Benedict XVI during a vacation in the Alps (©Eric Vandeville/akg-images/Mondadori Portfolio)

"The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty"

"True knowledge is being struck by the dart of beauty that wounds man, being touched by reality." From the Traces archive, " we republish the speech of the then Cardinal Ratzinger at the 2002 Rimini Meeting.
Joseph Ratzinger

Every year, in the liturgy of the Divine Office during Lent, I am struck anew by a paradox in Vespers for Monday of the second week of the Psalter. Here, right next to each other, are two antiphons, one for the Lenten season, the other for Holy Week. Both of them introduce Psalm 44, but they anticipate a key to interpretation that is diametrically opposed. This is the psalm that describes the wedding of the King, his beauty, his virtues, his mission, and then it turns into a glorification of the Bride. During the Lenten season, the psalm is framed by the same antiphon that is used during the rest of the year. It is the third verse of the psalm that says, “You are the fairest of the children of men and graciousness is poured upon your lips.” It is clear that the Church reads this psalm as a poetic-prophetic representation of the spousal relationship of Christ with the Church. It acknowledges Christ as the fairest of men, and the graciousness poured upon His lips indicates the inner beauty of His word, the glory of His announcement. Thus, it is not simply the outer beauty of the appearance of the Redeemer that is glorified; in Him appears the beauty of truth, the beauty of God Himself, which draws us to Him and at the same time gives us the wound of Love, the holy passion (eros) that makes us go to meet, together with and in the Church His Bride, Love who calls to us. But on Monday of Holy Week, the Church changes the antiphon and invites us to read the psalm in light of Isaiah 53:2: “He had no beauty, no majesty to draw our eyes, no grace to make us delight in Him.” How can this be reconciled? The “fairest of men” is so homely of aspect that no one wants to look at Him. Pilate presents Him to the crowd saying, “Ecce homo,” so as to arouse pity for the Man who has been overwhelmed and beaten, who has no exterior beauty left. Augustine, who during his youth wrote a book on the beautiful and the seemly and who appreciated beauty in words, music, the figurative arts, felt this paradox very strongly and realized that in this passage, the great Greek philosophy of beauty was not being merely rejected, but rather was being dramatically called into question; what is beautiful, what beauty means would have to be re-discussed and re-experimented.

Referring to the paradox contained in these texts, Augustine spoke of “two trumpets” resounding in opposition, that nonetheless receive their sound from the same breath, from the same Spirit. He knew that the paradox is an opposition, but not a contradiction. Both the above citations come from the same Spirit who inspires all the Scriptures, who however resounds in each with different notes and, precisely in this way, places us in front of the totality of true beauty, of truth itself. Arising from Isaiah’s text is above all the question treated by the Fathers of the Church as to whether Christ was beautiful or not. Here the more radical question is concealed as to whether beauty is true, or whether instead it is ugliness that leads us to the deep truth of reality. Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested Himself precisely in the altered appearance of the crucified Christ as love “to the end” (Jn 13:1), knows that beauty is truth and truth is beauty; but he understands also that in the suffering Christ the beauty of truth embraces offense, pain, and yes, even the obscure mystery of death, and that it can be found only in the acceptance of pain, not in ignoring it.

An early awareness of the fact that beauty has to do also with pain is undoubtedly present also in the Greek world. Let us look, for instance, at Plato’s Phaedro. Plato considers the encounter with beauty to be like the healthy emotional shock that brings man out of himself, and makes him “enthusiastic” by drawing him to something other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost what he conceives as the perfection of his origin. Now he is perennially in search of the primeval healing form. Remembrance and nostalgia lead him to the search, and beauty takes him out of accommodation to the daily. It makes him suffer. We could say, in a Platonic sense, that the dart of nostalgia hits man, wounds him, and precisely in this way puts wings on him, lifts him upwards. In Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium, he states that lovers do not know what they really want from each other. On the contrary, it is evident that the souls of both of them are thirsting for something other than amorous pleasure. However, the soul does not manage to express this “other,” “it only has a vague perception of what it really wants and speaks to itself of it as an enigma.” In the fourteenth century, in the book on the life of Christ by the Byzantine theologian Nicolas Kabasilas, we find this experience of Plato’s again, where the ultimate object of nostalgia continues to remain nameless, transformed by the new Christian experience. Kabasilas states: “Men who have inside them a desire so powerful that it goes beyond their nature, and long and desire more than is suiting for a man to aspire, these men have been struck by the Bridegroom Himself; He Himself has sent a burning ray of His beauty to their eyes. The extent of the wound shows what kind of dart it was, and the intensity of the desire gives insight into Who it was that sent the dart flying.”

