Beauty, the Enemy of My Doubt
by Andrew M. Haines
On Saturday evening, I paced the back of church as the recessional played. My son was restless and needed soothing; and frankly, so did I. The week before was terribly pensive — for no reason in particular, but I find many times that’s the worst. All of my most agonizing doubts began to surface at once. My best explanation is that I turn thirty-one this month, and being thirty is at last, really sinking in.
I’m not alone in doubting, in feeling uncertain. I am alone, however, in my particular doubts. The worst effect of doubt is not the sense of uncertainty but the feeling of loneliness in my particular anguish. The near certainty that nothing and no one can penetrate or share my uneasiness.
An usher slammed open a big wooden door; it jolted me from my brooding. A blast of heat surged into the air-conditioned narthex, amidst a flood of reddish-orange sunlight. The white walls of the church flashed with brilliant color. I was, for an instant, back in my room in Rome: it faced West and, every day at sunset, it breathed in the city — the heat, the colors, the strong breeze, the muffled buzzing ofmotorini, and a memorable, even pungent bouquet of jasmine flowers and exhaust fumes. That moment each day was one of the things I loved the most.
The procession neared, and so did an old monsignor who was assisting with communion. He sauntered toward me before the hymn was finished — white hair, horn rimmed glasses, carrying his stole and dressed in a surplice and red piping — and shook my son’s hand and mine. “Oh… this is such beautiful…,” he mumbled, barely audibly, as he moved from me and gazed through the doors onto the sun-drenched evening. Soon, he turned around again, leaned his back up against the doorframe, and waited for the exodus.
The way the light fell on his happy, ancient face in that moment was the consolation, the certainty, I yearned for.
* * *
On many occasions, Joseph Ratzinger has spoken about the power that beauty wields over the Christian mind. A paraphrase of his theme is that holiness, as evident in the lives of the saints, and art, born from the Church’s tradition, are the best — and maybe really the only — apologia for the veracity of faith.
I’m struck by this idea more and more often; and certainly more and more powerfully. Even in the midst of doubts and pains that appear in ever more imaginative and disruptive ways.
A 2002 address to the Communion and Liberation meeting at Rimini is arguably a highpoint of Ratzinger’s lifelong project to explore the interconnectedness of reason, faith, and aesthetics.
Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.
The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.” The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. (Emphasis mine.)
* * *
I rediscovered this passage after mass on Saturday, and I couldn’t have offered surer assent. The closing lines, especially, left me awestruck.
Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.Amen.