A World Saved By Beauty
On Thursday, May 27, 2010, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson joined with the Primate of Canada, His Eminence Cardinal Marc Ouellet, for an evening of reflection called “Nothing More Beautiful” in Edmonton, Alberta.
The programs take place at the Basilica of St. Joseph in Edmonton five times each year, and are hosted by Archbishop Richard Smith.
The topic addressed by Cardinal Ouellet and Supreme Knight Anderson was “Jesus Christ: Revelation of the Trinity,” with the Cardinal serving as “Catechist” and the Supreme Knight as “Witness.”
The text of Mr. Anderson’s remarks follow:
The Fourth Wall
May it please Your Eminence, Your Excellency, Reverend Fathers, my brother Knights of Columbus: Thank you for your kind invitation, and thank you to the Archdiocese of Edmonton for sponsoring this lecture series.
When Archbishop Smith first mentioned to me the theme of the series, Nothing More Beautiful: Encountering Anew the Beauty of Christ, I could not help thinking of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous phrase “beauty will save the world.”
And as I was preparing for these remarks, I was reminded of something Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI. He said:
“Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational knowledge. … We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.”
In the theatre, the actors sometimes refer to “breaking the fourth wall.” The fourth wall is the invisible wall between the actors and the audience. The actors perform the play while the audience observes the drama from their seats in the theatre. The interaction between actors and audience is limited.
But at times an actor may address the audience directly and this is called “breaking the fourth wall.” Shakespeare often used this dramatic device when he wanted a character to more fully explain himself and his actions to the audience. And when this happens, the interaction between actor and audience reaches a new and more personal level.
In the event of the Incarnation, we might say that God “broke the fourth wall.” Coming to earth in the flesh, as a man, Christ entered the world and explained himself to us and, in doing so, he made possible a new and more personal level in the drama of human history – in the drama of salvation history.
Christ gave us his motivation: he was sent by the Father, for our salvation as the revelation of the Father’s love. In terms of divine drama, there is no greater moment than this.
In human history, and in the life of every believer, similar moments happen. God breaks the fourth wall and the beauty of Christ shows through to us on a new and more personal level.
This is one of the beautiful claims about Christianity: that Christ came so that we can enter into a new and personal relationship with him.
When we think of encountering Christ, and of encountering anew the beauty of Christ, we do not need to look very far. This point was driven home for me a couple of years ago, when I encountered the beauty of Christ twice in the span of a few minutes – and in very different ways.
First, I encountered him in the form of a young physically handicapped girl in Mexico City. I was there helping to distribute wheelchairs to those who could not afford them – one of the many charitable activities of the Knights of Columbus. In these areas, the needs of these people were tremendous; combinations of debilitating injuries and life-long deformities made just living and getting around difficult and, for many, even impossible. One of the recipients of a wheelchair that day was a young girl. She couldn’t walk, but she had a tremendous smile, a great, life-appreciating smile that just lit up everyone around her. She was what most people would call “the least of these,” but Christ shone right through her.
A few minutes later, I entered the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I again encountered Christ: this time in the tabernacle.
Christ – Revelation of the Trinity
Seeing the presence of Christ in such different ways – in the face of a child and in the appearance of bread and wine – leads us to the question: Who is this Christ?
The first thing the Evangelist Mark recounts about Christ is how John the Baptist prepared people to welcome Him, through baptism. When Christ is baptized by John, a voice from heaven calls out: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It is the first time in the Gospel of Mark where Christ is proclaimed. And he is proclaimed by the Father’s love.
So one of the first things we know about Christ is that he is loved by a father, that he comes from this father, and that the father takes great joy in him. And the Holy Spirit is there, too, the culminating bond of love.
In this moment, Christ reveals the life of the Trinity: Love, unity, joy. But in this moment, not only Christ is revealed.
We will learn that the fundamental truth of the human person is revealed in this moment as well. That is why in Gaudium et Spes we read that:
“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. … Christ … by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself. …He who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man.”
Christ reveals to us that we are made out of love, we are made for love, and that our lives are unintelligible if we try to live without love.
