The world today still needs contemplation
Searching for the mystery of aesthetics
We are publishing translated excerpts from a speech given by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, on Thursday, 21 February , in Paris at the Collège des Bernardins, on the occasion of the meeting "L'émergence du sens de la Beauté, une caractéristique de l'homme", the third gathering in a cycle of conferences and debates organized in collaboration the Institut de Paléontologic Humaine and CNRS éditions.
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The path of beauty runs through the whole of humanity's history. A simple phenomenological description would clearly show that the graffiti found in the caves of our distant forebears show, in addition to their intention to communicate the experience of life, a man intent on contemplating the work of his hands. He could not of course be satisfied with this alone. What he created by intelligently rubbing a stone on a rock wall in the cave he had chosen as his dwelling was an expression of his desire to reproduce what his eyes perceived every day in the surprise of contemplating nature, with which he was in close contact.
It is hard to imagine that the wonder stirred by sunrise and sunset, by the sun rising behind towering peaks or dipping into the horizon of the sea would not leave man stunned and full of questions. If these emotions are still felt by our contemporaries — who have unfortunately and inexplicably distanced themselves from their relationship with nature, thereby diminishing their understanding of themselves — it means that the contemplation of beauty, in any context, is a human reaction and a characteristic of human nature.
Nothing and no one will ever be able to exhaust the wonder that beauty awakens in human beings. If on the one hand the artistic impulse shows the greatness of man before the whole created world, on the other, it makes clear his special condition of being able to enjoy deeply what he himself creates. He alone can indelibly impress on matter the mystery of his existence which enables him to depict the world, himself, and all that he experiences, allowing it go beyond his own lifetime. What he creates survives and lives on as a sign of his transcendence.
Art, in all its forms, makes it possible to give a voice to the experience of beauty as an original expression of the human mind and as the transforming principle of the personal existence of a human being. It reveals man to man and makes him aware of the mystery and grandeur of his existence in the world.
The content and objects of contemplation may change, but the beauty that shines from them, wherever they are found, never ceases to give rise to amazement and wonder. So it happens that on the one hand wonder prompts questioning. The mind feels motivated to know more and more and the dynamic of thought develops and grasps fragments of truth. On the other hand, wonder fosters a condition of tranquillity and peace that makes it possible for people to succumb to the power of contemplation. Beauty thus creates a paradoxical condition that hovers between the dynamism of the intellect and the peacefulness of contemplation. It highlights the real possibility of grasping the truth.
In short, beauty itself embodies a principle and a form for understanding the true and the good in an ever new beginning that knows no end, because it kindles a constant desire for knowledge while offering
serenity. There are nevertheless moments in which man seems more withdrawn into himself, failing to allow beauty to speak. Instead of expressing continuity by developing thought, there is an inexplicable rupture with the previous tradition and a real risk of beauty not being communicated or dimmed. It is better to avoid this danger, which would only lead to decadence.
A passage by a teacher of past decades, Hans Urs von Balthasar, "the most cultured man of the 20th
century", to quote Henri-Marie de Lubac, enables us to penetrate this thought further. In his work Herrlichkeit [the beautiful], in which, starting with its title he identifies glory with the principle of rapture that beauty offers, he dwells on the condition of the modern world deprived of beauty: "In a world that lacks beauty — even though people cannot do without this word and have it constantly on their lips, using it ambiguously — in a world that is not perhaps deprived of it but can no longer perceive or come to terms with it, goodness too has lost its magnetic force and men and women are left perplexed, asking themselves whether they should not prefer evil instead. In fact this is also an even more exciting possibility; in a world that no longer believes it can affirm the beautiful, in which arguments in favour of truth have exhausted their magnetism of conclusive logic".
