Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, coined the turn of phrase “men of the moment” to envision the timeliness of SSJE’s life and witness. Far from being the traditional imitators of bygone days, we are to be “men of the present moment and its life.” What does the present moment invite? This question has informed our year of praying, talking, and listening with one another. We have also been in communication with friends and advisors who companion us.
Weighty choices in life require us to consider the risk involved in taking one path over against another. This is a skill we’re having to employ almost daily now as a result of the danger posed by the coronavirus. Will we risk taking public transportation, or going to the grocery store, or running an errand, when we know a deadly virus is on the loose? When will the risk be low enough that we can begin to gather again with others and return to our work or to places of worship? Knowing that the stakes are high makes this risky business.
Father Benson is reputed to have said that no religious community should survive past the first generation. I think that what he meant by that is that no religious community will survive if it simply addresses the needs of a bygone era. We aren’t in the business of addressing the needs of the Church from a century ago, or a decade ago, or even a year or a week ago. Each community needs to found itself anew for the present age.
In many ways we have done that in this community. In each generation our community has re-formed, if not re-founded itself, to meet the needs of the contemporary Church. When the Church needed solid catholic priests for parishes, SSJE provided that. When the Church needed missionaries in underserved areas, and places far removed from the center of things, we provided that. When people needed food, or clothing, or education, or medical care, we provided that. When the Church needed people to help form those in leadership, whether lay or ordained, we provided that. When the Church needed competent spiritual directors and retreat leaders, we provided that.
Like our predecessors in the Society our call today is to drink deeply from our own history and tradition, but not to be antiquarians. We are called today to look at ourselves through the lens of our histories, and to discover what it is from the past that may be of service in the present. To recover, or uncover, or discover those elements of our histories – Benedictine, Dominican, Ignatian, Vincentian – that speak to the needs of the contemporary Church. We are called to found a new Society of Saint John the Evangelist for this age.
To do so, we need to know our histories; to drink deeply enough that we are refreshed, but not so deeply as to become bloated and unable to move. We need to be prepared to look critically at our histories and see what can be carried into the future, and what also needs to be respectfully laid aside.
The work of the historian is to study the past from a variety of angles and to discover the various histories in their fullness and complexity. Unlike the antiquarian, the work of the historian does not end there. The historian needs to interpret those histories in light of the present moment so that the lessons of the past are relevant to the present and the future.
That, I believe, is what Father Benson did in the early days when our community was founded. He looked to the past to see what it might hold for the present and the future. This remains our task today: to look at our past and to discover what it might say to the present and the future. In that way, a new Society of Saint John the Evangelist will be founded, one that will address, not the needs of the Victorian Church, but the needs of the church as it exists today, and perhaps tomorrow.
Two interrelated organic concepts emerged from the community’s year of “Renewing Our Foundations”: generational shift and lifelong formation. These topics attracted my interest early on in our discussions as it dawned on me that I am now, after 36 years in the SSJE, both part of the longtime and older generations of the Society! Now in the midst of the disease, death, loss, grief, economic uncertainty, and vulnerability of so many brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, I find that the future orientation of these concepts sets in relief hope for what is to follow the present crisis and for the building of a new world for all generations – both present and yet to be.
The ancient tradition of the Church reminds us that when it is impossible to be present at a celebration of the Eucharist, and to receive Holy Communion, the desire to be united to Christ in the Sacrament is enough for God to grant all the spiritual benefits of Communion. What follows is a way for individuals, or small groups to open themselves up to the graces of Holy Communion and the blessing of God.
Blessed be the God of our salvation
Who bears our burdens and forgives our sins.
Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.
May Almighty God have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen me in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep me in eternal life. Amen.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
The Collect of the Day is then said, followed by the Readings appointed for the Sunday, or the day of the week. You may wish to read one of the Brothers’ sermons online (www.SSJE.org/goodnews).
The Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed may be recited.
A time of intercession is kept. In your own words pray for your own needs, for those on your heart, the peace of the world, the welfare of the Church, the living and the departed, and especially any who are sick.
One of the forms of the Prayers of the People from the Book of Common Prayer may be used.