Beauty wounds, but just in this way it calls man to his ultimate Destiny. What Plato affirms, and more than 1,500 years later Kabasilas too, has nothing to do with superficial aestheticism and irrationalism, with the flight from clarity and the importance of reason. Beauty is knowledge, to be sure, a higher form of knowledge, since it strikes man with all the grandeur of truth. In this, Kabasilas has remained “totally Greek,” in that he posits knowledge at the beginning. “The origin of love is knowledge,” he states, “knowledge generates love.” “Occasionally,” he goes on, “knowledge could be so strong as to arouse at the same time the effect of a love potion.” He does not leave this statement in general terms. As is characteristic of his rigorous way of thinking, he distinguishes two types of knowledge, the knowledge through instruction which remains “second-hand” knowledge, so to speak, and does not imply any direct contact with reality itself. The second type, conversely, is knowledge through personal experience, through the relationship with things. “Thus, until we have had the experience of a concrete being, we do not love the object as it should be loved.” True knowledge is being struck by the dart of beauty that wounds man, being touched by reality, “by the Presence of Christ Himself in person,” as he says. Being struck and conquered through the beauty of Christ is a more real and more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. We must certainly not underestimate the significance of theological reflection, of exact, rigorous theological thought: this remains absolutely necessary. But from this, to scorn or reject the blow brought about by the correspondence of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge impoverishes us and makes our faith arid, just as it does with theology. We must find this form of knowledge again; it is a pressing need for our time.

Starting from this conception, Hans Urs von Balthasar constructed his opus magnum of aesthetic theology, many details of which were absorbed into his theological work, while his fundamental formulation, which constitutes truly the essential element of everything, was not taken in at all. This is, we must understand, not merely, or rather not primarily, a problem of theology, but also of pastoral work, which must once again foster man’s encounter with the beauty of faith. The topics so often fall into a void because in our world too many opposing arguments compete with each other, so that man spontaneously has the same thought that the medieval theologians formulated like this: reason “has a wax nose,” in the sense that, provided one has the ability to do so, it can be pointed in the most disparate directions. Everything makes such sense, is so convincing–whom should we trust? The encounter with beauty can become the blow of the dart that wounds the soul and in this way opens its eyes, so that now the soul, starting from experience, has criteria for judgment and is also capable of evaluating arguments correctly. An unforgettable experience for me was the Bach concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Munich after Karl Richter’s untimely death. I was seated next to the Evangelical Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Kantaten triumphantly faded away, we spontaneously looked at each other, and just as spontaneously said, “Whoever has listened to this knows that faith is true.” In that music could be perceived such an extraordinary force of present Reality as to realize, no longer through deductions but through the blow to the heart, that this could not originate out of nothingness, but could arise only thanks to the force of Truth that took concrete form in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we let ourselves be moved by Rublev’s icon of the Trinity? In the art of icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic ages, the experience described by Kabasilas, starting from within, was given a form that could be seen and shared. Pavel Evdokimov has very meaningfully indicated the inner itinerary presupposed by the icon. The icon is not simply the reproduction of what can be perceived by the senses, but rather presupposes, as he puts it, a “fast on the part of sight.” Inner perception must free itself of the mere impression of the senses and, by prayer and ascesis, acquire a new, more profound capacity to see, to effect the passage from what is merely exterior toward the profundity of reality, so that the artist may see what the senses, as such, do not see, and what appears nonetheless in the perceptible: the splendor of the glory of God, the “glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Looking at icons, and in general the great pictures of Christian art, leads us along an inner pathway, a way of the overcoming of self, and thus, in this purification of the gaze, which is a purification of the heart, it reveals beauty to us, or at least a ray of it. Precisely in this way, it places us in relationship with the force of truth. I have often already stated my conviction that the true apologia of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth, against any denial, is on the one hand the saints and on the other the beauty that faith has generated. In order for faith to grow today, we must lead ourselves and the men we come upon to encounter the saints, to enter into contact with the Beautiful.