The key is to be open to how Christ reveals himself to us – and in so doing reveals to us how we are to be truly human.
He revealed that God is love, and that since everything is made by him, so everything has meaning, beauty, and can be redeemed through love.
Christ gives us a clearer view of things. We might even say, an inside view of things. Things make more sense. There’s still life, but life has meaning, a hope for eternity. There’s still marriage, but now it has even more meaning, a sanctifying meaning. There’s still suffering, but now suffering has meaning, a companionship in Christ who has united our suffering to his suffering.
Dostoevsky – Beauty That Will Save the World
Dostoevsky had a particularly memorable moment like this in his life when he visited the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. There he saw a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, entitled The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.
Dostoevsky and his wife had completely different reactions to the painting. His wife was horrified by “the emaciated body, the bones and ribs showing, the hands and feet pierced by wounds.”
But Dostoevsky had a different reaction. This is how his wife described it:
“The painting overwhelmed [him], and he stopped in front of it as if stricken ... On his agitated face was the sort of frightened expression I had often noted during the first moments of one of his epileptic seizures. I quietly took my husband’s arm, led him to another room and made him sit down on a bench, expecting him to have a seizure at any moment. Fortunately, it didn’t come. Little by little Fyodor Mikhailovich calmed down, and when we were leaving he insisted on taking another look at the painting that had made such an impression on him.”
Dostoevsky saw a deeper reality in the painting. Writing about the same painting later in his novel The Idiot, he described it in this way:
“The thought steps in, whether one likes it or not, that death is so terrible and so powerful, that even He who conquered it in His miracles during life was unable to triumph over it at the last. He who called to Lazarus, ‘Come forth!’ and the dead man lived — He was now Himself a prey to nature and death. Nature appears to one looking at this picture as some huge, implacable, dumb monster; or still better... some enormous mechanical engine of modern days which has seized and crushed and swallowed up a great and invaluable Being….”
What Dostoevsky realized in this moment is that Christian hope is incomprehensible if it is separated from its unflinching encounter with the reality of death.
By this, I mean not only the death that you and I must inevitably confront or the death of a loved one, but the death of Jesus Christ.
And this is where every encounter with the beauty of Christ leads us. It is a beauty that Pope Benedict XVI called “the beauty of love that goes ‘to the very end.’”
The Beauty that is Love
This is the beauty of Christ. In 2006, the Pontifical Council for Culture expressed Christ as the archetype of beauty in this way: “The contemplation of Christ in the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption is the living source from which the Christian artist takes inspiration to speak of the mystery of God and the mystery of man saved by Jesus Christ. … ‘the beauty of Christian art’ is characterized by a capacity to move from the interior ‘for self’ to that of the ‘more than self’.”
This concept goes beyond Christian works of art. It is also true in life.
This is what the young handicapped girl did in Mexico City. She showed a capacity to live something and show something more than herself. And connections between people are built precisely on this. In fact, all love is built precisely on this.
When people live as Christians, that is, as loving human beings, we not only follow Christ’s path, but, living as Christ lives, we reveal to others who they are: beings made by love, and for love. We make their lives intelligible.
What some might see as simply painful is in reality something more than pain: it is an opportunity to see and to create beauty. Someone suffering within reach is Christ proposing to us to care for him, to visit him, to feed him. It gives us the opportunity to create beauty of a spiritual nature with that person, and the opportunity to realize that such spiritual beauty is not superficial; to the contrary, it is that form of beauty which is most deeply, most authentically human.
Long before John Paul II became pope, he wrote a play about Saint Brother Albert, the great Polish artist who gave up painting to found a religious order dedicated to the poor. In the play, there is a scene where the artist is painting his famous portrait of Christ, Ecce Homo. In the painting Christ is depicted moments after the scourging as Pilate presented him to the crowd.
In the play, the artist speaks to the image of Christ that he has just painted:
“Still You are terribly unlike Him….
You have toiled in every one of them.
You are deadly tired.
They have exhausted You.
This is called charity.
But with all this You have remained beautiful.
The most beautiful of the sons of men.
