by Margo Borders
Do you know those moments when you look at something truly beautiful? Something so beautiful that it takes your breath away, that you have no thought left in your mind except the immediate shock of the thing before you. You try to comprehend what you are looking at, but you eventually give in to the simple monotony of gazing. For a moment, just a moment, you forget everything worldly in your life and you begin to think only of how good the world is that creates such beauty. Wonder, amazement, and awe follow.
After being in Rome for just under two months, I’ve had a plethora of these experiences- from the sunset over the vineyards of Tuscany, to the immense, looming statue of David, so realistic that I kept expecting his chest to rise as if he was readying himself for battle. I experienced gorgeous natural beauty in the mountains of southern Germany, where the mountains opened up to green valleys, shining lakes, and never ending German countryside. These aesthetic experiences are so numerous in everyday life that they are impossible to avoid.
The virtue of the aesthetic experience is that it brings you totally out of yourself. We are no longer thinking of ourselves, which brings us into the painting or natural landscape to contemplate the message of the artist. In a Christian sense, the forgetting of oneself through beauty can lead to a deeper knowledge of and relationship to God. Although some people may avoid looking for goodness or truth in their lives, beauty is universal. We all can experience beauty, thus making it possible for everyone to experience God.
Walking into the ornate churches of Rome always makes me gaze and lose my breath in awe, and being lost in the beauty leads me to contemplate God’s great power and glory. When we look at paintings, architecture, and ornate structures that glorify God, it is impossible to avoid the contemplation of why the artist created the work and the incredible power of the God who made all these things possible. Pope Benedict XVI wrote that looking at masterpieces of Christian art is a “purification of the heart,” and brings us “face to face with beauty, or at least a ray of it.” It is only in those times when we lose ourselves, if even for a second, that we can truly find God. Looking at beautiful images or natural scenery should be a clear opportunity to look more deeply into the heart of Jesus and his defeat over death for our sins.
The recently beatified Pope Paul VI said, “this world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.” Beauty gives us hope and a renewed sense of a divine presence. In experiencing beauty, we experience God’s love.
During my travels, I had a picnic in a valley in southern Germany, which overlooked the Alpine foothills. I couldn’t stop gazing at the gorgeous peaks and the green meadow in front of us when I spotted a simple wooden cross built in the distance with flowers at its base. The view of the cross with the mountains in the backdrop was a clear reminder for me of the goodness of the natural beauty I was experiencing. It came from God, and prompted gratitude for the world He has created.
There are so many overwhelming experiences of beauty here that I could choose to just stare at and let the moment pass, or I could allow it to bring me closer to God. Where do we let beauty take us, or do we even notice when it is in front of us?
The next time you hear a symphony by Bach, look at a work of art, or simply gaze at the sunset behind Gasson, let yourself be taken away in awe. Forget yourself and think only of the Creator, the mighty Lord to whom all is oriented and from whom all things come.