Noticias de la Diócesis de Allentown

Works of a Divine Artist: The Role of Beauty in a Catholic Worldview

By Robert Johnson

God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. (Genesis 1:31a)

Have we lost a sense of the beautiful? Thanks to social media, we are seemingly surrounded by it. At any moment, we have access to countless images in the palms of our hands: perfect people, perfect landscapes, perfect moments, perfectly curated – all competing for our attention and approval. Often, the beautiful becomes nothing more than a backdrop so that others might focus on us. Saint Peter’s Square or the majesty of the Cliffs of Moher are reduced to a setting for a selfie. The moments pass, and the posts are lost to the unceasing drive of algorithms. Look at me, the images plead. Recognize me. Affirm me. And we do, for a moment. But our attention wavers, and we swipe onward, left with nothing but an empty desire for more. We continually traverse the depths of a wide but all-too-shallow sea.

Catholics often speak of the Beautiful as one of the “transcendentals” – a term for things that describe a quality of existence itself – alongside the Good and the True. But the sense the modern world adapts is merely beauty’s shadow. True beauty is neither about itself, nor is it merely for enhancing our self image. For the Church, true beauty points beyond itself, to a higher good. It ultimately says something true about God, its first Author.

This doesn’t mean that church art or explicitly sacred things are the only sources of beauty! On the contrary, this idea begins with the natural world – with creation. The Church Fathers, some of our earliest theologians, often referred to God as a craftsman or artist, who ordered the world in a beautiful way that we might come to know Him. This beauty inherently pleases us on a surface level, but it also rings true in the deepest parts of our hearts. In this vision, human beings are the crowning achievement of God’s work. We have each been given a great and precious gift – reason – the ability to understand, to ponder, to wonder. The more we use this, the more beautiful we are, aligning ourselves with the Divine Artist’s original plan. It also inspires us to create and recognize beauty of our own. We might call this vision of beauty a Marian one. Mary, made most beautiful by the grace of God, chooses fully and freely to devote herself completely to Him. Everything beautiful about Mary points back to Truth – to God. We are called to model ourselves after her.

Therefore, it is fitting that some of the most beautiful works of art wrought by human hands are Marian ones. When Notre Dame de Paris burned in April 2019, the secular world mourned the marring of a great historical artifact. But for Catholics, the great cathedral was a home in flames – a home for the Eucharist, and a home for all who walked through its doors in worship. Its beauty is not static, but a living beauty that speaks – wordlessly, lovingly – of our Lord, our Lady, our Church. Notre Dame is a gift, offered by its patrons and craftsmen, to a Lady who offered herself as a gift, whose Son gave us the ultimate gift. Every level of Notre Dame’s beauty points beyond itself. When this meaning is lost, it is ultimately nothing but stone, wood, and glass.

In a time where so much seems disposable, meaningless, or flippant – let us remember that we are called to the beautiful – not of the moment, but of beauty that lasts. For even the greatest treasures of this world are but a taste of what awaits us – what no eye has seen, and no ear has heard.

Robert Johnson is a PhD candidate at Marquette University, and holds an MA in Theological Studies from Saint Louis University. He is a Director of Campus and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Allentown. He oversees both Young Adult Ministry and the campus ministry programs at Kutztown University and Lafayette College.

Photo: A technician works at the reconstruction site of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris July 28, 2022. The cathedral was heavily damaged in a fire April 15, 2019. (CNS photo/Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt, pool via Reuters) Used with permission.