‘Thou art beautiful above the sons of men: grace is poured abroad in thy lips.”
One warm, late-summer afternoon in Eastern North Carolina, a few hundred primary-school children poured out of their classrooms and waited for their buses to take them far and wide around the county. My aunt, the principal, stood by the curb, surveying the complex arrangements to prevent any little children from boarding the wrong bus. A cute seven-year old black girl crowned with many brightly colored barrettes rocked pensively from foot to foot as her bus rolled in to take her home. With a schoolmarm’s cheerful condescension, my aunt complimented her, “My, you’ve made yourself so beautiful today, Sugar!” The little girl gave the swift and startling reply, “Oh, no Miz Brooks, only Jesus make you beautiful!” Thus, the example from innocence.
“The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” This is the very broad moral inference drawn by the wise priest in The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith by Scottish Catholic novelist Bruce Marshall. Marshall (whose novels were popular in preconciliar days and whose papers—worthy of study by tradition-loving Christians—are at Georgetown) describes the Last Rites given to an old merchant marine in a brothel to which the priest has been called by the at least minimally pious proprietress. The seaman cannot be sorry for his many visits to similar places around the world throughout his long life. These were the only beautiful things he had ever had in his hard earthly voyage. The priest, eager to save him by short shrift as death draws near, lauds on a saving formula. “Are you sorry that you’re not sorry?” Yes, he can muster up such an imperfect act of contrition. Absolved, he is anointed and united to the living flesh of Jesus. Thus, the example from experience.
What is the role of beauty in religion? Can aestheticism lead a man to God, or is the contemplation of the Beautiful the reward rather than the way? Leaving the iconoclast answer to its ecumenical anathema, we seek in vain for a serene and definitive resolution of the problem from within the broad bounds of orthodoxy, since, for the orthodox, the question is not speculative and universal but practical and concrete, like the question “How much time should I devote to prayer?” or “How much should I fast and feast?”
Augustine needed to fret over the choice between recto tono recitative and orientalizing Ambrosian chant. For the Desert Fathers before him, there was not even any notion of a choice for a monastic, and so they gave him reason to wonder. Latin Cluniacs and Cistercians, Slavonic Josephites and Transvolgans disagreed among themselves on the correct degree of liturgical splendor. Beato Angelico and Savonarola were from the same order, and each lived in his time at San Marco in Florence, but they hardly had the same inclination regarding iconography. Juan de la Cruz reveals this tension within a single person and tradition, severely proscribing preferences for particular holy images and objects of devotion and yet meticulously comparing the life of prayer to the crafting, polychroming, and gilding of a Spanish baroque sculpture, and writing poetry that is laden with the five-fold imagery of the senses.
Until modern times, the question of the role of aesthetics in religion has been a monastic one, not unlike the disputes over the extent and nature of religious poverty. The aesthetical question was an ascetical question, not so much a question of whether but of how much to make use of the visible, audible, and sweet-smelling in cult and contemplation. Christian society could, in consequence, bear both maximalist and minimalist answers. Deeply convinced about man’s immaterial soul and his capacity to know and possess—indeed, as Aristotle says, to be all things by intellect and will—and that this capacity was first awakened by the activity of the senses, though fallen and sorely weakened by the passions, the classical, biblical, patristic, and medieval man could rightly ponder their value in that ascent to Beauty and assent to Truth which is called “happiness.” The question of aesthetics was not yet a troubled and longing one about the nature, hope, and duration of happiness but a tough, practical one about what is fitting and useful in laying hold of what is certain.
Modern culture has found it necessary to develop a nonascethetic aesthetic, which can broadly be called Romantic rather than monastic. Here, there is no practical question but a universal anxietvy about the possibility of knowing and enjoying the Beautiful. The Kantian metaphysical impasse placed the whole burden of access to universal transcendent realities on the moral life of man, a moral life divorced from contemplation, a sheer exercise of the will. Yet the access to divine things that was cut off on the level of the intellect was less successfully denied to the experience of the senses. The Critique of Judgment was never so effective as the Critique of Pure Reason. The Romantics took very fruitful advantage of this “weakness” of the Kantian account of aesthetics. Although a scientific account of metaphysical realities has been regarded as a naive and unintelligible enterprise from Kant until the present day, the same has not been true of aesthetic approaches to God, the immortal soul, eternity, and the angelic spirits.
