Beauty is the mark of a loving God. A Christian culture, therefore, is a beautiful culture that melts the hearts of non-believers and tells believers that that they are at home in the world.
As a convert to Christianity I am often asked why I converted. The short answer is that I thought I would be happier if I did so.
I have not been disappointed. Even now, nearly 30 years after I was confirmed at Farm Street Catholic Church in Mayfair, London, my life experience has strengthened the conviction that not only was this a good decision for me, but also that the Church offers the way to the greatest happiness for all people.
When I give this answer – that I would be happier – it usually does not satisfy the questioner. Why, they push me, did I think I would be happier? What led me to believe that the Faith might truly offer me that “pearl of great price”?
That is a reasonable question.
It is a big step for anyone to submit willingly to an authority that reaches so deeply into our hearts and minds as the Catholic Church. And while I can be convinced by the intellectual arguments that make claims to truth, I couldn’t be sure until I was confirmed as a member of the Catholic Church and lived the life of a practicing Christian. The proof of the pudding is in the eating!
This dive into the unknown – into mystery – was one of faith. This was not so much a leap into the dark, as a leap into the Light, albeit a blinding, dazzling Light.
It is true for each of us who converts, I believe. Until we are participating in sacramental life of the Church, the Light is too bright for any of us to grasp directly. But once we are in the Church, then our eyes can start to focus and, by degrees in this life, perceive it as we encounter Christ directly in the Eucharist and begin to know Him.
However, even before I became Catholic, even though I couldn’t see the Light directly so well, I could perceive that there was a Light, for I could see its glow indirectly, as reflected, glistening and shimmering, in the beauty of the cosmos and in Christian culture (and, for me especially, its art). Christian culture and the way that Christians behaved and interacted with others spoke to me in some way of Christ and of the joy it brings. In so many different ways and on many different occasions, the beauty of Christian art, music, architecture, and the memorable good grace with which some Christians engaged with me combined to form a pattern that gave an overall picture of what it was to be a Christian. It was this picture, which is Christian culture, that beckoned to me in such a way that I wanted more than to be simply an observer of it. I wanted to be part of it. Christian culture convinced me to make that leap of faith.
Consider this painting of the Transfiguration. It is a 16th century Russian icon.
In this painting we see Christ on the mountain flanked by the two prophets and with the three disciples stunned by the sight of the transfigured Christ. This is a glimpse of his heavenly glory, hitherto unseen by the disciples. The nimbus that surrounds Christ in this picture is called a mandorla. It is called this because it is often used to be depicted in an elliptical, almond shape and mandorla is the Italian word for almond. The mandorla surrounding Christ usually shows concentric bands of shading which get darker toward the center, rather than lighter. It is painted in this way so as to communicate to us, pictorially, the fact that we must pass through stages of what seem like increasing mystery in order to encounter the person of Jesus Christ. For Catholics this encounter takes place most directly and powerfully in the Mass. It is an encounter that transforms us supernaturally by degrees in this life so that we can begin to grasp the glory of Christ ever more directly.
This encounter is only made possible for each of us by baptism and confirmation by which we have “put on Christ” as St Paul calls it in Galatians. God’s actions are not in any way restricted by the sacraments, of course, but as a general rule, until we are baptised and confirmed we are likely going to be dazzled into a blindness, so to speak, that renders the transfigured Christ less visible to us. This would be symbolized by a mandorla that is a jet-black envelope, with a heart of darkness.
Prior to being fully part of the body of Christ as members of the Church, we are nevertheless able to perceive those outer rings of the mandorla. These symbolize the Light of Christ reflected in the cosmos, and manifested as the loving interactions of Christians, and as Christian culture and art. These are the things that indicate to us that there is more to know and love and we yearn for what is as yet only partially known. When we see such beauty we are grasping that reflected Light, even if we don’t recognize it as such, and its tendency is to draw us into the Church.
Beauty, therefore, not only tells us something about what we do see, is also a perceptible sign of something we cannot see: Almighty God. It calls us to itself and then beyond to Him who inspired it, who is Beauty itself. Creation is beautiful because it bears the thumbprint of the Creator. A culture, or any aspect of it, whether mundane or sacred, high art, low art or even everyday Christian activity, is beautiful to the degree that it is inspired by God.
The Christian life well lived is one in which potentially every aspect of our lives contributes to the brightness of the outer rings of the mandorla through what we do and what we create. As Catholics we do so as part of the mystical body of Christ, the Church. Each of us is a pixel of supernatural light that collectively created the body of Christ! We participate in the Light by fulfilling in our own way our unique calling in life, which touches on every aspect of our lives. The artist contributes to that light by every beautiful painting he creates. And Christian culture is a pattern of all Christian activity that manifests Christ.
The habitual worship of God every Sunday and if we can, daily worship in the Liturgy of the Hours, is the most powerful formation for as creative Christians. We enter mystically into the pattern of Christ and the cosmos. One might say that the Mass is a jewel in its setting, which is the Liturgy of the Hours, and the Liturgy of the Hours is a jewel in its setting, which is the cosmos. Christian culture permeates the life of the Church and of the world and reflects the beauty of the cosmos. It is a sign of life in Christ and of the world to come.
A beautiful Christian culture draws people to Christ. It opens up the minds of those who are not believers to be receptive to the Word, and it reinforces the truth of the Word to those who are already believers. The culture is most explicitly Christian in the church and is connected to the liturgy. Historically it was always the case that the wider culture was Christian too, even if not explicitly, for the forms of civic buildings, colleges, hospitals and homes were all derived from and in some way pointed to their consummation in the church. It is the cultural forms that are connected directly to our worship that become the driving force for the transformation of contemporary culture into a beautiful Christian culture.
We live in an age in which American culture is no longer Christian. It used to be. But now, the driving force of contemporary culture is an atheist-materialist worldview that dictates both the style and content of American art, music and architecture, even displacing Christian forms inside the church. This dynamic is running in the wrong direction. Instead of flowing out from the still center at the heart of Christian worship into the world, and so Christianising the culture, we see the forms of an atheist, secular culture that are flowing into our churches from outside, exerting influence to secularizing the beliefs of those who worship.
We must, therefore reverse that flow and evangelize the culture by creating first a culture of faith in our churches that reflects and harmonizes with authentic Christian worship. We need creativity today that re-presents traditional Christian forms in a way that retains what is essentially Christian but in a way that is appropriate today.
This strong and vibrant Christian religious culture will then become the driving force of a wider beautiful culture that permeates all of American culture. This will not always be obviously explicitly Christian – very often this is not appropriate – but it will be beautiful and it is this saving beauty itself is a sign of Christ. When people see it, they will embrace it precisely because it will be beautiful.
Our mission, therefore, is two fold. First, we must help form creative artists in all disciplines who have the skills and knowledge to contribute to a Christian culture at every level. Second, we must stimulate the demand for good art by forming people to appreciate what is authentically Christian and good, true and beautiful.
This is a mission of Christian education and inculturation and all that I write has this mission in mind, so that all may know the joy that is offered to them.
Beauty will save the world!
David Clayton is Scala Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence, and Provost of Pontifex University which offers the unique program the Master of Sacred Arts. His books on art and culture are: The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College; Painting the Nude: The Theology of the Body and Representation of Man in Christian Art; His books on prayer and the spirituality of creativity are: The Vision for You – How to Discover the Life You Were Made For is available here; The Little Oratory – A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home.