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Apr 24, 2018

Art and the New Evangelization: How Beauty Will Save the World

Christopher West

(The following is adapted from a live presentation delivered at the Ascension Summit in October of 2017)

When I was eight years old I had an experience that set a trajectory for my whole life. I was lying in bed, I had the radio on—this was the 1970s—and Bruce Springsteen comes on with his 70s anthem “Born to Run”. Something broke open in my soul. Something grabbed a hold of me and has never let go of me since.

He was singing about this place he wanted to get to, run to, and the girl he’s trying to get there with is named Wendy. Some seventeen years later I would marry a girl named Wendy. This song was like a prophetic vision of my life.

At the end of the song he says to Wendy:

    Some day girl, I don’t know when
    We’re gonna to get to that place
    Where we really wanna go
    And we’ll walk in the sun.
    But ‘till then, tramps like us
    Baby we were born to run

After that—and if you know the song you know what I’m talking about—Springsteen cracks open his rib cage and he lets this cosmic cry come out of his heart, and whatever it was he was feeling, I was feeling it too. “What was that?” I wondered. Something ginormous, like thunder, just rumbled through me. It was like the sky split open and I was staring into infinity.

Fast forward about thirty years. I was watching Bruce Springsteen induct U2, my other favorite band of all time, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and Springsteen explains to me what happened to me all those years earlier: “A great rock band,” he said, “searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang … They want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out.” Then Springsteen said, kind of sheepishly, “It’s embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from music.”  Then he added, “Except sometimes it happens.”

The Devil Doesn’t Have His Own Clay

I’m not wanting to baptize all of rock and roll, of course. There’s some really twisted stuff in popular music, especially when it comes to sex. But even there we have to remember that the devil doesn’t have his own clay. All he can do is take God’s clay (which is always “very good”) and twist it up. This means even the most sexually distorted rock song is an attempt––albeit a broken attempt––to sing the Song of Songs. Purity of heart enables us to see the good that got twisted up. I think this is what St. Paul meant when he said: “To the pure all things are pure.”  And then he added, “but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure … ” (Titus 1:15) because they project their own impurity onto even what is pure.

I’m sure each and every one of us can point to an experience—maybe in a movie theater, maybe at home reading a novel, maybe in a museum seeing a painting, or maybe listening to music—in which we experienced a beauty that pierced us. Beauty has the ability to pierce the heart like nothing else, and if we are going to evangelize the modern world, we will need encounters with real beauty to do it.

The Real Meaning of Eros

Eros, as St. John Paul II said, “implies the upward impulse of the human heart toward what is true, good and beautiful.” That is the classical sense of the word and that is how the Church uses it. When you’re attracted to something beautiful; when the truth of something just rings in your heart; when you watch a movie that just grabs hold of you; when you witness something so good, kind, or loving in human relationships and you get a lump in your throat or a tear comes to your eye––that’s eros being awakened in your heart. What I experienced when I was eight years old listening to Springsteen was eros.

Even children have eros, the nostalgia for the true, the good, and the beautiful—the longing for home (that’s what “nostalgia” actually means). Evangelization, if it is true evangelization, is always an appeal to eros, because eros is the desire of the human heart for God—for Truth, for Goodness, for Beauty. It passes by way of finite things, but launches us to infinite things. The first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John are, “What are you looking for?” In other words, “What is your quest,” “What do you desire?”, “What do you long for?” That’s a direct appeal to eros.

Evangelization redirects eros by pointing us to its eternal satisfaction in the Marriage of the Lamb, by witnessing to the fact that there is a wedding feast that corresponds to man’s ache and the hunger for the infinite. The tragedy for me, growing up in Catholic schools in the 70s and 80s was that, while I felt eros, nobody ever connected the dots for me between that fire I felt inside and God. Religion class was entirely disconnected in my mind from those piercings I felt in my encounters with beauty.