Now, however, we must still reply to an objection. We have already refuted the affirmation that what we have said so far is a flight into irrationality, into mere aestheticism. The opposite is in fact the case: precisely in this way, reason is freed from its state of torpor and made capable of action. Another objection has greater weight today: the message of beauty is completely called into question through the power of falsehood, of seduction, of violence, of evil. Can beauty be authentic, or in the end is it no more than an illusion? Isn’t reality, after all, evil? The fear that, in the end, it is not the dart of beauty that leads us to truth, but that falsehood, the ugly and vulgar, constitute the real “reality” has caused men anguish throughout time. In the present, it found expression in the statement that after Auschwitz poetry was no longer possible, after Auschwitz it was no longer possible to speak of a good God. The question is asked, “Where was God while the gas chambers were in operation?” Now this objection, for which sufficient reasons existed even before Auschwitz in all the atrocities of history, indicates, in any case, that a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough. It cannot stand up to the confrontation with the gravity of the questioning of God, of truth, of beauty. Apollo, who for Plato’s Socrates was “the God” and the guarantor of beauty as “truly divine,” is absolutely no longer sufficient. In this way, we go back to the “two trumpets” of the Bible from which we started out, to the paradox according to which we can say about Christ “You are the fairest of the sons of men” as well as “He had no grace or beauty… His face was disfigured by pain.” In Christ’s Passion, Greek aesthetics, so worthy of admiration because of its perceived contact with the divine, which yet remains ineffable for it, is not removed, but overcome. The experience of beauty has been given a new depth, new realism. He who is beauty itself let Himself be struck in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns–the Holy Shroud in Turin can help us imagine all this in a moving way. But precisely in this face, disfigured in this way, the authentic, ultimate beauty appears, the beauty of love that goes all the way “to the end” and that, just because of this, reveals itself to be stronger than falsehood and violence. Whoever has perceived this beauty knows that precisely truth, not falsehood, is the world’s ultimate need. It is not falsehood that is “true,” but truth. It is, so to speak, a new trick on the part of falsehood to present itself as “truth” and to say to us, “Beyond me, after all, there is nothing. Stop looking for truth or even loving it, because going on like this you are on the wrong road.” The icon of Christ crucified frees us from this deception that is so widespread today. Nonetheless, it posits as a condition that we let ourselves be wounded along with Him and that we believe in love, which can risk setting outer beauty aside in order to proclaim, precisely in this way, beauty’s truth.

Falsehood, however, knows another stratagem too: false, mendacious beauty, a dazzling beauty that does not bring men out of themselves in order to open them up to the ecstasy of being lifted up, but rather imprisons them totally in themselves. It is the beauty that does not awaken nostalgia for the Ineffable, availability to offering, to self-abandonment, but rouses up the desire, the will for power, possession, pleasure. It is the type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the story of man’s first sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” to eat and “pleasing to the eye.” Beauty, just as she experiences it, awakens in her the desire for possession; it makes her turn back, so to speak, onto herself. Who cannot recognize, for example, the advertising images that are so skillfully created to tempt man irresistibly to appropriate everything, to seek the satisfaction of the moment instead of opening himself up to what is other than himself? Thus Christian art finds itself today (and perhaps has always been) between two fires: it has to oppose the cult of the ugly, which tells us that everything else, every beauty, is a deception, and only the representation of what is cruel, base, vulgar, is truth and the true enlightenment of knowledge. And it has to stand up to the lying beauty that makes man smaller instead of making him greater, and that, precisely for this reason, is falsehood.

Who does not know Dostoevsky’s often quoted phrase, “Beauty will save us”? In the majority of cases, however, it is forgotten that Dostoevsky means here the redeeming beauty of Christ. We have to learn to see Him. If we know Him no longer only by words, but are struck by the dart of His paradoxical beauty, then we truly make His acquaintance, and know about Him not just by having heard others talk about Him. Then, we have encountered the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us closer into contact with the beauty of Christ Himself than the world of beauty created by faith and the light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through which the very light of Him becomes visible.