Beauty in the Light of Sacramentality and the Soul

Dr Dudley Plunkett FAITH Magazine March - April 2008

The Heythrop Institute Study On the Way to Life[1] argues for a 'Catholic sacramental imagination' as a response to the 'turn to the subject' that is characteristic of contemporary culture. Unfortunately, the Study appears to be more concerned to find common ground with that culture than to evangelise it. It gives this writer the impression of allowing the world to set the agenda for the Church rather than the other way around. This article considers how we might understand 'Catholic sacramental imagination' differently in its relevance to the concerns of 'Catholic education, catechesis and formation' featured in the Study's subtitle. In the interests of a holistic approach, I seek to emphasise how not only individuals but also cultures can beevangelised. Inspired human imagination can create beauty capable of evangelising those who are not aware of, or have lost sight of the supernatural. I want in this article to explore a sacramental vision, a kind of 'seeing beyond', that is empowered by faith in the God-man who reveals the transcendental attributes of beauty, goodness and truth of the Godhead.

In Christian understanding, the whole of creation springs from the Blessed Trinity, and the beatific vision is the experience of those spiritual creatures who share God's Kingdom. Where does humanity enter the picture? Within the universe human beings are God's creation in a special way, since they are made in his image and likeness. They approach God in faith and in the activities that fill their earthly, bodily existences. These include the spiritual life and investigation of what they can know of God by reason and from revelation in scripture and tradition. Human experience can help us recognise an ultimate source of truth, goodness and beauty. This growing awareness leads us towards God along the path he has provided, namely the teaching of the incarnate Christ, our membership of themystical body of his Church, and our gradual incorporation into his Kingdom. This incorporation happens through the redemption won for us on the Cross and our response to God's salvific love by our love for him and for each other.

All this is to say that in the Christian vision our human world has a sacramental dimension. Christ's incarnation is mirrored by our lives and work. Cultural, artistic and spiritual activities reflect the attributes of the Creator himself, in some way analogously to how Jesus reveals the Father in his earthly life. It implies that there is a human awareness of divinely inspired beauty which transcends sense experience. The direct way then to apprehend beauty is by the spirit, not the senses. This does not mean that we would no longer need to consider shape, colour, texture, sound, odour, taste or experience, but that we would need to venture beyond them. This approach to beauty affirms its spiritual character by superimposing faith upon sight, silence upon hearing, communion upon tasting,touching and smelling, love upon sense experience and contemplative prayer upon intellectual analysis.

We cannot approach the subject of divine beauty with neat definitions. We must come in humility. This is because we have only a dim awareness of beauty's true nature. We can see only hints of divine beauty, and if some poets or artists seem to have a talent for seeing a particular kind of natural beauty it does not follow that they will also see or appreciate supernatural beauty (for example, in people, liturgy, or scripture). The best we can hope for is to discover beauty in a continuing process that leads us on to a fuller understanding of truth and to a love of the good and the holy. I want to suggest how this process engages with and evangelises culture.

Beauty in the Sacred

The revelatory character of sacred art is specifically depicted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 'To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created.' (CCC: 2501) Here faith and culture meet in a new synthesis: 'The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous spiritual joy and moral beauty. Likewise, truth carries with it the joy and splendour of spiritual beauty. Truth is beautiful in itself.' (CCC: 2500) People have always been drawn to Christian faith by the sacred beauty that the Church offers us in the revelation of God in Jesus, scripture, liturgy, sacraments, lives of the saints, sacred art, miracles of conversion and healing, and in her own very nature. Scripture is replete withexamples, but perhaps especially in the Psalms, as in the opening lines of Psalm 63:

God, you are my God, I am seeking you,
my soul is thirsting for you,
my flesh is longing for you,
a land parched, weary and waterless;
I long to gaze on you in the sanctuary,
and to see your power and glory.

The beauty of this psalm lies essentially in the spiritual and supernatural domain, and yet it has powerful physical and natural qualities. The metaphor of the land thirsting for God summons up countless images of landscapes, exhausted travellers, coming rainy seasons, of the country blossoming with new life, as well as of the soul longing for a contact with its Creator, hoping for its own transformation, thrilled at the thought of the hidden beauty about to burst forth, desperate to discover the very face of God after a long pilgrimage, and so on. The more we open our hearts to the prayer, the more hauntingly transcendent is the beauty it reveals.

