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Ways to God in St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) excelled in the Scholastic tradition of the via, the “way,” especially to demonstrate ways to find God through reason alone.  In the Summa Theologica I, Q. 2, art. 3, we find the famous Five Ways to reach a proof of God from various first principles of reality known to all, such as causality, primacy of act over potency, and degrees of perfection.

He does not include the via pulchritudinis (“way of beauty”) since beauty itself has been widely debated as to whether or not it constitutes one of the five transcendentals of esse (“being”) like: thing (res), unity (unum), something (aliquid), truth (verum), goodness (bonum) [St Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae De Veritate, q.1, a1.]

However, in accordance with the conformity of being with the soul through a certain interaction of knowledge and appetite, beauty (pulchrum) is a property of every being, that is, being causes a certain pleasure when it is apprehended. The beautiful is usually defined as “that which is pleasing to behold.”  Nonetheless this transcendental notion is not listed in the text of De Veritate.

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Beauty as a Way to God for our Contemporary World

In recent times, relativist philosophy and a growing cultural distance from Christianity in many places of the Western world have made the Five Ways somewhat inaccessible for many of our contemporaries.  If one lives in a post-Kantian closed world where aspirations for the transcendental are to be pitied and we must simply settle for alternative immanent goals of this life…then arguments from causality are null and void, and reason is no longer capax Dei (“capable of [reaching] God”).

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Beauty then has a place to play as a less threatening and more immediately accessible point of encounter with the transcendental and the highest spiritual experiences.  While pure emotion and a dreamy “feeling” of God does not amount to faith, it can be a bridge to allow non-believing contemporaries (or even most luke-warm Christians) to begin to seek out with an intimate interior honesty the Other who is God.

By committing ourselves and those in our apostolate to an experience of beauty in the liturgy, through choral groups, ecclesiastical embroidery and value for the fine arts in museums, we wish to help develop a “taste” for the beautiful whereby we may become participants in the creative work of God and thus find Him and honor Him…even in the midst of war and poverty.  See some examples below:

  • Music Concert in Aleppo, Syria in January 2014
  • Two sisters with the “youth choir” in Kazakhstan in May 2014 singing P. G. Palestrina’s Ecce Quam Bonum (granted, a little flat, but after all they are bringing 16th century Italian polyphonic music to the next generation in the post-Soviet republic of Central Asia…so it may be excused.)

  • Concert held at the IVE Major Seminary of Maria Madre del Verbo Encarnado in Argentina in November 2014 honoring the musical compositions of the Jesuit reductions (16th and 17th century missions in Paraguay, Uraguay and Argentina).  The choir of the Religious Family sang along side professional musicians and singers. (full photo album)

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  • Gregorian Chant for Children: the Ward Method at the Catholic University of America is brought to California in April 2014
  • Fr. Rodrigo Miranda, IVE describes the Doctors of the Church in the large portraits he painted for the seminary chapel in Argentina.  We are blessed to have several artists in our Religious Family.

The Pontifical Council for Culture and the Via Pulchritudinis

The expression Via Pulchritudinis has been taken up again, however, in recent times most notably by the Pontifical Council on Culture.  In 2006 the Council issued an important text as the concluding document of their Plenary Assembly called The Via Pulchritudinis: Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue.  This rich document delineates the crises of our times and the place that beauty may provide.  The contents include:

INTRODUCTION

I. A CRUCIAL CHALLENGE

II. A PROPOSAL FOR A RESPONSE BY THE CHURCH: THE VIA PULCHRITUDINIS

II.1 Accepting The Challenge

II.2 How Can The Via Pulchritudinis Be A Response?

II.3 The Way Of Beauty, Pathway Towards The Truth And The Good

III. THE WAYS OF BEAUTY

III.1 The Beauty Of Creation
A) Marvel at the Beauty of Creation
B) From Creation to Re-creation
C) Creation, Used or Idolised
Pastoral Proposals

III.2 The Beauty Of The Arts
A) Beauty Inspired by the Faith
B) Learning to Welcome this Beauty
C) Sacred Art, Instrument of Evangelisation and Catechesis
Pastoral Proposals

III.3 The Beauty Of Christ, Model And Prototype Of Christian Holiness
A) On the Pathway towards the Beauty of Christ
B) The Luminous Beauty of Christ and its Reflection in Christian Holiness
C) Beauty in the Liturgy
Pastoral Proposals

CONCLUSION

We are blessed to have the Church speak to us on this topic in many ways, including those famous addresses to artists as the 1965 address of Blessed Paul VI and the 1999 Letter to Artists of St. John Paul II, and the 2009 Meeting with Artists of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

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Apostolate in France and Pope Benedict XVI

In December of 2013, Mother Anima Christi Van Eijk, SSVM, our General Superior, gave a talk for the parents of the elementary school students from the “Institution Bienheureux Marcel Callo” (Institution of Blessed Marcel Callo), our school in Le Cannet des Maures, France (Diocese of Frejus-Toulon).  The formation for the parents, L’école des parents de l’Institution Bienheureux Marcel Callo, is an on-going part of the mission of the school to serve the whole family.  

