. Some of you might actually know this place without realizing it, as it was used in the movies “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” as the retreat and hideaway of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker! This is a cliff on a small Island off the coast of Kerry. It is hard to get to and hard to climb (the stairway built into the stones dates back to Medieval times). The stairway (with no protective railings!) rises 70 stories in altitude. Scary was not the word we used!
It was so beautiful to be in the middle of the Atlantic with birds flying beneath us! This is such a beautiful spot! At the top of the cliff is an ancient monastery dating back to the 5th century. Monks had prayed there for their entire lives!
The beauty and the remoteness and the thought of believers praying to God there for their entire lives filled us with a reverent awe just like in Assisi. No other experience can come close to religious experience in its power, depth and effects.
I find too that, in the realm of music, God can reach depths of joy and insight that normally one cannot even approach. Recently I attended a performance of Mozart’s Opera “La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus)”, which was an evening length meditation on forgiveness and reconciliation as well as a study of the tensions between mercy and justice in a good leader like Titus. This opera is over 200 years old yet it has a depth of power and (though Christ is not mentioned) a humane and even Christian spirit that was transfixing and transformative.
God is always trying to reach us: through the beauty of a sunset, the smile of a child, the hard work of a parent, etc. Part of truly living is being receptive to Him and allowing Him to keep shaping and transforming us.
Prayerfulness is the ambiance that opens us to these experiences. But we still have to be vigilant and alert for we do not know when and how the Lord will reach us!