WISDOM IS MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN THE SUN AND ABOVE THE ARRANGEMENT OF THE STARS; COMPARED TO LIGHT IT WINS THE PALM.


27TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR: CHAPTER



Christ the Splendor of God's Glory

WISDOM IS MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN THE SUN AND ABOVE THE ARRANGEMENT OF THE STARS; COMPARED TO LIGHT IT WINS THE PALM .(Wisdom 7: 29). Beauty is the effulgence of divine wisdom. Where divine wisdom is operative or has left its traces, there emanates from that place or object or person a harmonious radiance that those with their spir tual eyes opened can perceive. For beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in the ear, as the case may be. Human wisdom imparts a beauty of its own to those who possess it so that others who recognize its presence experience its attractiveness. Thus this topic of beauty is closely related to the theme of last week's chapter talk, the elusive presence of God which is revealed only to those whose heart is rendered pure by grace and their striving after God, but remains hidden to others.

The topic of beauty is often raised in the Bible in various contexts and with differing implica tions and distinctive lessons to be drawn from the instances. The Hebrew vocabulary of beauty itself is correspondingly varied and diverse ( cf. the article Beauty in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, I. 371-372). No less rich is the vocabulary detailing the terms derived from the concept of the beautiful, such as (chemed), "what is desirable to the eyes" (naveh) "comely, fitting", (tov) "good, handsome, fair". In the Old Testament, the list is a long one, and includes, among others, the important terms for "gracefulness" (chen)and especially "splendor, glory" (kavod). What is clear, bright, lightsome, shining is associated with beauty, as in Psalm 71: 8 "My mouth is filled with your praise, all the day with your splendor.", and again in Psalm 145: 5: "the reflection of your glory gives you honor..." Later on the Zohar , which records the mystical teaching of the Jewish Kabala, was to affirm that wise men had per ceived God in the reflection of his splendor, which is considered to be one of God's sefiroth, or attributes.

Still further aspects of beauty are deployed in the Greek vocabulary of the New Testament: the classical term,kalos, occurs over 125 times in the works of the New Testament. Its primary meaning is "beautiful", but it is commonly employed to mean "good" since for the Greeks all that is fair to behold was considered good. The Septuagint, for instance, uses this term to translate the Hebrew tov on the first page of Genesis, so that a literal translation into English would read after each of the first five days of creation: "And God saw it was beautiful." Additional terms in this word-field are: "charming, attractive"; "urbane, handsome, pleasing" even "fitting, fine appearance" and even the word for "honor" and its derivatives: time .

There is a passage in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians that illustrates well both the importance assigned to the concept of beauty and the variety of terms that suggest that quality without using one of the proper terms designating it.

For the rest, brothers, whatever is true, whatever venerable, whatever just, whatever pure, whatever is lovable, whatever is of good fame, everything virtuous, everything worthy of praise- these are what you should take into consideration (4:8)

The beautiful, unlike the other transcendental attributes, is ambiguous in its effects on persons. Whereas the good, the true and the one are always so many incentives to virtue, beauty is all too readily put at the service of what is base and morally evil. Beauty of form and feature are an enticement to ardent love that may be pure, as we see in the Canticle and in the instance of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and other holy women of the Old Testament; indeed, it seems eminently fitting that the beautiful are also paragons of virtue. The speech of the wise represents another and prominent source of beauty (Prov. 1: 8-9) that would culminate in the teaching of Jesus when he came to fulfill the promises. However, beauty readily becomes a snare to the superficial and the foolish when it is not allied with virtuous character whether in the one possessing it, or in those who behold it, as was the case with the evil judges who sought to corrupt the beautiful and chaste Susanna. Wisdom teachers warn the young especially to beware of beauty's seductive charms.

On the other hand, beauty is also presented in connections that indicate the importance of its role in the life of the spirit. The Sacred text takes it for granted that its readers will need no definition of this quality. Beauty is a feature that speaks for itself; it requires no other witness than its own manifestation. People who are spiritually healthy, know beauty when they see it, or encounter it in other than visible forms. For that there exists a moral and spiritual beauty that commonly finds a reflection in the personality and character of those in whom it inheres is evident to persons who themselves partake of it in some measure. Clement of Alexandria pointed out that this spiritual beauty is, even in this life, more desirable than physical beauty. He explains that the Holy Spirit employs this spiritual beauty, the radiance of virtue, to transform the Christian, making them like God, who is the paragon of beauty. The imprint of divine beauty has been stamped upon creation so that contemplating it leads one to a recognition of the artist who is responsible for such a work of art.

The kind of moral and spiritual beauty spoken of by Clement has a special name in Greek: Philokalia. This word, which served as the title of a carefully selected anthology of Origen's works ascribed to Saints Basil and Gregory of Nazianzan, served also as the title of a collection of ascetic and contemplative writings taken from outstanding Fathers and monks, published in the 18th century. It was early translated from the original Greek into Russian and knew a great success. This work served to keep the theme of spiritual beauty prominent in the spirituality of the Eastern churches.

A series of Fathers took up the theme of beauty and built on the foundations that Clement had laid. St. Basil and his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa as well as his friend, Gregory of Nazianzan made significant contributions to the theology of beauty (cf. Theologische Realenzyklopädie, 30, s.v. Schönheit, p.240 for this and the following paragraph). This last, to cite but one instance, modified Plato's text concerning the sun as an analogue of the Form of the Good to point out that the true analogue of the sun, which is the most beautiful of all created objects, is God who is the most beautiful of all known things. Pseudo Denys gave further impetus to this development when he made the term "beauty" one of the names of God, for he is beautiful through and through and is the overflowing source of all beauty.

