A number of years ago, I was visiting a Greek Orthodox Church where I was asked to share my thoughts on the beauty of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Twist my arm! It’s like forcing me to drink coffee at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans or coercing me to admire my wife’s smiling face. Beauty naturally births praise. And my point to them was precisely that: the Eastern Churches possess a holy knack for rendering God’s beauty accessible to the five senses in a way that, in my experience and personal judgment, surpasses that of the West. It’s why the legend of the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to the Byzantine version of Christianity contains this compelling description of the reaction of the pagan prince’s emissaries to what they saw at Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople:
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.
It’s also no mistake that it was an Orthodox writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, that gave voice to this same aesthetic truth in his novel, The Idiot. The main character of the story, Prince Myshkin, responds to being presented with the portrait of a woman of ill repute, Nastassya Filippovna, by expressing his deep appreciation of her beauty. When asked to justify his troubling response to this “morally grotesque” woman, he says: ”In that face—there is much suffering…beauty like that is strength…such beauty will save the world.”
The main core of my lecture was this: it’s not the gloriously painted icons but the suffering and dying of Christ that is the unrivaled epicenter of all beauty in Christianity. And here I say the suffering and dying Christ, for even in the glorious splendor of the Resurrection it is Christ’s scar-marred Body that rises in immortal loveliness On the Cross of Jesus is the epitome of divine and human love bound in perfect synthesis, and it’s that love alone, lived out in a Church of sinners and saints, that makes or breaks the power of Christian witness. If we set aside the Slain Lamb that desires to bleed through the icons of flesh and blood – us! – and choose instead to transform the Church into self-congratulation society, or a museum of sacred artifacts that recall an age of beauty now lost and forgotten, the Church will grow old and weary and die a just death.
This beauty of God is a hard beauty, a burnished beauty, a sweat-drenched beauty, a fire-refined beauty that is no cheap trinket.
True Goodness is Beautiful
In particular, I said to these Orthodox, if we fail to endure as Christians the hardness of the commandments in an increasingly anarchic moral culture, or fail to suffer the costly demands of living and speaking the truth in our personal and public lives, or refuse to love unto excess after the pattern of the Cross, there will be no beauty to attract; no loveliness to reveal the Face of Christ. We will cease to be evangelizers and become mere chaplains of a quaint, if sometimes pretty, though largely irrelevant idea.
But we Christians, Oriental and Occidental, want people to fall in love with God’s love that has fallen down to us in Christ. That’s what counts, and that’s to be the white-hot core of all our skillful evangelizing strategies…
Nothing is more practical than finding God,
That is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings,
What you will do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends,
What you read,
Who you know,
What breaks your heart,
And what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
― Pedro Arrupe, S.J.