Such beauty was never repeated again.
Oh what a difficult beauty, how hard.
Such beauty is called Charity.”
The beauty of Christ wasn’t the broken person whom the artist had just painted; the beauty was the act of love it portrayed.
And this is why the beauty that will save the world – that will save you and me – is not a beauty made by human hands. The beauty strong enough to save the world must be a beauty strong enough to conquer death. And it must be a beauty strong enough to overcome the culture of death which the world creates.
The Eucharist – A Living and Dynamic Friendship
This is why Christ’s gifts to us – the Church and the Eucharist – are so important. The Eucharist is the complete, transformative paradox. It is transformative to our being, but a paradox to our thinking.
A completely inanimate object is the fullest, unadulterated presence of God. Something that is fashioned by human hands – bread and wine – becomes the gift of God, who created all and who refashions us with grace from within.
The fact is, a friend is not “generic.” A friend is someone you grow to know, someone who reveals something about himself, and who engages the best that is within you.
A beautiful expression of this transformative Eucharistic friendship was given by Pope John Paul on the Feast of Corpus Christi shortly after his election. He said:
“Jesus … is the friend who never abandons you. Jesus knows you one by one, personally. He knows your name. He follows you, accompanies you, walks with you every day. He participates in your joys and consoles you in moments of grief and sadness. Jesus is the friend we cannot do without when we have met him and understood that he loves us and wants our love.
You can speak and confide in him; you can address him with affection and confidence. Jesus even died on the Cross for our sake! Make a pact of friendship with Jesus and never break it! In all the situations of your life, turn to the Divine Friend, present in us with his ‘Grace,’ present with us and in us in the Eucharist.”
Everyone’s path to Christ is different, and everyone’s journey with Christ is uniquely personal. Sometimes it’s a dramatic change of vocation, but more frequently, it happens in everyday experiences. What is universal, absolutely consistent in each person’s life, is that Christ meets us where we are, and if we are willing, he leads us to a new place and a new life, that is, to a place and to a life closer to him.
The Two Great Commandments
Facing suffering, like those in Mexico, or the many I met last month in Haiti, also puts a question in mind: what kind of naïve impulse could believe that “Beauty will save the world?”
It also impressed in me what Christ’s incarnation did not do. Christ did not come to establish a new social network or political reality.
Christ did, however, reveal that he does everything out of love, and he gives a commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
It is impossible to force someone to experience and appreciate the beauty of Christ. Yet, if people are to encounter Christ in us, then we ourselves must strive to follow Christ, to be Christ-like for others.
For this reason, the challenge does not end with recognizing Christ. That is just the beginning.
The question is, how Christ-like am I in my vocation - in my family, in my work, in my community, among my friends and among strangers?
Speaking to young people at Munster Cathedral some years before becoming pope, Father Joseph Ratzinger observed that we are presented with an extraordinary challenge. He said,
“For love, as it is here portrayed as the content of being a Christian, demands that we try to live as God lives. … He loves us, not because we are good, but because he is good.
… He loves even in the ragged raiment of the prodigal son, who is no longer wearing anything lovable. To love in the Christian sense means trying to follow in this path.”
In the end, this way of living is a matter of grace. It is a matter of pursuing and being pursued by what Dostoevsky called “the Beauty that will save the world.”
Dostoevsky never explicitly said what he had meant by writing “Beauty will save the world.” Nevertheless he provided an answer on a different occasion when he wrote this: “I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred for me. This Credo is very simple, here it is: to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly and more perfect than Christ.”
This – and only this – is the beauty that will save the world. If we have eyes of faith, we have no trouble seeing Christ – whatever his disguise.
And with a heart that sees Christ, we have no response but to follow his response of love. And if enough Christians act this way, the world truly will radiate the beauty of Christ.
As John Paul II writes, “man is both artist of himself, and the subject of the great Artist. Man is a good artist when he molds himself, and allows himself to be molded, to participate in the redemption of Christ.”
And so the questions that we must ask ourselves are: “Will we allow ourselves to be molded by this love?” “Will we allow ourselves to be molded by beauty?”