New York City. As I write this, my mind reels at the ability of human beings to take what begins in the imagination and give it form. From Broadway, to the Met, to Times Square, to Central Park and the architecture that is everywhere. If New York says anything, it says that the image bearers of God have the incredible ability to imitate God in the will and desire to create and nurture beauty. We are so accustomed to seeing through eyes dripping with cynicism at the state of the world that we miss it. We miss the simple acknowledgment of God in thanksgiving or the beauty that holds and enfolds. We miss it in our mad rush of work and things to become creators of beauty in our own surroundings, as humble as they may be. Or we miss the beauty in our attempt at piety because we know that the creators of these things were not Christians. Perhaps we feel guilt because it is not ‘spiritual’ to enjoy such things. Our false sense of spirituality comes through the mundane comment we in the South make about beautifully prepared and tasty food: “This is so good, it is positively sinful.”
In our everyday conversations and lives, are we really to believe that which is good or beautiful is bad for us? So absent is the idea of beauty in our thinking these days as Christians that it hardly gets consideration. We’re so concerned about truth and goodness that like Linus in the Charlie Brown cartoons, “Oh, anything is good enough for God.” Beauty seems to come into existence for us if we have enough money. The effect is that we impoverish our surroundings and think in only utilitarian terms of ‘usefulness.’ Is it a sin to guild and deck our lives with a ‘pleasing form?’ A prevalent idea among Christians is to apologize for extravagance. Yes, we are capable of worshiping the created instead of the Creator, we are very capable of making an idol out of anything. However, Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) wrote, we never more imitate our Creator and Redeemer than when we create beauty in our lives and in the lives of those around us, including and most especially our neighbors. We witness to the God of creation when we being to see that all truth must inhabit a form. All goodness must take a form. We are, after all, not angels or ghosts. God paid a terrible compliment in taking our human form.
On the upper west side of Manhattan is the Cathedral of St John the Divine. It is the largest cathedral in this hemisphere. A cathedral known as being continually under construction and restoration, it is able to accommodate ten thousand worshippers. The walls were built around eight massive 130-ton, 50-foot granite columns from Maine, and are said to be the largest in the world. The columns, which were transported to New York on a specially constructed barge towed by a large steam tug took more than a year to install. Construction on the cathedral began with the laying of the cornerstone on December 27, 1892, when Bishop Henry Potter hit the stone three times with a mallet and said, “Other foundation can no man lay, than that is laid which is Jesus Christ.” Every nook and every stone matters that physically shows redemption. Like the building of a cathedral, our joy in Christ may be under construction and restoration at the same time. Why have human beings in every century thought that the place where they worship matters?
Thomas Aquinas said, “All theology begins with a sense of wonder.” Do we really need a physical cathedral to know this? Or does God want us to turn, look, and learn to really see, living life within the Incarnation, where beauty holds dominion? To really see God in the face of Jesus and contemplate the Incarnation of God is to be lost in wonder, love and praise. If we lose that, we lose our Christian bearing and our appetite for Him diminishes. As we strive towards truth, goodness and beauty, let us hold to this encouragement from Pope Benedict XVI, “Life is not just a succession of events or experiences: it is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy.”