Then is said:
In union, Blessed Jesus, with the faithful gathered at every altar of your Church where your Blessed Body and Blood are offered this day, and remembering particularly my own church community, and the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, I long to offer you praise and thanksgiving, for creation and all the blessings of this life, for the redemption won for us by your life, death, and resurrection, for the means of grace and the hope of glory.
And particularly for the blessings given me ….
I believe that you are truly present in the Holy Sacrament, and since I cannot at this time receive communion, I pray you to come into my heart. I unite myself with you and embrace you with all my heart, my soul, and my mind. Let nothing separate me from you; let me serve you in this life until, by your grace, I come to your glorious kingdom and unending peace. Amen.
Our Father ….
Come Lord Jesus, and dwell in my heart in the fullness of your strength; be my wisdom and guide me in right pathways; conform my life and actions to the image of your holiness; and in the power of your gracious might, rule over every hostile power that threatens or disturbs the growth of your kingdom, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
The Anima Christi may be added:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me;
Blood of Christ, inebriate me;
Water from the side of Christ, wash me;
Passion of Christ, strengthen me;
O good Jesu, hear me;
Within thy wounds hide me;
Suffer me not to be separated from thee;
From the malicious enemy defend me;
In the hour of death call me,
And bid me come to thee.
That with thy Saints I may praise thee
For ever and ever. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep my heart and mind in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ my Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with me now and always. Amen.
This form of service has been adapted by James Koester SSJE from the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, revised editions 1967 and 2014, published by the Order of the Holy Cross, West Park, New York and Forward Movement; David Cobb and Derek Olsen, editors, and with additional material from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.
Why Church Matters: Cowley Magazine - Spring 2020
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The Gifts of Time and Space
It is increasing difficult for those of us immersed in consumerist, technological Western culture to perceive the givens of space and time as positive gifts. In an ever more complex, fragmented, information-saturated world, our sense of the sacred, the set-apart, or the holy endures constant challenge. We are tempted to identify “space” as signifying confinement and “time” as a scarcity. Constrained, stressful living spaces and work places, as well as modes of travel – all experienced in a milieu of diminishing available time – hamper our pursuit of wellbeing and meaning.
I want to invite you to consider these words from chapter 6, “The Spirit of Poverty” in The Rule of SSJE, which offer us a different truth and a renewed vision of hope: “When God made room for the existence of space and time and shaped a world filled with glory, this act of creation was one of pure self-emptying.”
This image of God “making room” invites us to the humble reception of space and time as open and free gifts of the creating God. Proclaimed afresh as the context of God’s imparting of being to the entire natural world – animate and inanimate creatures alike – space and time enter again the realm of sacred significance. Here is our awed acknowledgement of the mystery of existence itself: only in space (Cosmic and terrestrial), and in time (Eternal and chronological), are being and materiality manifested and known. Birth, growth, development, decay, death, re-birth, renewal, transformation, and new life are only possible through the interdependent, divine gifts of space and time. Together, these two form the matrix for human creaturely-ness in God’s image and likeness, and for our place within a wider glory. Through the created gifts of space and time, God consecrates sacred places, material and spiritual, and sets apart holy lives in the “now” and in the “always” – a wondrous whole.
From its infancy, humankind has shaped meaning through its divinely-guided embrace of space and time, “making room” (and making meaning) in the hallowing of places and occasions. Inspired human intuition and insight have perceived holy spaces in the midst of nature. Prehistoric standing stones and stone circles were set up as framing devices for particular locales in which people had encountered the immanence of the divine. High hills, commanding mountains and grassy rises; springs and streams of flowing water, great rivers and swelling oceans; vast canyons, deep-cut caverns, and caves beneath the earth came to be revered as meeting places with divinity and portals into transcendence. The dome of the sky, the spectacle of the starlit heavens, the blazing sun, cool moon, and circling planets, provoked humankind to awe and wonder, and to the desire to know what and Who is beyond the ordinary (and behind these extraordinary sights).
A developing religious instinct sparked the desire for set-apart, permanent places of sacrifice and prayer, spaces in which the ineffable beauty of the divine could be reflected. Temples and sanctuaries, oracular and healing shrines, and houses of prayer, were constructed in the anciently-honored liminal spaces of the natural world, employing and adorned with the very stuff of the created world.