The liturgy provides us with similar examples, as when the Prefaces of the Mass explode in expressions of praise of God that are then offered to be joined with those of the angels and saints before the throne of the trice Holy. In his Apostolic Exhortation following the Synod on the Eucharist, Pope Benedict XVI evokes the fusion of earthly and heavenly beauty in the liturgy:

Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is veritatis splendor. The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion.... Here the splendour of God's glory surpasses all worldly beauty.... The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God's glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. ( Sacramentum Caritatis, 35)

The Via Pulchritudinis

In as much as beauty, truth and goodness are revealed in the sacred, in nature and in people, or are crafted in things made by human hands and minds in science, literature and the arts, so gospel faith is enhanced in its power to convince and transform people and cultures. Everyone has a God-given right to know, love and cherish beauty, since it is part of God's self-revelation guiding us to know the author of beauty to be grateful to him and praise him by magnifying his glory.

Such a Via Pulchritudinis is proposed by the Pontifical Council for Culture as a 'way of beauty' by which culture can be evangelised.[2]

The notion of a sacramental imagination can flesh out this idea by focusing our attention on the harmonious metaphysical relationship between heavenly and earthly beauty which, allows the invisible to be made visible and the transcendent to be glimpsed on earth by a spiritually enhanced understanding. This is not imagination in the subjective sense, but a sign of the real presence, or omnipresence, of God. As I read it, the Heythrop Study tends to be reductive in its use of the term 'imagination' and to refer more to the subjective act than to the objective imaging of the transcendent, as if the intellect or the will were not intrinsically ordered to grace for their full and highest operation, or the picture created by the 'sacramental imagination' counted more than the reality beingreflected. I believe it is more fruitful for the work of evangelising to adopt a Catholic realist view that affirms at its heart the reality of the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine, rather than risk being seduced by the relativism and subjectivism of postmodern culture.[3]

I prefer then to think along the lines of a Catholic visionor understanding of the universe which is sacramental, wherein there are visible signs of an invisible source, and whereby we can see the divine in the mundane or created order, as in the Eucharist which is the ultimate sacrament. This is the objectively real order, centred upon the Word becoming that flesh which is given for our redemption in the Eucharist. The Paschal meal of the New Testament replaced a ritual full of signs and prophecy: 'Here for empty shadows fled is reality instead'. We are given a foretaste of the beatific vision, a joyful awareness of how heaven comes to earth as a preliminary to the faithful going to heaven. Such an incarnational perspective lies at the heart of Pope John Paul's Letter to Artists:[4]

This prime epiphany of "God who is Mystery" is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty.... (para. 5)

This leads us to a brief conclusion. We need to envision ways of evangelising human culture through the transcending and transcendent power of beauty. This could radically challenge secular cultures and agendas.

Some might say that to instrumentalise beauty in this way is not a truly artistic position, that it subordinates the creative impulse to an external motive, but I could turn to many artists for a precedent. Anyone who has read Il Paradisoknows that Dante writes beautifully, even mystically, of the divinely beautiful; no less does Gerard Manley Hopkins. In any case, ther is no mutual exclusivity between the creative impulse and the proclamation and worship of the Creator. Through bringing out their profound inter-relationship we can promote a newly evangelised culture comprising imaginative activities that are open to the transcendent, a culture that locates human creativity in art, literature and science within the context of the call to holiness. Such creativity should be an optionchosen for life that acknowledges truth, goodness and beauty as having their source in the divine.

[1] James Hanvey and Anthony Carroll (2005), On the Way to Life. Heythrop Institute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life.
[2] See the conference section of the Pontifical Council for Culture on the Vatican website:
[3] The Study contends: 'It is always a sign of crisis in the community's confidence when it has to rely on its structures of authority for validation' (p.29), as if the promises to Peter and the Second Vatican Council were not structurally constitutive of the Church.
[4] Pope John Paul 11 (1999), Letter to Artists.

EDITORIAL NOTE: We plan to have more comment on On The Way to Life in our next issue.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2008