Man bears within him a thirst for the infinite, a longing for eternity, a quest for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and for truth which impel him toward the Absolute; man bears within him the desire for God.–Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI retells an event in his life when he experienced truth through music. He attended a Bach concert in Munich, conducted by the famous conductor, Leonard Bernstein. “I felt, not by reasoning but in the depths of my heart, that what I had heard had communicated truth to me, the truth of the supreme composer, and impelled me to thank God.” He described it “as the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God’s truth.” (2). Here, Benedict describes the impact of the transcendentals–the true, the good, and the beautiful–upon his soul.
Some common experiences give us a sense of what Benedict means. On a mountain top, we see the immensity, eternity, and infinity of God. In a newborn baby, we see the goodness and wonder of life, and thank the Giver of life. In an act of self-sacrifice, we see the highest virtue man can perform and its supreme example upon the Cross. The transcendentals lead us to their perfection in God. But according to Benedict, he witnessed, not a mere image of God’s perfection, but a communicated truth felt in the depths of [his] heart. Then, beauty is more than aesthetics, more than a feeling, more than an image; it’s a means of communication, a “dialogue between God and man” (3).
Truth communicated, not taught
An eminent Jesuit theologian and friend of Benedict, Hans von Balthasar (1905-1988), wrote a monumental, 15-volume trilogy inspired by the transcendentals. Thankfully, Robert Royal offers us a short overview in his own book, A Deeper Vision. Interpreting Balthasar, Royal describes transcendentals as possessing the power “to touch our hearts and take them beyond what we earlier believed was real” (4). They transcend us through their “mysterious roots in Being, while still offering themselves to us in a way we can grasp” (5).
Transcendentals establish a “dialogue between God and man”, a “self-disclosure in love by the one who is beauty, goodness, and truth” (6). Whereas catechesis teaches truth dialectically, transcendentals transmit truth in an “immediate way” by engaging “in a self-communication…that could not take place in any other way” (7). In other words, they communicate truth directly to the soul. Like the bright, warm sun after a spring rain, God leaves us refreshed and invigorated in the knowledge and love of Christ.
Our search for truth is often based upon reason. But through the transcendentals, God essentially says, “Now, take a moment to enjoy the beauty of those truths in your soul. Remember to ‘take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart’ (Ps 37:4)”.
Beauty takes many forms
In quick succession, I recall many moments when the dazzling beauty of truth broke through the clouds: making my first Jesuit retreat; watching the film, A Man for All Seasons; reading inspiring books (Life of Christ by Sheen, St. Ignatius’ Own Story, The Betrothed, Theology and Sanity, Faith of the Early Fathers); breaching the stairs of Holy Redeemer for the first time; standing before the bones of St. Peter in the Scavi; drinking in the transcendent grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica; witnessing the birth of my children; marrying my wife, Kathy; hearing Durufle’s Ubi Caritas during Mass at the St. Paul Cathedral; visiting the relics of St. Maria Goretti;…and a childhood memory.
In my office, a replica of a 65-horsepower Case steam traction engine produced between 1904 and 1914, sits on my desk. Grandchildren see it as a toy. But it’s actually a transcendental.
My parents grew up in northwestern Minnesota during the 20s and 30s when these massive steam engines dotted the rural landscape. These coal-fed engines looked like train locomotives as they pulled gang plows through the fields or provided power for threshing machines.
Truth on Thresher’s Hill
In the early 60s, Mom and Dad brought my brother, Barry, and me to a steam thresher reunion in Rollag, Minnesota. On Friday evening, we arrived at the farm of my Mom’s childhood friend in time to climb tractors, stare at the pigs, and explore the barn. Early the next day, we drove to the reunion on Thresher’s Hill, a massive field filled with ancient smoke-belching steam engines. Old-timers with Norwegian accents and dressed in engineer overalls argued the merits of each one.
Meanwhile, my brother, and I, together with our newfound friends, jumped into haystacks, watched the belt-driven threshers in action, marveled at the miniature replicas, wolfed down pancakes at the food pavilion, sold candy bars at a concession stand, and thoroughly absorbed everything in free-ranging style until supper time. Saturday evening, we found seats in the church basement to watch a talent contest: fiddlers, singers, and accordions. After Sunday services, breakfast on Thresher’s Hill, and one final tour of the farmstead, we headed home. It was the best weekend of my youth.
Threshers Hill coalesced many truths into one beautiful experience that ripened over time: familial love, boyhood, heritage, a closeness to the land and to neighbor, and charity. It magnified the truth of God’s creation, the good of His kind providence, and the beauty of life lived with others under His loving gaze. At the time, I was too young to understand it as an encounter with God and truth. But now, the model on my desk recalls a multitude of truths beautiful to the soul.
Evangelize our culture through beauty
According to Bishop Robert Barron, beauty is the key to evangelizing our culture. He used the analogy of baseball to make his point. If a child starts with the “infield fly rule”, the game quickly loses its appeal (8). “Rather, show him the beauty of baseball, and he will want to play, and having played, he will know” (9). I saw the beauty of Thresher’s Hill, played on it, and, over time, came to know.
What about you? How has beauty led you to know truth and God?
1. A School of Prayer, Benedict XVI, 17
2. Ibid, 65
3. A Deeper Vision, Robert Royal, 236
4. Ibid, 229
5. Ibid, 236
6. Ibid, 236
7. Ibid, 230
8. Begin with the Beautiful, Lumen Christi Institute, http://www.lumenchristi.org/begin-with-the-beautiful/
9. To Evangelize through Beauty, Bishop Robert Barron, 2/19/13; http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/column/to-evangelize-through-beauty-2476/