Ambassadors of Divine Glory
Throughout its long history, theology has certainly seemed more comfortable understanding itself through its claim to truth or goodness than to beauty.
It is not that the connection between theology and beauty has never been notarized. One simply has to recall the early Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Dionysian tradition. Yet beginning with Tertullian, and proceeding through the iconoclasm controversy and on to the Reformation, faith in the cross made it difficult to think of theology and beauty as anything other than bitter rivals.
Beauty as Divine Speech
Of course, throughout the long histories of Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant theologies there have been internal corrections. The Catholic theologian Matthias Scheeben might represent a corrective within the late 19th-century form of neo- Scholasticism. In the Reform tradition no theologian showed a greater openness to beauty than Jonathan Edwards, without in the slightest succumbing to the emerging temptation to elevate beauty while essentially dethroning God.
Twentieth-century theology indeed represents a high point when it comes to articulating the linkages between theology and beauty. Probably the two theologians who have most grandly articulated the connection are Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sergius Bulgakov, with the former proving to be the generous orchestrator of the very best reflection of the entire theological tradition. In his seven-volume The Glory of the Lord, the Swiss Catholic’s theology considers Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, the medieval theologians, and, of course, Dante, but also opens us to the reflections of Bulgakov, Soloviev, and Barth. In the case of the latter, Balthasar takes particular delight in a theologian who considered Mozart’s music to be a form of divine, eschatological speech.
I will return to Balthasar, but here I wish only to take advantage of the Mozart reference, which brings me back to my childhood in Ireland spent in public housing on the outskirts of Limerick City, its damp misery made famous by Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes. Amid the poverty, unemployment, huge families, problems with drink, unwanted pregnancies, and incarceration of males, there were enough examples of dignity in poverty to prevent hopelessness from being inevitable.
Some things had a kind of redeeming ridiculousness: The very first person in the neighborhood to go to middle school was found worthy of the appellation of “professor.” But the most indelible memory, because this got played out week after week, was the weekend behavior of the 20-something loner who lived next to us.
Let’s call him Mike. Mike was a construction worker who worked Tuesday to Friday, and religiously at 4 p.m. on Friday he would begin the bender that would guarantee that he would miss work on Monday. But also equally without fail, after the pubs closed on Saturday night he would play classical music, sometimes opera, most often Mozart.
Through the thin walls, I could hear the music compete with the trailing off of arguments of the last of the pub revelers out on the street. I would mark the moment that aggression gave way to pointlessness, and the music would seed the night with something beyond itself. I suppose I did take in the sadness of the scene, and considered the sound of Mozart a plaint against a life that was too much or too little. Yet I also regarded the music as a small act of heroism, Mike’s declaration of hope that beauty could and maybe ultimately would win out over the ugliness that enveloped a person and seeped into the soul.
Mozart spoke not only to but for one in one’s loneliness. Mike wasn’t my only childhood inspiration, but he was one of them, and it made me ask why was it that the Catholicism that saturated our public lives was not the vehicle of the promise of divine speech. Surely Catholicism could and should be able to mend lives, and mend them all the way down and across so that we might see a pattern to it all, the shine in things, to feel that one has been loved and can love, to sense that we have been given the impossible power to forgive others and ourselves.
Defaced on the Cross
Mike’s Mozart made the darkness luminous, and in the morning the cramped and jammed rooms of my family’s house seemed less burdened, more open. In high school I began to learn that literature, poetry in particular, could serve the same purpose. The poets came and went – Blake and Shelley, Yeats and Eliot, Mandelstam and Akhmatova, Milosz, Hölderlin, Rilke, Benn, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Char, Neruda and Paz, Hughes and Heaney. All of them provided a music of here, the music of what passes and ties together the scattering of time and the implosion of space. They contained a signature of that divine music I shared vicariously with Mike next door, through the walls that separated and joined us together.
It was hard not to recall the haunting line of Dylan Thomas when he spoke of the walls “thin as a wren’s bone.” Compacted in this image was the extremity of vulnerability, solidarity, and something like the mystery of vicariousness, and it was equally hard not to bring to mind the defaced one who on the cross was and is and will forever be that form for me and for others of love broken and shared.
The appreciation of the grace-like features of literature never left me, even when it became clearer that literature presented the ever-present danger of becoming the carrier of the promise of redemption and thereby enacting a form of usurpation whereby the image replaced the Image, who alone can save us from the ugliness that leaks in and the ugliness we produce.
Mike never knew how grateful I was for his Mozart, or how much healing as well as teaching occurred in the dark. More than all the books I subsequently read and pondered, he demonstrated that the beauty disclosed in any form of art provides more than temporary relief from ugliness and more than a cultural patina in which to gild a wounded life. It was and is a sign of a sign and an image of an image.
And this leads me back to the Mozart pondered by Barth and Balthasar, their conviction that at the very least in the christologically figured The Magic Flute, art and the beauty it renders is transitioning into a witness of the glory of God in Christ who dies on the cross and who goes down to the utter inarticulacy of Sheol. For all his talk of theological aesthetics, Balthasar insists that the glory of the cross is the point at which the ugliness of our individual and communal lives is transfigured.
Since Dostoyevsky, Russian religious thinkers have pondered a proposition that threatens to overpower them: Beauty will save the world. At the same time, whether in Soloviev, Bulgakov, or Solzhenitsyn – and its crossover into the theology of Rowan Williams – it has not ceded to its default secular interpretation. The beauty that saves comes in the night and may not be recognized when it comes, because it has not forgotten the traces of the ugliness overcome. The glory of the cross requires a cleansing of perception that only love and grace provide. If it does that, it also enables us to see that all forms of beauty are ambassadors of divine glory and analogies of that truly eschatological gaiety that transfigures all dread.
Cyril O’Regan M.A. ’83, M. Phil. ’84, Ph.D. ’89 is Huisking Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His books include The Anatomy of Misremembering: Von Balthasar’s Response to Philosophical Modernity, Vol. 1: Hegel (Crossroad, 2014) and Gnostic Return to Modernity (SUNY, 2001).