In the movie, The English Patient, there’s a wonderful scene, stunning in its lesson:
A number of people from various countries are thrown together by circumstance in an abandoned villa in post-war Italy. Among them are a young nurse, attending to an English pilot who’s been badly burned in an air-crash, and a young Asian man whose job it is to find and defuse land-mines. The young man and the nurse become friends and, one day, he announces he has a special surprise for her.
He takes her to an abandoned church within which he has set up a series of ropes and pulleys that will lift her to the ceiling where, hidden in darkness, there are some beautiful mosaics and other wonderful works of art that cannot be seen from the floor. He gives her a torch as a light and pulls her up through a series of ropes so that she swings, almost like an angel with wings, high above the floor and is able to shine her torch on a number of beautiful masterpieces hidden in the dark.
The experience is that of sheer exhilaration, she has the sensation of flying and of seeing wonderful beauty all at the same time. When she’s finally lowered back to the floor she’s flushed with excitement and gratitude and covers the young man’s face with kisses, saying over and over again: “Thank you, thank you, thank for showing this to me!”
And, from her expression, you know she’s saying thank you for two things: “Thank you for showing me something, that I could never have come to on my own; and, thank you for trusting me enough to think that I would understand this, that I would get it!”
I’m grateful to Barbara Nicolosi, from Act One, an Institute for Christian writers in Hollywood, for showing this film-clip and challenging all of us at the Suenens Institute in Chicago this past summer to learn its lesson. What is that lesson?
That the church needs to do for the world exactly what this young man did for his nurse friend, namely, (in terms of a metaphor) to point to where beauty is hidden in darkness, be that in the darkness of old churches, ancient creeds, abandoned liturgies, old-fashioned devotions, or two thousand year-old practices of community, charity, justice, and forgiveness; or be that in the hidden riches within nature, physical beauty, health, youth, art, and science. There are treasures of great beauty hidden all over, including in forgotten places inside our churches. Our task is to point these out to the world.
And part of that task, like the young man in the English Patient, is to trust that people will understand and to trust as well that they are worth all the effort we must make to point out where these treasures are hidden.
Beauty has a power to transform the soul and instill gratitude in a way that few things have. Confucius understood this and suggested that beauty is the greatest of all teachers. People can doubt almost anything, except beauty.
Why can’t beauty be doubted? Because beauty, like oneness, truth, and goodness is a transcendental property of being itself. “All being is one, true, good, and beautiful,” states classical philosophy. Thus, beauty needs no justification beyond itself. Beauty can be solely for beauty’s sake. Moreover, as a transcendental property of being, beauty shows us something of God. To experience beauty is to see some of God’s colour, to become homesick for heaven.
But, as Barbara Nicolosi also pointed out, beauty isn’t always pretty. It can be revealed in the perfection of a Michelangelo sculpture but it can also be seen in the wrinkles and limp of an old woman or in a cup of water given to an old man on the street.
Today, a number of writers, Nicolosi among them, are suggesting that our neglect of the importance of beauty is one of the major reasons why less people are interested in the church. Already a generation ago, Hans Urs Von Baltasar had emphasized beauty as a key component both in how God speaks to us and how we are meant to speak about God to the world. More recently, writers such as Robert Barron, Kathleen Norris, and Andrew Greeley, among others, have echoed those sentiments. We must, as Barron puts it, “stop building beige churches”. Nicolosi is clearer still. We must, she says, stop “the uglification” of Catholicism.
In the face of brutality, what’s needed is tenderness; in the face of hype and ideology, what’s needed is truth; in the face of bitterness and curses, what’s needed are graciousness and blessing; in the face of hatred and murder, what’s needed are love and forgiveness; and, in the face all the ugliness and vulgarity that so pervades our world and the evening news, what’s needed is beauty.
God speaks through beauty and so must we – and we must believe enough in people’s sensitivity and intelligence to trust that they will understand.