203 “Surprised by Beauty”

One of my great consolations, since my late wife’s death, has been classical music.  Often unable to sleep at night, I found playing Gregorian Chants relaxed both  soul and body—I was mysteriously soothed and blessed by the most ancient music of the Church.  Thereby I affirmed the truth of a statement by George Rochberg, himself a gifted composer:  “Music remains what it has always been:  a sign that man is capable of transcending the limits and constraints of his material existence” (p. 342).  I also found, by purchasing some CDs mentioned in Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty:  A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (New York:  Morley Books, c. 2002), a number of great 20th century composers whose artistic excellence has ministered to me, demonstrating Plato’s insight that “‘rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful’” (p. 19).  .  

Reilly begins with a short but powerful chapter entitled “Is Music Sacred?”  In a word, he says:  Yes!—if it’s attuned to the beauty of the cosmos.  As Cicero argued, two millennia ago:  “the right kind of music is divine and can ‘return’ man to a paradise lost.  It is a form of communion with divine truth” (p. 20).  That’s especially true for Christians because, as St. Clement of Alexandria discerned, believers who are born again rightly sing “a ‘New Song’ far superior to the Orphic myths of the pagans.  The ‘New Song’ is Christ, Logos Himself” (p. 20).  Clement even allowed that pagan “music participated in the divine by praising God and partaking in the harmonious order of which He was the composer.   But music’s goal became even higher because Christ is higher.  With Christianity the divine region becomes both transcendent and personal because Logos is Christ.  The new goal of music is to make the transcendent perceptible” (p. 21).    

Toward the end of the book Reilly returns to this theme in a chapter entitled “Recovering the Sacred in Music.”  Classical music has survived its “attempted suicide” at the hands of atonal composers following Arnold Schoenberg, in whom “All the symptoms of the 20th-century’s spiritual sickness are present, including the major one diagnosed by Eric Voegelin as ‘a loss of reality’” (pp. 264-265).  Fortunately, tonality is back, as Reilly demonstrates in his celebration of selected artists—preeminently Christians such as Henryk Goreki (Polish) Arvo Part (Estonian) and John Tavener (English) whose music is rooted in the New Testament.  “Their purpose is contemplation, specifically the contemplation of religious truths.  Their music is hieratic.  It aims for the intersection of time and timelessness, at which point the transcendent becomes perceptible” (p. 268).  These three musicians, “‘looking for God . . . have found a musical epiphany in the pursuit” (p. 269).   All three “completely believe in the salvific act of Christ, center their lives on it, and express it in their music” (p. 267).  (A decade or so ago, having read a review of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3—“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”—I bought the CD;  thenceforth, as I often played it, I learned the truth of the composer’s admonition to just “Be still . . . and know that I am God,” to hear what the Lord might say through the music.)  

Like Gorecki, John Tavener was schooled in the atonality of Schoenberg and wrote “some severely serial pieces” in accord with his precepts.  But as he matured he rejected modernism.  “Now he eschews such convolutedness and says ‘Complexity is the language of evil’” (p. 173).  In all his compositions, Tavener aspires “to the sacred. . . .   Music is a form of prayer, a mystery.’  Tavener wishes to express ‘the importance of immaterial realism, or transcendent beauty.’  His goal is to recover ‘one simple memory’ from which all art derives:  ‘The constant memory of the Paradise from which we have fallen leads to the Paradise which was promised to the repentant thief’” (p. 273).  

What Reilly illustrates and lauds, in Surprised by Beauty, is the remarkable, recent resurgence of this ancient Christian view.  “Modern” classical music, dominated for decades by Arnold Schoenberg and “his denial of tonality,” had little concern for beauty—indeed he “declared himself ‘cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty’” (p. 23).  But Schoenberg couldn’t stamp out man’s need for beauty, nor did he discourage scores of gifted composers who loved tonality simply because of its manifest beauty.  Thus one of the greatest 20th century composers, “Jean Sibelius, anything but an orthodox Christian, nonetheless hearkened back to St. Clement when he wrote:  ‘The essence of man’s being is his striving after God.  It [the composition of music] is brought to life by means of the logos, the divine in art.  That is the only thing that has significance’” (p. 22).  Saying so, Sibelius shared the philosophical position of the philosopher Simone Weil, who said:  “‘We love the beauty of the world because we sense behind it the presence of something akin to that wisdom we should like to possess to slake our thirst for good’” (p. 24).  