 

In her talk, Mother Anima Christi developed points on the role that beauty has to play in the formation of children and adults towards a knowledge of God.  She integrated elements from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s address the via pulchritudinis (“way of beauty”) in his general audience on August 31, 2011.

We wish to offer our readers here a look at the Holy Father’s personal reflections now how beauty opens for us new questions and new possibilities for bringing God to the men and women of our times.  Below is the complete text of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s general audience.

Art and Prayer

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In this period I have recalled several times the need for every Christian, in the midst of the many occupations that fill our days, to find time for God and for prayer. The Lord himself gives us many opportunities to remember him. Today I would like to reflect briefly on one of these channels that can lead to God and can also be of help in the encounter with him. It is the way of artistic expression, part of that “via pulchritudinis” — the “way of beauty”, of which I have spoken several times and whose deepest meaning must be recovered by men and women today.

La-Plata-Argentina-Cathedral-2010It may have happened on some occasion that you paused before a sculpture, a picture, a few verses of a poem or a piece of music that you found deeply moving, that gave you a sense of joy, a clear perception, that is, that what you beheld was not only matter, a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, a collection of letters or an accumulation of sounds, but something greater, something that “speaks”, that can touch the heart, communicate a message, uplift the mind.

A work of art is a product of the creative capacity of the human being who in questioning visible reality, seeks to discover its deep meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colour and sound. Art is able to manifest and make visible the human need to surpass the visible, it expresses the thirst and the quest for the infinite.

Indeed it resembles a door open on to the infinite, on to a beauty and a truth that go beyond the daily routine. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and of the heart, impelling us upward.

However some artistic expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed, they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith. We can see an example of this when we visit a Gothic cathedral: we are enraptured by the vertical lines that soar skywards and uplift our gaze and our spirit, while at the same time we feel small yet long for fullness….

Or when we enter a Romanesque church we are spontaneously prompted to meditate and to pray. We perceive that these splendid buildings contain, as it were, the faith of generations. Or when we listen to a piece of sacred music that plucks at our heartstrings, our mind, as it were, expands and turns naturally to God.

Chagall-1947-self-portrait-with-clockI remember a concert of music by Johann Sebastian Bach in Munich, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the end of the last passage, one of the Cantatas, 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. The Lutheran bishop of Munich was next to me and I said to him spontaneously: “in hearing this one understands: it is true; such strong faith is true, as well as the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God’s truth”.

Yet how many pictures or frescos, fruits of the artist’s faith, in their form, in their colour, in their light, urge us to think of God and foster within us the desire to draw from the source of all beauty. What Marc Chagall, a great artist, wrote, remains profoundly true: that for centuries painters have dipped their paintbrush in that coloured alphabet which is the Bible. Thus how often artistic expression can bring us to remember God, to help us to pray or even to convert our heart!

Paul Claudel, a famous French poet, playwright and diplomat, precisely while he was listening in the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the singing of the Magnificat during Christmas Mass in 1886, had a tangible experience of God’s presence. He had not entered the church for reasons of faith but rather in order to seek arguments against Christians and instead God’s grace worked actively in his heart.

Dear friends, I ask you to rediscover the importance of this path also for prayer, for our living relationship with God. Towns and villages throughout the world contain treasures of art that express faith and beckon to us to return to our relationship with God. May the visits to places filled with art, then, not only be opportunities for cultural enrichment — that too — but may they become above all moments of grace, incentives to strengthen our bond and our dialogue with the Lord so that — in switching from simple external reality to the more profound reality it expresses — we may pause to contemplate the ray of beauty that strikes us to the quick, that almost “wounds” us, and that invites us to rise toward God.

I end with a prayer from a Psalm, Psalm 27[26]: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and contemplate his temple” (v. 4).

Let us hope that the Lord will help us to contemplate his beauty, both in nature and in works of art, so that we, moved by the light that shines from his face, may be a light for our neighbour. Many thanks.

Pope Benedict XVI
August 31, 2011

Dawn as seen from a cell in the IVE Monastery of El Pueyo in Spain

Dawn as seen from a cell in the IVE Monastery of El Pueyo in Spain