Although sense is not intellect, it is knowledge. If there is an authentic aesthetic approach to God and the soul, then there is the hope of a recovery of the higher, intellectual knowledge of which sense knowledge is the beginning. Aestheticism can thus lead circuitously back to the ancient security in the knowledge of spiritual realties. Here is the nobler vein in the Romantic reaction to modernity. This explains the tendency found in all the various Romanticisms toward a conversion (not a reversion!) to pre-modernity.
There is, however, another and equally Romantic possibility: the sensualism of the Epicurean. What if the contemplation of sensible tilings is the only contemplation there can be? Then aesthetics will become only the holiday enjoyment of brute empiricism, an intense experience of the present moment, but hardly an experience of the transcendent and eternal. From the premodern point of view, the former “reactionary” aesthetic is more humane and salutary, but, given the post-Kantian presuppositions common to both approaches, the latter is more rigorous and internally consistent.
The problem is, as the monks knew well, that these two aesthetic approaches are not really exclusive of each other in the concrete, subjective life of an individual man. The human heart is clearly able to fall in an instant from the grateful thought of God reflected in a beautiful body He has made to a simple case of sensual attraction, and who is so wise as to be able to discern which of the two is the case, or whether they even are always incompatible? An infinite gap separates Dorian Gray, as he admires his collection of ecclesiastical textiles folded away in his upper-hall chests, and the silent novice sacristan working away in an abbey; and yet, as with Dives and Abraham, the one place can be seen from the other, and both men in life have thirsted for the same Beauty. As Aquinas says in the Pange Lingua, “Of a like taking, how diverse tire outcome!” And the good monk will not assume he plays the part of Lazarus but will continually examine himself, lest his longing be only for condemnation.
“O worship the Lord in the holiness of beauty” This is the wag’s transposition of the terms of the invitatory psalm of the American Prayer Book’s Morning Prayer. Whatever the current state of aesthetics in Anglican worship maybe, we turn, not unsuitably to an Anglican, though not always a good one, to show how the points made thus far are realized. Of writers in the English language at least, Walter Pater is the one who most of all has considered the role of the beautiful in religion, of the aesthetic approach to God, and this while having also expounded a theory strongly opposed to such an approach.
Walter Pater’s The Renaissance taught the most pure empiricist aesthetic imaginable, concentrating on the development of taste and the capacity for a sustained and appreciative gaze empowering the observer, in the words of the famed final protreptic admonition of his book, “to burn with this hard, gemlike flame.” There is nothing beyond “momentary enjoyment,” as the priest grandson of Romantic poet William Wordsworth noted in an outraged letter to Pater, expressing his deep concern about the effect his work would have on the young: “Could you indeed have known about the dangers into which you were likely to lead minds weaker than your own,you would, I believe, have paused.” The younger Wordsworth’s fears turned out to be true enough, and so T.S. Eliot remarked years later that Pater’s essay “propagated some confusion between life and art which is not wholly irresponsible for some untidy lives.”
G.K. Chesterton was kinder to Pater, and, refusing to move too quick to a moral critique, he points out precisely where the problem lies for this beauty-for-beauty’s-sake aesthetic on its own experiential grounds. In The Victorian Age in Literature, G.K. remarks,
Ruskin let himself go about railways. Newman let himself go about Kingsley. Peter cannot let himself go for the excellent reason that he wants to stay at the point where all the keenest emotions meet, as he explains in the splendid peroration of The Renaissance. The only objection to being where all the keenest emotions meet is that you feel none of them.
