Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire, earlier this year published a video in which he discusses the possibility of evangelising a post-Christian age by drawing people’s attention to beauty. Modern, western culture is characterised, amongst other things, by its individualism (at times verging on a radical autonomy), and a highly selective moral relativism, and so frequently in trying to discuss questions of ultimate truth, let alone its objectivity, one hits a brick wall. This attitude is constituted, not only by its extreme subjectivity, but also by its apathy – there seems to be nothing arresting to the post-Christian person about the idea of truth, and one often encounters, rather than impassioned disagreement (if only!), a shrug of the shoulders, or that familiar phrase ‘that might be true for you, but for me…’
Fr. Barron’s suggestion is that in starting with beauty, the most immediately attractive, and least offensive of the three transcendentals, we meet people with something that does indeed take hold of their interest, and in each person’s particular encounter with beauty, one is brought into an encounter with the depth of Being itself. Honest relinquishing of the self to this encounter and meditation on it, can then lead one to consider the nature of Being, of transcendence, of meaning in the world; which, necessarily leads to an encounter with goodness and truth. A large part of this encounter, I think, is an experience of profound humility, and it is this aspect of the aesthetical encounter that I have been thinking about recently. I have just finished the first part of Saint Bernard’s De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae (The Twelve Steps of Humility and Pride), wherein he describes a three-step process to render ourselves more open to truth. First is a rigorous examination of conscience, in which we honestly face our shortcomings and are therefore humbled by realising the size of the ‘plank’ in our own eye. Knowing the depth of our own weaknesses and our need for mercy then enables us to sympathise with our neighbour’s weaknesses, and love them as we should, without judgement (lest we also be judged). This clearing of our spiritual sight and purification of our intentions finally allows us to see divine truth clearly in all its fullness.
Bringing together Father Barron’s insights with Saint Bernard’s advice then, I would suggest that the most immediate way in which we can bring beauty into the lives of the people we know, and into our own, is with our lives. By changing our behaviour and our perspective in the way Bernard suggests, we can not only clear the muck from the windows of our own souls, letting more light shine through, but we can also be a point of encounter with the beautiful for others. Perhaps in striving to conform ourselves, little by little, to holiness, something of beauty will shine out from us into the world. A holy life, a life lived in harmony with Love, is beautiful, and unlike a picture hanging on a wall, or the last bars of a symphony caught on the radio, in it lies a beauty that is utterly dynamic, that coincides wholly with the good, and delivers the light of truth to both the object and the beholder.