Wednesday, 2 October 2013

1. The beauty of God

How can an invisible entity be beautiful? There is much we would call beautiful in the world (along with the ugly), but at least we can see it. And yet people speak of "seeing God," one day. Will he then become visible? Can we in this life only "take it on trust" that he must be beautiful, and hope to have it confirmed in the distant, unimaginable future? And yet from time to time we hear of contemplatives who gaze in wonder at the beauty of God that has been revealed to them in this life, or on the Cross, or in the Eucharist.

If God (being infinite), were visible, someone once said, we would see nothing else. His "withdrawal" is what makes the world possible. Nevertheless, there are ways we can say we do see him and his beauty. We see him spiritually and intellectually, for example – we know that he is the only possible source of all beauty, which is in some way modelled on him or expresses him, and so we can contemplate "him" in the
beautiful things we see around us, including unfolding patterns of events, answers to prayer, and so on. The horrible things that happen in the world since it was marred by the first sin do not point to him in the same way, because he does not directly will evil, but he does bring good out of it (eventually, and often unexpectedly).

But there is more. In the darkness, in the silence, another kind of "sight" becomes possible. This silence and darkness is something hard to find in the modern world, as artificial light and electronic devices make it possible to fill every moment and every background with music and media. That is perhaps a sad and a dangerous thing, and requires us to take steps to carve out some space for contemplation each day. Hans Urs von Balthasar in the first volume of his series The Glory of the Lord revives the tradition of the "spiritual senses", the senses of the "pure heart" (pp. 367ff) that finds a natural home within the monastic tradition.

Everything we see is the self-revelation of Being, and so we can see God's beauty "through" or "in" it. This seeing and hearing in depth requires receptivity in darkness and silence. But the appearance of Christ deepens everything yet further, because he is also God, the making manifest of the Ground itself, who "wants to be itself only in so far as it becomes manifest" (p. 611). Thus the One God, "who is invisible by nature, appears, but not in the manner to which we are accustomed with worldly reality, namely, that the same being, identical to itself (which may be a person), appears while not appearing and enters visibility while at the same time remaining a ground that rests in itself. Rather, the one invisible God appears in such a way that this polarity reveals itself to us as a personal relationship within God's very nature" (p. 609).

The Incarnation is what God has to do to become visible. The beauty of God, then, is revealed with the Incarnation, and the form of God's beauty is the Trinity, which is the perfection of love, since the Trinity is founded entirely in the self-giving, self-receiving love of perfection – in which self-love becomes love of other. In this revelation the categories of aesthetics are "raised above themselves" (p. 610) to contain something greater. And we are not merely observers but participants, recipients and givers of God's outpouring love.   [More to come.]

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