Recently, I attended a performance of the Ballet “Jewels” at the New York City Ballet (one of the foremost Ballet Companies of the world). During a very quiet and gentle moment of the dance, the Prima Ballerina moved across the stage in a beautiful sweeping movement that literally took my breath away. Suddenly, I was swept into a mysterious place; in a split second, something lifted my heart into an intuition, direct and incontrovertible, of God Himself. I began to pray.
Traditionally there are three ways to enter into an experience of God while we are still in this life: through the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The great 20th century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a series of works on these three ‘transcendentals’: The Glory of the Lord on the Beautiful (7 volumes), Theo-drama on the Good (5 volumes), and Theo-logic on the True (3 volumes). While other theologians have written on the Good and the True, he is without peer in Western Theology as a writer on the pathway of Beauty in the Spiritual-Theological life of a Christian.
Getting back to the Ballet: what I experienced is this pathway of beauty that leads to God. It is so hard to describe how this happens! It is not a logical progression of thought, but rather, it fits more easily in the realm of intuition, when we are able to grasp in an instant what it takes many words to even approximate. In prayer, these moments come naturally since we place our minds and hearts at the disposal of God. Even in the absence of these moments of God’s touch, there is great good. For we at least know what we are missing and continue to search and long for Him. Much of the work of St. John of the Cross concerns what he terms this “dark night of the soul” when, in feeling nothing of these moments of divine intuition, God’s presence is even more at work (even though there are no feelings involved). It is like a desert.
But here we are concerned with the divine touches which startle us and bring us back to God with a surety and purpose that cannot be duplicated either by human beings or by demons.
In another instance, it happened to me in a combination of artistic and religious insights. When I saw the movie “Into Great Silence” by Philip Gröning, I was transported into another state of consciousness that was more explicitly religious. Now, this is a very difficult movie to watch. When I showed it here in our Parish one Holy Week, most of the audience left during it’s almost 3-hour length! It demands undivided attention.
I first saw it in the auditorium of the Museum of Modern Art with the director present. This was not a religious audience, but highly artistic and seemingly of the most ‘godless’ hue. Lots of leather clothing and piercings were displayed all around me! I thought “this is going to be a disaster! How can a movie about hermits touch this trendy and unreligious crowd?”
I have seen this film about three times with an audience, once with the above trendy group and twice with church groups. But the audience that was the most wrapt in silence and awe at what it was seeing was the ‘godless’ ones! Could it be a repetition was what Jesus pointed out: that the religious Pharisees could not see what the prostitutes and tax collectors could see?
That MoMA audience was respectful, even reverential, toward the revelation of the beauty of silence and got something that religiously-inclined audiences merely bypassed.
What I am trying to hint at is that this ‘intuition of grace’ that beauty gives is available to everyone of good will, religious or not. This is the very essence of the transcendentals (the Good, the True and the Beautiful): they lead the truly open and docile person to God.
Thus, the experience of the beautiful, whether it be found in the Arts or in Nature, does bring us to the Divine Presence Who is always involved in our lives, though most of the time in hidden and mysterious ways.
This is what I experienced that night at the Ballet: the beauty of God who informs and transforms all earthly reality. The discipline of ascesis and the practice of moral conduct are a training in the prayerful openness that enables us to perceive and to respond to these intimations of the Divine.