Beauty has a way of transfixing our attention, and in some cases even transfiguring it. Art in its myriad forms can promise transcendence, as it beckons the viewer to the Beauty behind all beauty.
In this sense it can be a rung on the ladder to the divine; sometimes a stark and shocking vision of glory that shakes off the encrustation of the mundane, and sometimes a subtle and persistent reminder that the dinginess of reality is not its true savor.
It is thus appropriate that the church through her history has often taken great pains to present the truths of faith by means of artistic mediums, whether through the purity and simplicity of voices raised in song, the rushing ascent of cathedrals which stretch forth their buttresses to heaven, the sublimity of the greatest masterpieces set to canvas, or the flowing and seraphic meter of exquisite poetic insight.
We are drawn to beauty because we are made for it, precisely because as a transcendental it coincides with truth and goodness and being itself, all multifaceted aspects of how contingent creatures understand the oneness beyond all knowing.
Yet for all of beauty’s ability to beckon our hardened hearts towards the fire of love that has burned for all eternity, it can yet stick our feet to the ground. We may be led by beauty to God, but we may also be kept from God through the selfsame means.
Dante’s Divine Comedy contains a poignant scene in the opening cantos of Purgatorio. After leaving the fires of the Inferno behind, Dante and Virgil arrive upon the shores of Purgatory Mountain, where the souls who shoved off the moral coil in God’s friendship begin the ascent to Paradise by first purifying themselves of all remaining attachment to the world, casting off everything which hasn’t been purified by divine love.
As Dante prepares for the ascent, he discovers a friend he knew in life, one Casella by name. From what can be gleaned from Dante’s verse, this Casella had set some of Dante’s own poetry to music in life, and now on the shores of the mountain he plays a most delightful melody. So lovely is his performance that the souls of all are entranced, including Dante:
_”Love, that within my mind discourses with me,”_
Forthwith began he so melodiously,
The melody within me still is sounding.
My Master, and myself, and all that people
Which with him were, appeared as satisfied
As if naught else might touch the mind of any;
Beauty can give us satisfaction, and in the enjoyment and apprehension of it the intellect and the soul can find a rest of sorts; to possess beauty even in a limited and finite state is a good thing, and the joy it brings can bring us calm and peace, as well as inspire fortitude within us against the constant din of the world around us.
As artists, the beauty we attempt to re-present in our works often aims at this sort of rest; we want to create something that brings pleasure to others, that is aesthetically pleasing, that engages the mind and captures the heart.
And all of these are truly good things. But the insidious nature of sin is that far too often what is good becomes evil, not because of what it is, but rather because we can far too easily prefer it to a greater good, or desire it in a bad way.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is arguably the greatest poem ever written, and he himself experienced great success in his own lifetime due to his art. But through his journey in the Inferno he has met far too many people whose affections have gone wrong; they love things improperly, or too much, or supplant love for God by means of attachment. Dante presents the damned as stuck in Inferno through their own misguided attachments; they love their sins too much, and thus their misdirected love is its own punishment.
On the shores of Purgatory Dante comes face to face with his own love; in his earlier life he was a rising star, penning poetry of love and romance that was beautiful and exquisite. Yet for all the beauty of his art his love had started to go wrong. He too often succumbed to the temptation to make an idol out of love, to supplant God’s rightful place as the true object of our affection.
And now he has come full circle, hearing the siren song of his own making. The allure of beauty can be strong, and it can be an angel that lifts us to God, but it can also be a demon that chains us to earth. The power of Casella’s music is so overwhelming that all who gather to hear are completely taken in:
We all of us were moveless and attentive
Unto his notes;
This seems high praise for the verse of Dante and the music of Casella, but it is actually in Dante’s presentation just barely a step out of hell. They have all been drawn to beauty, but by desiring it too much and clinging to it too tightly, they have become stuck, almost like the damned in the Inferno. Dante must come to see that beauty is not the love his affections are meant for; it is not the end of man.
Beauty can be illumination, but it can also be a distraction. One struggle that all artists (whether musicians, designers, etc.) face in creating works that are meant for worship is that we must constantly be aware that our work can be a conduit to knowing God, but also very much a hindrance. Like the souls on the shore of Purgatory, our efforts can actually keep people from moving further in their relationship with God, and often this can happen unintentionally.
Sometimes we need a dash of cold water on our creativity:
and lo! the grave old man,
Exclaiming: “What is this, ye laggard spirits
What negligence, what standing still is this?
Run to the mountain to strip off the slough,
That lets not God be manifest to you.”
Dante is snapped out of his revelry by Cato’s ice-cold rebuke. Here on these shores one must view reality flat-on, with no pretensions. Cato’s words have always been chilling to me; he reminds the souls that if they ever seek to attain God, they cannot be content with lesser loves. As ravishing as the beauty of any art may be, it is merely sticky mud compared to the love of God that awaits them in Paradise.
The challenge is simple: There is the infinite wonder and beauty of divine love which awaits us; how could we possibly be satisfied with lesser loves?
But Cato goes even further: these things can be the very things which do not allow God to be manifest to us. In other words, we can be so blinded by beauty that we can miss Beauty himself, and in doing so we settle for something that is barely even a shadow of the real thing.
And so the question might be posed this way in regards to our worship: through the things that we create, through the ways that we worship, through all the ways we try to intersect beauty with faith and the proclamation of the Gospel, are we lighting the way or are we getting in the way? Do we create things which become wings on the soul’s ascent to God, or are we adding dirt to the mud that slogs our feet?
Are we making icons or erecting idols?
Understood in this manner, art is a solemn work that should not be entered into lightly. We must constantly be mindful of why we create, constantly vigilant against crafting things that leave us content with lesser loves. It is probably impossible to create anything too beautiful; that is not the point. Rather, too often perhaps we focus on art for its own sake, especially in our worship. We attempt to craft experiences that are great experiences, and while they are ostensibly for God, perhaps sometimes they are mostly for themselves. We can mistake the perfecting our art for the reality it is meant to represent, and in doing so can languish on the shores, stuck in the beautiful which quickly turns to mud.
In this manner we can end up playing the songs that are beautiful and capture the heart and the mind, but that in reality only keep us right there in that moment and perhaps prevent us from going any further. If we chase the experience for itself- whether we admit it or not- are we not still content with a lesser love and missing the Love to which we are called and for which we are created?
In the end, all of us need a Casella who can remind us of the Beauty that lies behind the things we create, but even more we need a Cato who can remind us that it is never found in the things themselves.
And that’s when art will stop keeping you in Purgatory.