So also, humanity wakened to an awareness of the mystery of time, its dimensions of finitude and infinity, its qualities experienced both linearly and cyclically. The round of nature’s seasons; the daily, nightly, monthly, and annual journey of celestial bodies; times of planting, harvest and fields lying fallow; the inevitable and unending process of birth and death became the impetus for religious festivals, personal and social rites of passage, as well as prayer and meditation practices.
Another aspect of the “making room” image in the SSJE Rule asks us to contemplate the paradoxical nature of God’s gifts: the realm of existence flows from and has its origin in the self-emptying or “poverty” of God. God whose being knows no bounds, no beginning, no end – the God of space and time – is the One whose essence is sacrificial self-offering and loving relationship. The eternal union of the Holy Trinity, in mutuality and complementarity, is the living source and sublime pattern for all communities of living creatures. The Rule goes on to recall God’s making room in sharing our creaturely existence in space and time through Jesus, the Eternally-begotten One through whom we are drawn to experience and live God’s nature as our very own. Space and time are revealed as effectual signs (sacraments) of the fullness of life in Christ. They are the divine means through which creation enters into the “mutual self-giving and receiving” of God: Creator, Christ, and Spirit. God is forever making room in human hearts by pouring into them the fullness of God’s own self-offering divinity.
The ultimate locus and temporality of God’s making room is the community of worship, remembrance, and transformation which followers of Jesus have come to call “Church.” For Church is a sacrament of the divine gifts of space and time, as they are realized in the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus – in the here and the now. Church is the incarnation of Christ’s mystical Body. In Church, every person, place, and era becomes the locus and occasion for sacred space and sacred time. Church is the place of gathering to be in relationship with God and with one another in God, the place to live in God’s eternal now (Kairos) in every moment of existence. Through the Word proclaimed and preached, the sharing of the sacramental mysteries of Baptism and of Christ’s Body and Blood, and our participation in God’s own desire to draw the whole world to divine Love, Church does indeed matter, for it is itself a mediator of sacred space and time.
God is ever making room. God is still creating – even amidst our present chaos and stress – a fullness of existence within a fullness of time beyond human imagining, when “All shall be well and, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Dame Julian of Norwich, 14th century).
Living for God
One of the lines in our Rule of Life which I quote most frequently comes in the chapter “The Word of God in Preaching.” There we say that “people are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God” (Ch. 19). This theme of life lived in union with God runs throughout our Rule. We say in the very first chapter, “The Call of the Society” that “our mission is inseparable from our call to live in union with Christ in prayer, worship, and mutual love.” We say in another place that “our mission is to bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us” (Ch. 31). We remind ourselves that “the gospel proclaims that Christ has transformed death by his cross and resurrection and that through our Baptism we have already passed through death with him and have been incorporated into his risen body” (Ch. 48). Almost the very last word of the Rule states that “hope stirs our desire to adore God for all eternity in the host of heaven” (Ch. 49).
Over and again, we remind ourselves that the aim of the life of faith is to help us all to live in union with God, and to invite others to do the same. Father Benson puts it quite simply this way: “we must seek to realize increasingly the purposes for which our Society is called together – to live for God . . .” (Richard Meux Benson, “Of the Objects of the Society” in The Religious Vocation, 37).
Our living for God will, in the end, result in nothing less than our sanctification. Again as Father Benson reminds us: “as He sanctified Himself, so it is for us to sanctify ourselves by the continual surrender of our will to the will of the Father, in whatever way it is manifested, whether it be the will of God in all the circumstances of His external Providence, or the will of God in all the appointments of our Society. We have to realize that the will of God is that to which we must conform ourselves, and in which we have to seek for sanctification. This is our first object, to sanctify ourselves through the truth, to sanctify ourselves in union with the incarnate Saviour, to sanctify ourselves in conformity with the will of God. Whatever else we leave undone, the culture of ourselves must be the constant aim of our life” (40).
One of the places where this sanctification happens is in worship. We Brothers believe that God “has drawn us into our Society so that our calling to be true worshipers can reach fulfillment in the offering of the continual sacrifice of praise. In this life of worship together we are transformed in body, soul and spirit” (Ch. 16). Such a vision of transformation is open to all who desire to live for God.
