ISSUES OF FAITH: Being in the presence of beauty is akin to being near God

IF SOMEONE WERE to ask you what is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been or the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, what would you say?

What would your answer be?

Before I took this job as director of religious education, I had never been to Camp David on Lake Crescent. And then, several years ago, there I was new, fresh and somewhat scared and with a fairly large group of kids, in a place with no cell service or coverage, in the middle of nature and getting somewhat weary of hearing my name called.

But this was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been.

I literally wanted to just stare and look and take little walks.

“Wow,” I kept thinking, “this is awesome.”

Going on Year 6 now and that sense of peace that seems to come directly from beauty is still as strong as ever, maybe more so.

We call it “Camping with Christ” and the splendor of God is everywhere.

Leaving, we are all tired and longing for our own beds and showers, but for a few days we are in God’s country, and you can feel it.

Beauty can affect us so.

It is not uncommon to become very quiet around beauty.

When the host is raised at Mass all earthly time and energy seem to stop.

“This is my body” Jesus said, and so it is.

A few months ago, I had a man ask me why Christians spend so much money on their churches, singling out Catholics in particular.

That’s a good question, but I didn’t really struggle for an answer.

He was a man well-versed in the Bible so I asked him about the building of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus (36-7), on orders from God, with materials that were the finest of the day, and still are.

I still remember vividly my first entry into a Catholic church, many things striking me at once, but what stood out were reverence and beauty.

It was a “wow” moment for me.

Visiting Catholic churches and monasteries in Poland a couple of years ago I was simply overwhelmed with beauty.

A hush descended upon me and I felt as though I was in communion with something greater than myself.

I couldn’t escape the presence of God even if I had wanted to.

It was as peaceful as it was quiet.

Even given that, I was surprised how a painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., affected me on a recent trip back east.

I was with two of my sons on a very hot day and the gallery was a welcome respite.

Again, I was overwhelmed.

As you move through the gallery you come face to face with the greatest artists of the world, and I realized another thing — seeing them in person is much different from seeing them in a book.

“Portrait of Ginevra Benci” by Leonardo da Vinci, the only painting of his in the Western Hemisphere, clouded my vision for a couple of minutes; the Dutch, the Italians, the French, all had their distinct styles, and the religious art going back centuries was more than impressive, but da Vinci captured something here and I was definitely captive.

We don’t need beauty to commune with God, but the things we find beautiful can certainly draw us to God.

Think of the adorned brides this summer as they exchange vows with their dapper husbands to be in the most sublime and beautiful settings, and how you can hear a pin drop, and if you have that sense that something bigger is happening, something more immense than you can see. It is God, the grand artist at work, who will open our eyes and then take our breath away.

_________

Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Mike Acheson is director of religious education at Queen of Angels Roman Catholic Church in Port Angeles and St. Joseph Parish in Sequim. His email is mikea@olypen.com.

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