This is tragic but, unfortunately, true. Trivializing beauty or making it solely an ephemeral effect brings deleterious consequences. In these years we are living in a paradoxical condition. It seems that the more we refine our taste for beauty, the more clearly we perceive situations of degradation. Many of our cities are true open-air museums where it is possible to enjoy the riches of the architectural genius which over the centuries has achieved something unique. We are strongly aware of the responsibility to preserve it and to pass it on to the future generations to show them the culture of which we are at the same time offspring and
parents, and which we want to share with them. At the same time, however, we can tangibly feel the sense of beauty evaporating from the many expressions of it in daily life. In some cases there has unfortunately been a will to impose a model of beauty that clearly breaks with Tradition and becomes an obstacle to understanding beauty's inherent harmony and dynamic development. It is a serious error since a work of art is part of a whole, an entirety, and wishing to make an absolute of only a part of it relegates the work of art to insignificant isolation.
Beauty, that has always fascinated and has created a special form of contemplation that impels us to love, might slowly disappear from our world, with the risk that we fall prey to despair. Were this to happen, it would leave an enormous gap which nothing could fill. When beauty is lacking, love is lacking and with it life's meaning and the ability to generate. Our world, unfortunately, has inflated the term. Beauty recurs ever more frequently in our conversations; yet it seems we can no longer perceive or achieve it. In fact, if beauty exhausts itself in its corporeal dimension then it can no longer awaken genius to affirm work that endures, and so we fall into the ephemeral and consequently lose the meaning of the quest for truth. If there is no magneticism our inability to create culture impoverishes both personal and social life, which become insipid. What is at stake is so great that it deserves a common reflection and a participatory assumption of responsibility.
Beauty lets us overcome the fragmentation which, especially today, characterizes in our culture that can grasp neither unity nor the foundation of knowledge. However paradoxical it may seem our eyes have grown weak and, like the compound eye of insects, we can take in only what is necessary in order to respond to the immediate questions, and we are no longer able to formulate the basic question asking if existence has a meaningful answer.
When reality — and personal life itself — crumbles, beauty enables us to comprehend unity because it demands goodness and truth as indispensable references. However paradoxical it may seem, while we seek knowledge of ancient sculptures and of the civilization that produced them, today, for those born in the past two decades who constitute the digital generation, contemplation seems to stop at the beauty of the iPad, iPod, and the latest cell phone or computer. The queues when anew gadget comes out can no longer be distinguished from the queues of tourists who want to visit the Louvre, the Vatican Museums or the Prado. The willingness to wait is in some respects identical. The yearning for beauty motivates both the former and the latter with an equally strong desire to contemplate the work of art. None of us can deceive ourselves that we can marginalize this form of beauty as being secondary or totally irrelevant.
It would be equivalent to making a break with entire generations which will modify what other generations cultivated and lived. The time is not far off when new museums will open and these generations will troop into them to look at the evolution of culture and the forms it has taken in the course of the decades. The wonder and amazement that a portrait by Leonardo or a landscape by Canaletto inspires to this day will be elicited instead by the first and antiquated model of iPad designed by Steve Jobs. Here, perhaps, this reflection should prompt a sense of responsibility for what we are capable of passing on. If beauty lacks truth and goodness, it will never inspire contemplation. Perhaps attraction will replace contemplation, but in this way man would forfeit the possibility of reentering himself and giving a meaningful answer to the question on the reason for his life and for beauty itself, which is seen as heralding emotions.
For this reason today too we must be able to propose the urgent need for contemplation as an act of the mind that can grasp in beauty the truth and goodness of personal life. Beauty, in short, is the last word that reason wishes to pronounce in order to give fullness to itself and to flow out into the world of the mystery that sustains all things. Christianity, for its part, has encountered art at its origin. The path of beauty down the centuries has been for us the privileged way to give a visual expression to the truth of faith and the goodness of our testimony.
In the year 406, Bishop Paulinus of Nola, a true harbinger of the Via Pulchritudinis as a form for proclamation of the Christian truth, was already writing, "we have one art, faith; poetry is Christ" (Carmen 20, 32).