One of the marks of our life as a brotherhood is worship. Some will remember Father Gross, who used to tell me when I was a novice that “we’d get a lot more work done around here if we didn’t have to eat so much or go to church so often!” But, with all due respect to Father Gross, the object of our life is not work, but God, and our life is shaped as it is so that “worship sanctifies work, continually interrupting it so that we can offer it to God in thanksgiving.”
It is this constant returning to God in worship that sanctifies not only the day, not only the task at hand, but ourselves as well. It is for this reason that Father Benson challenges us when he says that “our life … must be one continual act of worship. It may vary very much in its features, but whatever the life of religious be externally, it must be a life of worship, all its acts pointing towards God with constant elevation” (Richard Meux Benson, Instruction on the Religious Life, Second Series, “Worship,” 10).
This worship of God is not confined to those moments when we are praying the Office or celebrating the Eucharist. Our worship of God takes place every time we turn our hearts to God, for “the Father never ceases from seeking true worshipers to worship him in spirit and truth. God sent the Son into the world to heal and raise us up so that, empowered by the Spirit, we could surrender our whole selves in adoration and be reunited in the love of God. God draws us into our Society so that our calling to be true worshipers can reach fulfillment in the offering of the continual sacrifice of praise” (32).
It is this calling to be true worshippers in spirit and in truth which invites us to “dwell upon the contemplation of God, to acquaint ourselves more and more with God, to fix upon our minds a clear apprehension of His glory, to stir up our hearts with an eager desire for His vision, to strengthen our hearts in the continual sympathy of His revelation, to rule our acts in continual obedience to His commands. Our whole life must be an act of worship. We come out of the world for that purpose, and for that purpose alone. We do not come out of the world merely under the idea that by association we may be able to accomplish certain plans which commend themselves to our hearts. We come out of the world in order that we may give ourselves to the worship of God” (Op. cit., “Worship,” 10).
Such a vision of worship which permeates all life is one of the gifts we Brothers have to offer the Church. By our life we invite the Church: “to rise up to its true calling as a communion of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ and the company of Christ’s friends. We are not called to be a separate elite, but to exemplify the life of the Body of Christ in which every member has a particular gift of the Spirit for ministry and shares an equal dignity. Fr. Benson taught that ‘there are special gifts of God indeed to the Society, but only as it is a society within the Church. The small body is to realize and intensify the gifts, to realize the energies, belonging to the whole Church.’ Our witness and ministry is not merely to separate individuals; it is for strengthening the common life in the Body of Christ” (Rule, Ch. 4).
But worship at its best is a dangerous activity. It is dangerous because worship has the power, not simply to engage us, or draw us into the life of God, but to change us as well. In worship we encounter the God “who makes all things new” (Rev 21:5), including ourselves, as we are transformed by Christ “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). As Father Benson reminds us, “none can come to Christ at Bethlehem and go away as they came … our coming to Christ at Bethlehem changes everything” (Richard Meux Benson, Spiritual Readings: Christmas (1886), 260).
This transformation from one degree of glory to another is at the heart of all worship, as we are slowly and often imperceptibly changed into the likeness of Christ. We may not see the change as it happens, but over time we become more and more the person God has called us to be.
Again as Father Benson so movingly reminds us: “we must look for the development of the life of Christ within us. Each communion should be, as it were, adding some fresh point to the image of Christ within our souls. As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ, which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us. And it is not that it does this merely in some one direction, but as each moment of the morning adds imperceptibly a fresh glow to the whole illuminated hemisphere, so each communion imperceptibly should add a fresh glow, a fresh brightness, a fresh colouring to the sphere of the soul which it penetrates; the whole nature should assume a fresh glory with each communion. As the form and colour of the landscape come out with the sun’s advance, so with each communion the form and colour of our spiritual life, not merely in this or that particular, but in all its complex bearings of form and colour, is to stand out with greater clearness and beauty, each communion bringing its own fresh illumination, and perfecting us in the Sun of righteousness” (Richard Meux Benson, The Religious Vocation, “Of Communion” (1939), 160-61).
