Let me take you with me to a typical weekend mass at my parish. I usually find myself at the Saturday evening masses at St. Francis Xavier with my family, which are well attended even during the pandemic, and I feel a comfort in its simple clean architecture and familiar religious iconography. Despite its unassuming style and seemingly mundane presence in my life, my weekend church experiences are a wonderful forum to demonstrate that the human experience of beauty is a revelatory gift that unifies one with both the divine, and the community.
I’ve always found my church beautiful: the wooden statues of religious figures speak to me and the rhythm that the mass adopts is soothing. However, it was only until recently that I realized that these emotions can be used to understand God more deeply. Balthazar states that in beauty, and art specifically, “…the holiness of the divine order of the world finds…its embodiment” (101). Whether through a perfectly symmetrical snowflake, a melodious piano concerto, or a joyful weekend mass, beauty fills us with awe and makes us aware of the depth of the holy mysteries that penetrate our lives. Thus, beauty can be viewed as an experience of “revelatory wonder,” or an opportunity freely given to us by God to understand Him better (González-Andrieu 25). In sum, beauty is a gift of spiritual vision from God that reveals His love for us and allows us to feel unified with Him in grace.
The focal point of my church is the San Damiano cross which hangs over the altar: a colorful and ornate depiction of Christ which is ugly in context of Christ’s situation but beautiful in the salvation that it represents. Balthazar describes Jesus as “…God’s greatest work of art,” an “…expression both of God’s absolute divinity and sovereignty and of the perfect creature” (117). Through the knowledge that Jesus was sent by God as a sinless human, contrasting with our brokenness, his generosity and love towards all people are something to strive for in our own lives. Paradoxically, through Christ’s story, beauty becomes present in what may be seen as ugly. Goizueta recounts the awe felt by a performer who during a Holy Week play, crucifies Jesus: “‘I know the part almost by heart…And yet…when the time comes for me to pound the nails into Jesus’ feet, I feel chills running down my spine and tears come into my eyes’” (103). The beauty is therefore in Christs’ sacrifice, which is made personal to the actor and to us through participation in revelatory experience.
Mass for me is not simply a task to check off of a to-do list, but an experience made spiritual through its sensory elements, such as the artwork that lines the walls, the hymns sung throughout, the bread and wine which is consumed, and the smell of smoke wafting from the flickering candles. These sensory experiences can be taken at face value and enjoyed shallowly, but to truly recognize beauty in a spiritual manner, one can ‘attune’ the senses. Based on the words of Macarius, Balthazar states: “ …for it is the same senses which first are earthly and then become heavenly through the infusion of grace” (370). In being open to and accepting of grace, or God’s outpouring of love upon human beings, Balthazar asserts that we can recognize the beauty of the divine in sensory experiences: I can better understand God when I see His presence in artwork, hear His words in hymns, appreciate His sacrifice in communion, and feel his loving presence through the warmth of the candles. In essence, a redirection of our attitudes towards sensory experiences is needed to grow spiritually from them.
But what makes weekend mass most beautiful for me is being in the loving presence of my church community. We gather in festivity, to celebrate the divine mysteries which influence our religion, and to feel positively changed when we leave. This desire for change, or transformation, is why we as a community feel called to become beautiful. In a world where material achievement and monetary success are often valued more than human life, we may feel disillusioned and trapped: thus, “…art’s revelatory work is centered on bringing the human person to the awareness that they are alive and free and that transformation is possible” (González-Andrieu 42). In this way, partaking in festivity in the form of worship and art is how communities may find beauty. In the philosophy of Vasconcelos, Goizueta notes that “Only through an aesthetic, empathetic fusion with another can I truly relate to the other as a person” (92). An example of this in American history is recounted in Cone’s “The Spirituals and the Blues,” as slaves adapted biblical stories of liberation into their songs, offering them a sense of solidarity and peace in the face of their suffering. Through participating actively in different forms of art, communities are able to enter into a shared experience of unity that is uplifting and transformative.
Therefore, beauty in its many forms is a gift of revelation from God, which can be experienced on Earth to better develop spiritual and social connections. I will continue to celebrate beauty not just during weekend mass but in all aspects of my life, in the hopes of growing in my faith and becoming more unified with my community.