Having built his case for the sacredness of music, Reilly proceeds to examine, in brief chapters, nearly 40 composers.  For example, “Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the greatest Catholic composer at the turn of the 19th century and the greatest English composer since Purcell some 200 years earlier” (p. 62).  Like all great thinkers he pondered the reality of death.  Consequently, his The Dream of Gerontius, “was one of the most extraordinary choral works ever written.  It was also a stunning affirmation of Catholic faith” (p. 63).  In setting to music the great poetic work of John Henry Newman, Elgar enables us to hear good news about the “Better Land” awaiting us who die in a state of grace.  (I bought the CD recommended by Reilly, and I can verify his commendation of this great work.)

Another moving musical work I bought, following Reilly’s urging, was Frank Martin’s Golgotha.  Martin was the son of a Swiss Calvinist minister who began composing music as a child.  “At twelve, he was deeply moved by a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Bach’s lasting influence was apparent from Martin’s motto: ‘Bach today, yesterday and forever’” (p. 121).  He celebrated Christmas with an oratorio in 1959, Le Mystere de la Nativite, which “contains some of the most touching, faith-filled music I have heard” (p. 124).  Then, in Golgotha, Martin endeavored to show how “Christ’s divinity is manifested in His acceptance of His death” (p. 126).  Following the premiere of this work in Laussane, Martin’s wife “wrote, ‘Several people of all kinds came to him with tears in their eyes, saying “Thank you, Mr. Martin.  You took away from us all fear of death.”  After the concert, when he was alone with my daughter, he told her, “I have achieved my purpose.  Now I may die”’” (p. 127).  

One of my favorite CDs is Franz Schmidt’s The Book of the Seven Seals, his “legacy to the world,” inspired by the book of Revelation.  He was an Austrian-Hungarian who lived from 1847-1939, and he noted “that ‘music first entered my soul through the Church’” (p. 197).  Unlike his contemporaries, who were intoxicated by the atonality of modern music, he “stayed within the Viennese tradition of Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, and Bruckner” (p. 198).  In The Book of the Seven Seals, he demonstrated his endeavor to work as an artist and as “‘a deeply religious man’” (p. 199), able to “dramatize the Ultimate” (p. 200).  

I do not pretend to understand or explain music well!  I do know that it speaks to me in wonderful ways.  And I was truly blessed by the purchase of Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty—both for its text and its recommendations.  

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In earlier reviews I commended Thomas Dubay’s The Fire Within and Faith and Certitude, so it’s not surprising I’d give high marks to his The Evidential Power of Beauty:  Science and Theology Meet (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 1999).    His thesis was succinctly stated by the noted theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:  “Every experience of beauty points to infinity.”  Still more, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky asserted in The Brothers Karamazov, “‘beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend with each other for the hearts of men’” (p. 20).  

“Every human person,” he declares, “is drawn to beauty,” (p. 11).  Just as we desire to eat and drink, to think and speak, we desire to behold beauty.  “But few of us seem to be aware that the beautiful packs a power not only to fascinate but also to convince a mature and honest mind of solidly grounded truth” (p. 11).  As the poet John Keats said so memorably:  “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”).  So too, the eminent physicist Richard Feynman explained, “‘you can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity’” (p. 13).  Interestingly enough, “‘All of the most eminent physicists of the twentieth century agree that beauty is the primary standard for scientific truth’” (p. 114).  Beauty and truth, importantly, are objective (discerned within real beings), not subjective feelings (differing from person to person).   

Our love for beauty is almost always derived from our awareness of nature.  Whether gazing at a sunset or investigating the intricacies of genetics, whether marveling at the Canadian geese flying overhead or pondering the inexplicable instinct that drives the migration pattern of monarch butterflies, there’s an unfailing allure in the world around us.  What is there in all these phenomena that elicits our wonder at the beautiful?   “Philosophical realism,” the position Dubay advocates, “through the centuries has taught us that the beautiful is that which has unity, harmony, proportion, wholeness and radiance” (p. 34).  When we think clearly we see things as they are.  “We are intellectually alive to the extent that we appreciate the real and respond appropriately to it:  notice, linger, appreciate, wonder, exult, praise, love” (p. 178).  