If it is true that each Communion adds a fresh touch of Christ to us, so too does each act of reconciliation through the exchange of the peace; each act of offering, whereby we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies as bread and wine on the Table; each act of sending forth to love and serve the Lord, in the dismissal. Each of these moments in worship has the power to perfect us, not just as individuals, or even as a particular community, but as the Church gathered in a particular time and place – and beyond all time and all place.
Worship then is not something we simply offer to God. It is a participation in God’s mission, God’s purpose, God’s dream for the world, which is to reconcile all things in Christ (Col 1:20). On my worst days, I sometimes wonder if any of what goes on in our chapel makes a difference. On my best days, I know that it does, because even though I cannot tell in the moment, I do know that it changes me, it changes us, it changes the Church. In changing us more and more into the image of God, our worship changes the world, bringing evermore into reality the dream of God for all creation.
Our Rule reminds us that people are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God. One of the ways in which we proclaim that good news is through our worship, not only formally, as on Sunday mornings, but whenever we open our hearts to God. When we do that, we discover again the joy of living in union with God.
“I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.”
– Saint Hildegard of Bingen
All of us, at one point or another (especially if we spend any extended time in silence), are confronted by the peculiarity of sound. Sounds surround us from our waking to our retiring. They meet us in the early-morning praises sung by choirs of birds and in the bustling clangor of work in the kitchen, in conversations with family and coworkers, and even the gentle babble of moving waters. Whether in a hymn or song shared in a gathering, or the tender melody of our final “goodnight” to someone we love, this phenomenon marks our lives in ways both subtle and profound. At its most profound, sounds can serve as signs, pointing our inner gaze toward truths whose glory overshadows their seemingly contingent origins.
Sound and Meaning: A Whole Resonance
Certain sounds can carry special semiotic content – that is, they mean or signify something. Think of an alarm or a church bell. Even though these two sounds may sometimes sound similar, we know at once the meaning carried by the one or the other. Take as another example the simple rise in inflection characteristic of questions. “Did you enjoy your supper?” We understand at once this interrogative modulation and respond to the meaning transmitted by it. Even sounds that occur in nature – sounds that do not originate from the minds and bodies of human meaning-makers – can come to bear a specific significance. Consider the sound of the salty ocean surf, the trickle of a stream, or the anonymous rush of a breeze. These sounds, depending on their volume and intensity, can either carry us into a region of calm delight, or cause us serious concern for our safety.
These semiotic or meaning-rich sounds find a unique expression when human beings make the kind of organized sound we call music. Though tempting, it would be a mistake to call music a “universal language.” The languages of music are as varied and diverse as the cultures that speak them. Yet despite myriad dialects, music-making marks the human heart in a distinctive way. We do not have to speak our neighbor’s musical language to see that it communicates something deep and true to the listener. Since our heart (sometimes even our whole body) responds so deeply to sounds received as music, we should be bold enough to say that music marks us as God’s own creation.
Shared music, like prayer or communion, seeks to transmit more than mere information; it seeks to transmit truth. Music is a particular shape of the sign of sound that invites and enables complex communication and communion, for knowing and being known. Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is the first piece of music I can remember hearing as a child. Subsequently, even the first interval of the first movement – a whole step – vividly re-members inner states of heart lost to my conscious memory. Past and present are blurred, and I am able to communicate with my own embodied memories of love and longing in a unique way for a brief moment. Of course, we experience this chronological diminution best and most fully in the sharing of the Holy Eucharist.
Sound and Creation: Sonic Sacramentality
Why should sound speak to us in so many rich and varied ways? Why does this phenomenon from time to time seem to cry out for our deepest attention? I suspect sound speaks to us in this deep way because sounds are essential to the kind of creation God has gifted to us and the kinds of creatures God has created us to be.
Sound is essential to who we are as creatures – even those sounds we cannot hear – for the Bible reminds us that creation is sound. The language of Genesis 1 uses sound as an image for the divine creative act, rather than a grand cosmic war or the manipulation of preexisting matter (as we find in other local traditions of the Ancient Near East and beyond). We read “And God said …” seven times as the narrative of Genesis unfolds God’s creative character. No new texture, creature, or reality emerges without God first speaking.
