Beauty isn't a thing of the past. Artists today are reaching Renaissance-level craftsmanship. But we need more of them, and we need them oriented in the right direction.
The new iPhone is a thing of beauty. Literally.
Watch the commercial for the iPhone X and what Apple is selling you is beauty — an elegantly designed object with a screen that conveys beauty in a bigger, better way.
Or take a new movie trailer almost at random — Mary Poppins Returns, for instance — and you are greeted with images of extreme beauty … a cinematic foggy London park that is more beautiful that a real foggy London park; a row of townhouses that glow with mystery; flower petals scattered by a breeze. Achingly beautiful images.
You can even search for upcoming video games of 2018 and 2019 and find great beauty (until violence ruins it, at least for me). Zombies flock through misty streets in “World War Z”; a haunted beauty fills post-apocalyptic worlds in “The Division 2” or “The Sinking City”; the beautiful blue South American skies and landscapes frame the action of “Just Cause 4.”
“Beauty will save the world,” said St. John Paul II, echoing Dostoevsky. Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis would echo John Paul with the same message.
And it’s true. Our culture has shut out many Christian messages, but it can still hear beauty.
In fact, beauty is a great unsung achievement of our culture. When a car commercial can make us cry and a Mission Impossible movie can leave us in awe of the grandeur of nature, we have approached Renaissance-level craftsmanship.
But there is a danger in our desire for beauty — it can be tricked.
“Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI. “Instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.”
Beauty should be freeing, not confining. A false obsession with beauty fuels the excesses of the fashion and plastic surgery industries. The thirst for beauty can quickly become an addiction — to Instagram, to Amazon, to pornography.
Too often we try to satiate our desire for beauty with something superficial or disordered — or the devil does a bait and switch, twisting our desire for beauty into fascination with the glamour of evil.
This ends in anxiety and depression —because our souls and our bodies are one. When we pit them against each other, we drag our spirits down.
But when they harmonize —when we encounter beauty that unites our heart, soul and mind — the experience is transcendent.
Beauty has the power to shape our lives, one way or another, because it is inherently compelling. When faced with something beautiful, people don’t question, put up defenses or push back. They accept.
“What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation — if not beauty?” asked Pope Benedict.
The greater the desire for beauty, the greater the desire for goodness and truth —and thus the greater desire for God, because God is the author of beauty and he is the ultimately beautiful one.
Beauty is inevitably intertwined with who God is. Beauty “forms a halo, an untouchable crown around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another,” wrote Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
That is why, as Simone Weil put it, “In all that awakes within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.”
Pray for more vocations to holy marriage and to the priesthood, but also for more vocations to the arts.
Artists who can make us forget ourselves in awe and contemplation through music, imagery, story-telling and architecture open up channels in us that let God’s grace pour into our souls. They will save the world.