These components of beauty are, of course, immaterial “forms” discerned by the intelligence, not mere material entities.  “Form is the deep root of a being’s actuality, which gives it its basic whatness.  It is the actualizing principle of a thing, the mysterious taproot that makes that thing to be what it is, and thus why it is different from every other kind of being” (p. 50).  The beauty of great classical music cannot be reduced to sound waves or particular instruments.  (As one of Shakespeare’s characters, in Much Ado About Nothing, quipped:  “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?”)  Consequently, Dubay explains:  “A performance of classical music is a melodic unity whose harmonies are in exquisite proportion . . . .  Coming from the Greek, sym-phony means “‘sounding together’” (p. 55).  

To hear the beauty in music requires a disposition, an humble openness to it.  If we close our eyes—or look only on the vulgar—we’ll never discern the beauty in Michelangelo’s Pieta (described by Dubay as “light in stone”).    If we never listen to music—or listen only to the cacophony of perversions such as “rap music”—we’ll fail to know the exaltation of Handel’s Messiah or Beethoven’s Ninth.  Having eyes, we may fail to see; having ears we may fail to hear.  But even the least sensitive of us, unlike the irrational animals, have the innate potential to do so.  Dogs certainly have a sharper sense of smell and eagles see far better, but we alone have the ability to come “alive to beauty.”  That we fail to do so is a result of original sin.  “Moral depravity,” Dubay says, “explains why men cast aside ‘perfectly plain’ evidences.  They reject these eloquent testimonies to the divine Artist because by their ‘impiety and depravity’ they ‘keep truth imprisoned in their wickedness’.  They are therefore ‘without excuse’ (Rom 1:18-20)” (p. 69).  

Having set forth his argument, Dubay devotes a section of the book to “savoring the symphony,” introducing us to the beauties of mathematics and astronomy, as well as music and architecture.  We wonder at the starry heavens above and the intricacies of the tiniest cells within our bodies.  We’re amazed at the complexities of the Big Bang and the flying capacities of birds.  Though he claims no expertise as a scientist, he’s clearly read and rejoiced at a host of detailed reports regarding the natural world.  Consider, for example, the information encoded in DNA.  “‘The information necessary to specify the design of all the species of organisms which have ever existed on the planet, a number according to G. G. Simpson of approximately one thousand million, could be held in a teaspoon and there would still be room left for all the information ever written’” (p. 171).  

Surely this means there is intelligence, design, purpose in all that is.  Still more, “Berkeley physicist Henry Pierce Stapp adds the thought that ‘everything we know about nature is in accord with the idea that the fundamental processes of nature lie outside space-time but generate events that can be located in space-time’” (p. 200).   Physics leads, necessarily, to metaphysics.  We can no more think about the world around us without acknowledging its design than we can square a circle.  It follows, then, Dubay says, “Once a person admits that the universe makes sense, that it is comprehensible, that there are overwhelming beauties in it, he logically must be a theist” (p. 202).  

To be a theist leads to beholding the “divine glory,” the focus of the book’s third section.  Though the physical world abounds in beauty, its crown (in accord with the “anthropic principle”) is mankind, created in the very image of God.  “If we fully realized who and what we are, we would burst into shouts of continual praise, wonder, and thanksgiving—just as Scripture says we should” (p. 230).  We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  And our real grandeur shines forth most wonderfully in the “beauty of sanctity.”  Living virtuously, “putting on Christ,” far more than physical or intellectual ability, makes radiant the glory of the Lord.  Loving others, putting others’ interests before one’s own, staying faithful despite trying times, manifests the beauty of sanctity.  Wisely did Malcolm Muggeridge title his book on Mother Teresa of Calcutta Something Beautiful for God.  

But far above even the finest of the earthly looms God Himself.  “The most beautiful men and women on earth, the saints, are what they are solely because of their complete Yes to the person, teaching, and grace of the crucified risen One” (p. 306).  In Christ we once and for all behold the beauty of the Lord.  “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb 1:3, RSV).  And in time, God willing, we shall be with Him and like him, delighting in what C.S. Lewis memorably titled “the weight of glory.”