While the Scriptures tell of creation by fiat – that is, through speaking – we need not necessarily understand this as literal speech. In Jewish tradition, the border between sacred words and chant is extremely blurry. The Hebrew Scriptures are rarely, if ever, simply spoken. They were (and continue to be) recited according to a specific set of sung (or “cantilated”) formulas known as ta’amim (“flavors”) or ta’amei ha-miqra (“flavors of reading”); tajweed or qur’an tajweed in Islam. Christian tradition shares this characteristic, particularly within monastic communities. While this kind of recitation is common to all three Abrahamic faiths, it is not exclusive to them.
Such an image of creation, at its core, carries the implication that underwriting all beings in creation is the vibrant, living, dynamic resonance of God’s creative Word. We can trace this concept throughout the arc of salvation history, and the Gospel of John reiterates it in light of the revelation in Jesus Christ: “In the beginning was the Word.” From the beginning, all being is inextricably linked to the sounds of the heart of the divine – the ever-vibrating Word of God. The insights of modern genetics and physics harmonize with John’s wisdom. The human genome contains more than three billion letters of a chemical alphabet, arranged in precisely the right order. Furthermore, the physical universe – its constituent parts, including us – consists in vibrations, of resonances tuned in relationship. We are each a word and a song of God.
In this way, we may say that sound has a deeply sacramental quality, “outwardly” signifying an “inner” grace. Saint Hildegard speaks of the sacramentality of sound when she writes, “The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self. Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played. The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather, through the touch of the musician. I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.” It is the invitation of our life in Christ to tune our hearts to those sounds that our physical ear is incapable of hearing, for which all physical sound is but an icon and signpost. In so tuning our hearts, we find there is only one musician skilled enough to provide the music for which they were made: Christ himself.
Sound and Us: A Song Day by Day
In our inner life we often encounter movements or experiences that escape linguistic description. So too, we encounter in biblical or devotional texts a certain uncanny profundity that requires the kind of sensitive attention we might also give to a piece of music: a listening that seeks something deeper than mere information. Nikolaus Harnoncourt reminds us that, in many languages, the word for “poetry” is also the word for “song.” He writes, “At the moment when language [surpasses] any concrete message, it is immediately likened to song, because with the help of song anything over and above pure information can be conveyed more clearly. [Song] make[s] it possible to reach a kind of understanding that goes beyond the purely linguistic.”
Prayer and Holy Scripture mark our day-to-day life at SSJE – specifically, sung prayer and chanted scripture. When we Brothers gather in chapel to sing the daily office, we step into a place that only the vulnerability of singing together can manifest. As we sing hymns and canticles and chant the psalter, we encounter one another in a peculiar way. Our voices can compete, overpower, derail, and distract; and at the same time they can mingle and meld, weave fresh textures, interpenetrate and color one another, and cause the chapel stones themselves to sing as they ring with the sound of our prayer, praise, and lament.
A song, no matter how simple or short, has the potential to point our hearts to their source. An occasion spent immersed in music can tantalize unexpected gratitude out from under a grief-stricken or cynical heart. The otherness of an unfamiliar piece of music can remind us of the breathtaking infinity of God’s diversity. When we encounter something anonymous yet undeniably present, true, and weighty in the sounds that surround us, we can be sure a sign has crossed our gaze. Listen. Sound and music remind us that life is profoundly mysterious and difficult to grasp with any kind of absolute certainty. A song will not necessarily speak the same word to you as it will to me. Yet this same phenomenon holds us together, marking our diversity as creatures, inviting us into that place within us that yearns to hear the uncreated symphony of our divine Composer.
The Beauty of Holiness
The Holiness of Beauty
Beauty is not a veneer. Beauty is not entertainment, nor a lovely distraction, nor the domain of the privileged. Beauty is essential for life. Beauty is of the essence of God. The psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29:2, 96:9). The worship life of the church is infused and informed by beauty mediated through all of our senses: what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps 34:8). In the Genesis creation account, God creates, and then God observes that it is all very good. In the fullness of time, when God takes on human form in Jesus, we experience the reclaiming of the original blessing in creation. It is good, very good.
