It is said that one can arrive at the reality of God not only through the preeminent means of His revelation to us but through the ‘transcendentals’ that are at the heart of human experience. They are Truth, Goodness and Beauty. In anyone’s quest for meaning, these three open up a path that, if followed with true openness of mind, leads to God. To be concerned with seeking the truth, say by a Mathematician or by a Scientist, would lead inevitably to the hypothesis of an almighty Being. It must be remembered, however, that even scientists are limited by their internal prejudices often against belief in a Supreme Being.
Likewise, when one seeks true goodness, it also leads to God. Take the atheist who dedicates himself to working for the poor. To recognize goodness, one is at least positing a meaning to one’s action which, given atheistic premises, is impossible in a godless world. The convert Malcolm Muggeridge was an atheist until he helped Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta! He died a convinced Roman Catholic.
But there is another way to God. When one cannot access the Revelation bestowed on the human person, one can also find God through the path of Beauty. God is not only Good and True, God is also the beautiful one. Hence, one can, through the beauty of nature (God’s direct handiwork) and art (God’s indirect creation through the genius and the gifts of the human person), come to a relationship with God.
I remember standing before the spacious and breathtaking vista of the Grand Canyon. How could one not thank God and be led to prayer through its awesome beauty! And when I stood in the magnificent space of Chartres Cathedral, with its interplay of light and shadow, how could I not be awed and wonder at the sheer prayerfulness that this building conveys!
Catholicism is, at its finest, an incarnational faith in that it seeks God in all of reality. Nature, architecture, painting, dance, theater, poetry, philosophy, medicine (and I could go on and on); all of these are valued and honored in our faith. Some versions of Christianity are like specialty shops. They exhibit one or other parts of the Christian edifice in all its beauty; but because it is a partial representation (partial because it has in the interests of ‘purity’ it has rejected much of the totality of our faith), it misses a great deal. Catholicism, on the other hand, is like a Department Store where there are floors and floors of things to see and experience. One recent convert told me that it was dizzying what Catholicism offers to new members!
This ‘partial understanding’ is due to something that happened during the Protestant Reformation. When some Protestant reformers wanted to ‘purify’ the Christian faith, they entered the Cathedrals and hammered at the statues and broke the stained glass windows. This was done because of the fear of idolatry. I use this image from history as a symbol of the suspicion of art in some branches of Protestantism. This is abhorrent to the Catholic sensibility that sees all creation and, by extension all art, as a part of the glory of God. It is this fullness and completeness that makes me feel that, if we can say one religion is the most complete expression of the Creator’s wishes, it is Catholicism. We are not the religion of “Either/Or”, but the religion of “Both/And”.
For, which religion on earth has an equivalent reality to the Vatican Museums! Think of it: our religion has a place on earth where all that is beautiful in every civilization is valued and celebrated. Egyptian sarcophaguses, Greek statuary, Asian artifacts, modern art, ancient writing tablets, codices of scripture, and modern documents of historical importance are all there! It is a museum that stands right up there with the Louvre and the British Museum. No other religion on earth has such a museum, such a storehouse of beauty!
There is no more congenial relationship between beauty and faith than that which the Catholic Church enjoys. It gives even the non-believer a pathway to God. The Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo, the plays of Shakespeare, the sculpture of the Pieta, the music of Mozart (to name just some of the arts that have informed our faith) all give glory to God.
Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” How wonderful that God gives us this means to Him!