Art that Blesses Your Heart

It’s very important that we reflect on the things that capture our hearts. What is the art, what are the stories, the movies, the TV shows, and the music that have captured your heart? Even if they were twisted up, remember there’s still something good in there that got twisted up. There can be a purification process for all of us which teaches us to see what is good in all the things that have captured our hearts. For example, I had to go through a time when I didn’t listen to certain music because it was connected in my mind with many disordered experiences in my life. I had to go through a kind of detox—not necessarily from the music itself (although sometimes that was the case, too), but from the associations that that music had in my life.

But as I journeyed in my relationship with Christ, a time came when the things that really captured my heart growing up came back around and I could appreciate them in a whole new way, because I came to see the good I was always attracted to without getting so easily snagged by the bad. I remember in 2004, when my spiritual director and I were just getting to know each other, he asked me to tell him about my prayer life––what were the highlights and what were the struggles and distractions. I said, “Well, one of the biggest stuggles I have when I’m trying to quiet my heart and listen to the Lord, is that songs and movies will pop into my head.  It’s a huge distraction.”

He got this big smile on his face and he said, “Did you ever think the Lord might be trying to speak to your heart through those songs and movies?”

I responded, “No, Father, this is like Springsteen, and U2, and Star Wars … secular stuff.”

Then he asked, “Were these songs and movies important to your heart when you were younger?”  “Well, yeah,” I said. “I mean, this is the stuff I grew up on.”

He said, “You don’t think the Lord knows how to speak your language? The Lord is trying to get to your heart, and one of the ways he does that is through art that speaks to you. The next time you’re in prayer, and a song or a scene from a movie comes into your mind, pay attention to it. Maybe the lyrics reflect something the Lord is trying to say to you, or maybe that song is connected to a certain memory in your life that the Lord wants to show you something about.”

That one meeting with my spiritual director changed my whole life. For years I thought these things were distractions, and I started to see that this was one of the ways God was reaching me, speaking to me very personally and intimately.

The Need for Art in Evangelization

I want to encourage you to take a rightful comfort in the art that blesses your heart.  Again, if certain things are twisted up in that art, allow the Lord to untwist them for you so you can see the real good to which you were always drawn.

Pope Paul VI, speaking to artists, not just Catholic artists, said, “We need you. We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry … Your art consists in grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colors, forms—making [these heavenly treasures] accessible.”  He went so far as to say that without the gift of artists, the Church’s ministry would become “faultering and uncertain, and a special effort would be needed … to make the Church’s ministry artistic.”

When we think of the role of art in evangelization, we shouldn’t just think of of sacred art. It’s broader than that. St. John Paul II, in his letter to artists, said:

“Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful … art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

Art, in order to reach the heart, has to be honest. It has to tell the real story, not candy-coated, not all prettied up and wrapped in a bow. It has to be willing to get ugly in order to become beautiful––that’s the paschal mystery. In fact, this is always a mark in the difference between true beauty and false beauty: does it contain that element of the paschal mystery, that need to passover into deeper dimensions of reality that only open up to us through suffering?

Truth and Beauty Intertwined

Truth and beauty always belong together. When we separate the two, we end up scorning the truth and porning the beauty. Let me explain. When the Church’s teaching is proclaimed in a dry, doctrinaire way, even if what we’re hearing is technically true, we’ll scorn it—and rightly so, because the heart feels the void of beauty. On the other hand, when we pursue beauty that’s divorced from truth, we porn it. By this I mean we reduce beauty to the merely physical level––cut off from any higher truth––and fixate ourselves on idealized images of “perfect physical beauty” for the sake of a selfish, base gratification.

When the true, the good, and the beautiful are dancing properly together, they evangelize on their own, because they awaken eros and call it to something beyond itself. The way to test if it is true beauty—if it is truth, goodness, and beauty in their proper dance together—or if it is a distortion of beauty, or a false beauty, is this: Does the beauty involve the element of the Cross? It is a bedrock biblical truth to say that on the most horrific day in human history, the day the Son of God was crucified, the most beautiful thing happened.