In Marius the Epicurean, Pater attempts to answer his critics and to correct his imprudence by writing a philosophical romance that is, on his own admission, about an empiricist, aesthectical iter that ends at the threshold not just of religion but even of Heaven. Pater writes, in a letter to a friend, “I regard this present matter as a sort of duty. For you know, I think that there is . . . a sort of religious phase possible for the modern mind . . . the conditions of which phase it is the main object of my design to convey.” About Marius, Elliot sniffs, indisposed to forgive Pater for The Renaissance, “I do not believe that Pater, in this work, has influenced a single first-rate mind of a later generation.” Not worrying about being “first rate”—that is, not confusing intellectual probity with snobbishness—we are happy to use Pater’s not negligible insights, even if Eliot may be right about the question of Pater’s influence. As John Senior pointed out, albeit in a different context, before the hundred “great books,” there are a thousand good ones.
Pater describes the early Christian liturgy, as it begins to make its mark on the soul of the earnest young Marius under the influence of his friend Cornelius.
And then, in this hour of expansion, as if now at last the Catholic church might venture to show her outward lineaments as they really were, worship—the “beauty of holiness,” nay! the elegance of sanctiy—was developed, with a bold and confident gladness. .. The esthetic charm of the Catholic church, her evocative power over all that is eloquent and expressive in the better mind of man, her outward comeliness, her dignifiying convictions about human nature: all this . . . we may see in those charmed moments towards the end of the second century. . . What might seem harsh as dogma was already justifying itself as worship; according to the sound rifle: Lex orandi Lex credendi.
Here is the key insight; The sensible, sacramental incarnation of the universal and invisible world of metaphysical beings renders that world credible and effective in man, whose first approach is through his senses.
So it is that Marius, without yet believing, comes to see that it is only in worship that he can find happiness on earth. He discovers this in the house of Cecilia in Trastevere:
Ite! Missa est!—cried the young deacons . . . the natural soul of worship in him had at last been satisfied as never before. He felt, as he left that place, that he must hereafter experience often a longing memory, a kind of thirst for all this over again. And it seemed moreover to define what he must require of the powers, whatsoever they might be that had brought him into the world at all, to make him not unhappy in it.
But beyond this world, and without having made explicit profession of faith, Marius finally finds sensible, sacramental salvation by a kind of noble default. Going, in the place of his friend, with the other condemned confessors and worn out by his ordeal, he reaches the hour of death.
In the moments of his extreme helplessness their mystic bread had been placed between his lips. Gentle fingers had applied to hands and feet, to all those old passageways of the senses, through which the world had come and gone for him, now so dim and obstructed, a medicinable oil. It was the same people who . . . took up his remains and buried them secretly . . . but with joy also, holding his death, according to their generous view in this matter, to have been of the nature of a martyrdom; and martyrdom, as the church had always said, a kind of sacrament with plenary grace.
We have returned to Marshall’s old marine; unable to be perfectly convinced of the evil of his frequenting of beautiful bawdy houses, he musters up an imperfect act of love, and the sacrament supplies for the defect: “Faith for all defects supplying where the feeble senses fail” —thus Aquinas, whose reaction to prostitutes was rather different, but who understood the seaman’s way to salvation. This is the best the modern aesthete can hope for, being, in the end, no better than the crude libertine; he finds salvation in the same way. Augustine, before his conversion, was right to envy the happy drunkard as he does in the Confessions.
To treat further of Aquinas and of a more serene and ancient aesthetic than Pater’s anguished modern one, we have to return to the little black girl who spoke like Denis the Areopagite, and that would be another article. Suffice it to say here that Saint Thomas teaches that the Beautiful does not please the appetite simply, but the apprehension of the mind as well, and so beauty is ultimately more about becoming beautiful than desiring beauty. For this we have to go to the Beautiful Himself. In Mark 10, in the passage about the rich young man, “Jesus looking on him loved him . . . and he went away sorrowful.” In Luke 22, “the Lord turning looked on Peter… and Peter going out wept bitterly.” That gaze renders the soul beautiful by a sorrow that is perfect: for “only Jesus make you beautiful.”