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“O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness!” (Ps 96:9).  John Saward develops this theme in The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty:  Art, Sanctity & The Truth of Catholicism (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 1997).  The beauty of holiness streams, as Light from Light, primarily from Christ, “the Light of the World, the Bridegroom who beautifies the Bride of the Lamb who is the lamp of a lustrous city” (p. 19).  His beauty enters into and emanates from all that is beautiful in the world, “for without Him was not anything made that was made.”  

Openly dependent upon Hans Urs von Balthasar (one of the greatest 20th century theologians),  Saward endeavors “to perceive—through holy men and holy images—the objective glory of divinely revealed truth” (p. 22).  Still more, he wants “to repeat Our Lord’s call to holiness:  ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5:48)” (p. 25).  Responding to that call, he believes, involves pondering great works of sacred art, such as a celebrated altarpiece painting by Fra Angelico in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, wherein “the beautiful holiness of Paradise sheds its rays upon earth.  It is meant to move men towards sanctity” (p. 26).  Saward then devotes many pages to a careful description and explanation of the various figures portrayed by Fra Angelico.  Importantly:  his “art is centred on Christ” and celebrates the great mystery of His Incarnation (p. 48).  

Grounded in the theological genius of St Thomas Aquinas, Fra Angelico’s art reflects the Angelic Doctor’s conclusion that there is a “fourfold beauty in Christ.  First, in His divine nature (secundum divinam forman) He has beauty, for He is God the Son, the Splendour of the Father.  Secondly, in His human nature He has the beauty of grace and the virtues, for He is ‘full of grace and truth’.  Thirdly in Christ we see the beauty of moral conduct (conversationis honestae); the human actions of the Son of God are more upright and therefore more beautiful than any other man’s.  Finally, Christ as man, even before His Resurrection, had the beauty of body, a beauty befitting the man who was God, in whose face the spiritual beauty of the Godhead shone”  (p. 56).  

Christ’s beauty then extends, by grace, to His saints, for He wants His Bride, the Church and her members, to reflect His fairness” (p. 61).  Adopted into God’s family we are “sons-in-the-Son” and thus called to radiate His beauty in His world.  To St Cyril of Alexandria:  “‘We who bear the image of the Earthly Man cannot escape corruption unless the beauty of the image of the Heavenly Man is imprinted upon us, through our call to adoption as God’s sons.  Partaking of [Christ] through the Spirit, we are sealed by Him, in His likeness and to the archetype of the image. . . .  Thus the ancient beauty of nature is restored’” (p. 62).  

Having carefully examined Fra Angelico’s artistry, Saward moves to a contemplation of the altarpiece’s placement—on the altar.  At the very center of the sacred sanctuary there is a work of art.  Religion and art belong together!  “As St Thomas puts it, ‘just as a work of art presupposes the work of nature, so the work of nature presupposes God’” (p. 73).  In following Nature, “‘like a pupil with his master,’” Dante declared, “‘we may call / This art of yours God’s grandchild , as it were’” (p. 90).  Great art is not “creative”—it just makes visible the creativity of the Creator.  Modern artists, all too often, celebrate themselves, paint self-portraits, and sing songs suffused with subjectivity.  We even have “performance artists,” doing anything bizarre enough to attract the passing attention of the passing crowd.  “It is above all God incarnate whom they will not worship.  The creature intent on glorifying itself resents the Creator who humbled Himself” (pp. 145-146).  But ultimately, as Josef Pieper noted, “‘Music, the fine arts, poetry—anything that festively raises up human existence and thereby constitutes its true riches—all derive their life from a hidden root, and this root is a contemplation which is turned toward God and the world so as to affirm them’” (p. 81).  Consequently, there is both a deeply moral and holy dimension to real art.  Though not precisely a Sacrament (a designated “means of grace”) there is a sacramental quality to art that enables it to convey great blessings to those open to its ministry.  And inasmuch as it embodies the Word through whom all things were made it celebrates the mystery of the Incarnation.  So good art aids orthodoxy.  “‘God’s Word,’ says Balthasar, ‘did not come to rob us of speech but to untie our tongues in a manner hitherto unknown’” (p. 90).

In the judgment of Michael O’Brien, one of the finest Christian novelists now writing, “This luminous book is so important that it can scarcely be overestimated.  The substance of Saward’s scholarship, and his understanding of culture, are dazzling.  His vision is of the utmost urgency.  This is wise, deeply moving and invigorating—a masterpiece.”

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