Beauty is infinitely evocative. Beauty belongs to an ancient triad called the “transcendentals,” gateways through which all of creation both reveals and knows God. The transcendentals are beauty, truth, and goodness. Goodness relates to the will; truth, to the mind; beauty, to the heart, feelings, and imagination. The transcendentals are attributes of God and, therefore, of God’s creation. Beauty, truth, and goodness infuse one another, and each is a portal to God. We have been created in the image of God. Thereby, what is most important is not what we may say about God, but what God’s creation says about God. We have been created “to participate in the being that flows from God, and to manifest God’s beauty in the depths of our nature” (David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite,” in Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa, 112).
Beauty speaks to and through our senses and transfigures our mind, because beauty is magnificently ordered. Beauty teems with harmony, rhythm, the splendor of shape and form, evocative meaning, sometimes eliciting our enchantment and wonder, always connecting us with something More, its Creator. Beauty rightly liberates us from the narrow confines of our rational minds. The great Swiss priest and scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), spoke of the “theological aesthetic”: to perceive through holy people and holy images the objective glory of divinely revealed truth. Creation matters.
In our experience of beauty, we are enveloped in the signs of God’s magnificent presence among us, God’s immanence. Simultaneously, we are pointed onward to the attraction of God’s glory, God’s transcendence: God, from whom and in whom all has been created. Beauty envelopes us with its Source. Panentheism describes this. Not pantheism: everything is God. But rather, panentheism: everything is in God. All of creation is iconic: a window through which to know, reverence, and worship God. Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, recalls the elder monk, Zosima, telling the youngest Karamazov son, Alyosha, that creation is “an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part … the world a mirror of infinite beauty … beautiful as in the beginning of days.”
Beauty attracts, sometimes very powerfully. We can be smitten by what we find beautiful. However if we worship what we find beautiful – that is, if we give ultimate worth to what we find beautiful – we will be disappointed, and we may get lost. Beauty, to be experienced most wholly and freely, needs to be experienced in the context of its Source. What we find beautiful is participating in the glory of the Creator. We, as creatures, have been given the inspiration to be makers or re-makers of beauty (John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, 48). Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Spanish friar and priest, writes of this longing for the beautiful, whose beginning and end is in God. In life, what we are first attracted to are God’s creatures, and they say, “‘What you are looking for is not here, but God has passed by, scattering beauty as he went.’ What attracts us in creatures is something of God’s beauty. The creatures are honest: they tell us plainly that they are not enough to fill that hole in our hearts” (Cantico Espiritual, can. 4 & 5). What we find beautiful is always a participant, a creature, not the Creator.
Beauty can be a very powerful channel for healing. When life has been ravaged by pain or loss, by disorder or distress, by chaos or fear, the experience of beauty can be a very balming, calming, re-ordering channel for re-righting our soul. On occasion I will be invited to listen to someone speak about the distress and debris of life that is infecting their soul. Their experience of life is death-dealing, and they are disconsolate. For these dear, suffering souls I am not inclined to suggest a tough spiritual exercise. I more often send them to a museum, to a flower shop, to a concert, to a delicious meal, to a wildlife park, to a pool of water, to a playground to watch children, to a forest or mountain. It’s to reacquaint them with what they’ve forgotten, what may have been lost or stolen from them: that amidst life’s sometimes appalling suffering, chaos, and death, life teems with beauty. Beauty is so weighty; the experience of beauty will very powerfully rebalance the fulcrum of our life. The great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), said: “A person should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What do you find beautiful? Beauty is worth attending to; you are worth attending to beauty.
The Anglican theological tradition is sacramental, that is, we recognize outward signs in creation as channels of God’s inner work of grace. How splendid it is to order our prayer and worship with a generous splay of beauty. Very gracious. The psalmist sings to us: “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 96:9). Beauty is not functional; beauty is redolent and transformative. Beauty is worthy of our attention as we order both our corporate and personal prayer. Beauty may be a very large instrument in our lifelong conversion to Christ. As we read in the Letter to the Colossians, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). Beauty is of the essence of God, in whose image we have been created. Pray your life beholding the beauty of God that surrounds you and fills you.