St. Augustine, however, was the Father who probably did most to popularize and further the theology of beauty. He addresses God as "the beauty of all things (Conf. III.6)." Perhaps because of his own experience of having been drawn away from God by earthly beauty, Augustine was very sensitive to its attractive force and the dangers it offers to mortals to settle for its appeal in this world. After describing how he had turned his back on the light and given his attention to the objects on which the light falls, he reminds us that God is the most beautiful of all and that compared to him nothing is beautiful.

You, Lord, who are beautiful, have made those created things which are beautiful, you who are good, for they are good; you who are, for they are. But they are not beautiful, nor good nor exist in the same way as you who are their creator. Compared with you they are neither beautiful, nor good, nor existing. We know these things, thanks to you, and our knowledge compared to your knowledge is ignorance (op. cit. XI.4 BAC ed., Madrid 1955, p. 564).

One of the most moving passages in his autobiography is his confession of the error of his early life which he so expresses that it is at the same time a hymn of praise to God, true and eternal beauty.

Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! And behold, you were inside and I was outside, and there I sought you. Deformed I rushed upon that beauty you have created. You were with me and I was not with you. Those things, which would not exist at all were they not in you, held me far from you. You called and cried out and broke through my deafness; you flashed out, you shone in splendor and drove away my blindness; you spread your fragrance and I breathed and panted after you; I tasted and I hunger and thirst. You touched me and I burned for your peace (op. cit., X.27).

In the middle-ages, St. Thomas Aquinas, and even more prominently St. Bonaventure, included consideration of the nature and role of beauty in the spiritual life. The Franciscan doctor described the principles of judgment as "... existing eternally in the eternal art from which, through which and according to which all beautiful things are formed (The Journey of the Mind to God, 2.9 in The Works of Bonaventure I tr. J. de Vinck Patterson, N.J., 1960, 24)." He accounts for the satisfaction that derives from contemplating the traces of God in his creation, relating it to the perception of his beauty.

...in the Similitude of God alone is the notion of the perfectly beautiful, joyful and wholesome, fully verified; and since He is united with us in all reality and intimacy, and with a plenitude that completely fills all capacity: it is clearly evident that in God alone is true delight, delight as its very Source. It is this pleasure that all other pleasures prompt us to seek (op. cit. 2.7, p. 22).

In this century the concept of beauty has been given relatively less attention than in earlier times. The modern versions of the Philokalia in a number of European tongues have had a considerable popularity, however, and contributed to a recognition of the moral and spiritual beauty of the ascetic and contemplative life devoted to the search for union with God. But it was the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar that brought with a fresh force the theme of beauty to the attention of Western theologians and to those with a serious interest in contemplative prayer. He summarizes his view of the matter in the introduction to the second volume of his thorough and lengthy treatment of this theme.

The first volume attempted to show that one can and must consider the revelation of the living God, as the Christian understands it, not only from the point of view of its truth and goodness, but also from that of its ineffable beauty. If everything in the world that is fine and beautiful is epiphaneia [manifestation], the radiance and splendor which breaks forth in expressive form from a veiled and yet mighty depth of being, then the event of the self-revelation of the hidden, the utterly free and sovereign God in the forms of this world, in word and history, and finally in the human form itself, will itself form an analogy to that worldly beauty however far it outstrips it ("The Glory of the Lord. II. Studies in Theological Style: Clerical Styles," 11).

Further on he explains the topic treated in this second volume and the reason for insisting on the beauty of God's plan of redemption as he revealed it.

...only beautiful theology, that is, only theology which, grasped by the glory of God, is able itself to transmit its rays, has the chance of making any impact in human history by conviction and transformation.

Paradoxically, and most significantly, von Balthasar considers the highest expression of God's beauty in this world to be the crucified Christ. Like St. Bonaventure who explained that while exteriorly Christ fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah who had declared "there is no beauty in him", but interiorly in his passion Jesus was "the most beautiful of the sons of men."

Since we so often pray at the office "Praise the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" it is helpful to advert to the fact that what we praise is God's "glory". This "glory" of God is the effulgence of his beauty and of the excellence of his character and nature. By attending to this aspect of our repeated praise we become more conscious of the important place divine beauty has in our lives as monks, dedicated to prayer. In our prayer we acknowledge with praise not only the surpassing goodness of God but also his magnificence, the splendor of his majesty and beauty many times at every hour of the office and at the Eucharistic sacrifice.

St. Bernard

We are able to offer such praise that is acceptable to God because in some measure we re flect, by the gift of his grace, something of his glory in our self. St. Bernard considered that God sees a beauty in each of us if we walk before him with true humility. In commenting on the line from the Canticle "See! You are beautiful, my loved one, you are beautiful", he asks what is this twofold beauty that the Lord beholds in the loved one. It is first of all, the love of God; but in addition, he observes, "The beauty of the soul is humility.... Now I know [says the Lord] that you are beautiful not only because of my love, but also due to your humility (Sermo XLV.2, 3 in Cantica PL 183: 999D, 1001A)." Let us make it our daily concern to give glory to God in all that we do by walking humbly in his presence at all times, seeking to carry out his will in all things precisely because it gives him glory, rather than focusing on the satisfac tion or achievement we accomplish. Then we shall fulfill that aspiration St. Benedict expresses in his Rule "that in all things God may be glorified."

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


[abbey crest]

© Abbey of the Genesee: All Rights Reserved

Home Page Index Page Archive Page