Authentic beauty always causes suffering. It causes an ache in the heart. Who would deny that one of the most beautiful things on planet earth is the birth of a child? But we can also recognize that the birth of that child comes with great labor pains. Any human endeavor that is going to lead people to the true, the good, and the beautiful is going to involve labor pains, and then the beauty of a birth.

Beauty emerging from pain, ugliness, or messiness is indicative of an authentic Christian life, it’s indicative of real holiness.  Burying our pain, ugliness, or messiness in the name of “holiness” is indicative of something inauthentic. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want only to know that I am loved when my masks are on. Anybody can put on a pretty face to win others’ approval. I want to know that I am loved when all the masks are off—in all my messiness. Someone once said to me, “Christopher, you’re a beautiful mess,” and I think that’s the best compliment we can give somebody. That’s who we really are, beautiful messes. And we are loved in that messiness. That’s the good news, and when we know that, not just in our heads but in our hearts, we can be naked without shame––not because we have nothing to be ashamed of, but because we know we’re loved right there in our shame.

Unlikely Beauty

I had the privilege of studying Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in the mid 1990s under Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a beautiful Catholic priest who was a personal friend of St. John Paul II. He was an overweight, totally disheveled, chain smoking sign of contradiction, and I loved him for it. He always had ashes all over his clerics and smoked in class even though there were no smoking signs everywhere. I was drawn to this man, not only because he was a brilliant professor, but because he had something I needed and knew I didn’t have. This man was free. He didn’t wear masks. What you saw was what you got, and it was incredibly attractive.

Albacete may never be a canonized saint, but in his own unique—dare I say messy—way, he exhibited a beautiful saintliness. Saints are not perfect people. They’re people who know they are perfectly loved in all their imperfections. They’re people who have all of their messiness open to the merciful love of God rather than covered over with a pious mask. They’re people who are in touch with their deepest yearning for the true, the good, and the beautiful; that is to say, they’re in touch with eros. That was Albacete. As he once said while leading a retreat (this is a paraphrase):

Look inside your own humanity, look deeper into it, because the Mystery was made flesh. The Mystery entered into this world and is seducing me with every drop of rain that falls … beauty is seducing us, and without clinging to the finite, we must allow it to inspire our yearning for the Infinite, Beauty with a capital B. This is the process of conversion. What must I do? I must be overcome by beauty, by beautiful things, by finding beauty everywhere … Allow yourself to be overwhelmed by beauty.

Getting Real with God

Those who do allow themselves to be overwhelmed by beauty will surely suffer, because, as we’ve said, true beauty always involves that element of the Cross. And that Cross will inevitably lead to a prayer of agony, to a deep cry in union with Christ, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?”

On a retreat some years ago, there was a priest who led me through some exercises to help me get in touch with my heart and my real desires. In the process, a lot of anger toward God came out and I let him have it! I thought I needed to go to confession right away because of what I said to God. So I went to the priest and told him exactly what I said to God. I’ll never forget his response: “You just prayed Psalm 22 in union with Christ, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?’” He continued, “You don’t need to confess that you got real with God. You need to confess that you haven’t been real with God. You’ve been wearing all of these pious masks. Now you’re taking them off. Now you’re getting naked before your Maker. That’s real prayer.”

The priest was teaching me that prayer is an exercise of desire. St. Augustine said that our hearts are a gymnasium of desire, and if you want to pray always then you need to get in touch with the deepest desires of your heart and let God stretch them, because the increase of our longing is the increase of our prayer.

And that’s my point. When we are longing for beauty, whether we know it or not, we’re longing for God.  Small “b” beauty––wherever we find it, is meant to lead us to capital “B” Beauty. It’s sacramental. And the longing itself is prayer. “The Fathers of the Church,” as Benedict XVI reminded us in a pre-papal essay, “say that prayer, properly understood, is nothing other than becoming a longing for God.” Evangelization is really nothing other than helping people see what it is they’re really longing for. And what we’re all really longing for is to participate fully in everlasting Beauty. The good news is that that everlasting Beauty wants nothing more than to be a gift to us, to fulfill our longing unto unimagined blissful satisfaction.


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