Repost from 2012
Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy…. Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence. — Pope Benedict XVI
There’s a famous story told about the conversion of the “Rus” in Kiev (in present day Ukraine) to Christianity. In 980 A.D., Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent out teams to investigate the major religions in the regions surrounding his empire — Islam, Judaism, Western Germanic Christianity and Eastern Byzantine Christianity. As the story goes, the men who returned from Constantinople (Byzantium), and its Cathedral, Hagia Sophia, had this to say:
The Byzantines led us to the buildings where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and we cannot forget that beauty.
Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity, was baptized in 988 A.D. and assimilated the ecclesiastical and liturgical traditions of Byzantium into what are the present day countries of Russia and Ukraine. I recall an older Siberian woman in my father’s Orthodox church saying to me once, “When we lived under the Soviet yoke, it was in the churches and in the divine liturgy that we found refuge in beauty. Because the Soviet world was gray and ugly, but our churches were beautiful, filled with all colors. Faith gave us hope.”
The Christian vocation is to reveal the beauty of the otherworldly Kingdom of God in this world. First and foremost, it is the saints, etched by divine love, who are God’s greatest work of art in creation. I recall the one and only time I saw Mother Teresa, it was her homely feet that caught my eye. When I saw them I could only think, “Those feet have carried Jesus to innumerable people.” I would never again think of this passage from Isaiah the same again: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation” (Is. 52:7). How beautiful are those feet! Contra the shallow elements of human culture, Jesus introduced deep canons of beauty into creation that judge not by the outer criteria of cosmetic allure, but by the inner form of selfless love both given and received.
In addition to fostering saints, the Church has a mission to create beauty through culture, extending the radiance of the Transfiguration of Jesus to the whole material creation. In the Christian vision, Jesus is the source and summit of both divine and human culture, and on the Cross he manifests to the world the apogee of the true, the good and the beautiful. This is so because, as theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar memorably worded it, “the entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.” In the Passion, God suffused even the most grotesque and horrid elements of life with the seeds of glory. Only those with eyes of faith, though, can see things thus. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
In our Catholic Tradition, the Divine Liturgy, which upwells from the open Heart of Jesus dead on the Cross (John 19:34), is itself the creative and redemptive wellspring of all culture. Liturgy transforms men and women into fiery embers of beauty that Christ casts out into the world to set it ablaze. Imagine if the Liturgy was always celebrated with that vision of things in mind!
In that vein, I wanted to share with you a 7 minute video that includes a haunting performance of the “Cherubic Hymn,” which is sung during the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Churches prior to the Sanctus (holy, holy, holy). This musical setting for the hymn text was arranged by Russian composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and is sung in Church Slavonic — which is the ancient liturgical language of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy. This arrangement always leaves me paralyzed with awe. I can hardly breathe. I always imagine the Sanctus being sung by grieving Seraphim and Cherubim, unheard by human ears, around the Cross as Jesus died:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
The video also features an array of exquisite churches from around the world. Below, I also include the words to the Cherubic Hymn in English.
After this hymn bathes you, tell me: can’t you feel within a greater desire to love like the Crucified?
Take 7 minutes of quiet if you can and enjoy:
Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic hosts.