Aesthetic Witnesses: Using Beauty to Build the Kingdom

Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”

The quote above is taken from Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” published on Easter Sunday in 1999. I’ve been reflecting on that letter in terms of the saint’s call, beginning in the late 1970s, for a new evangelization, and also in the context of young Karol Wojtyla’s cultural resistance efforts with the Rhapsodic Theater during the period of Nazi control of Poland. The more I reflect, the more convinced I become that the arts—visual, literary, theatrical, and musical—as well as beauty defined more broadly, are ideal tools both of evangelization and of Catholic resistance and encouragement today.

Beauty in evangelization

Beginning with the artist as an image of God the Creator, St. John Paul II makes a strong case for the special vocation of the artist in service to the true, the good, and the beautiful; their ideal role as revealers of the Incarnation and the Good News; and the necessity of art to the Church and vice versa. He writes in particular about the power of art connect the message of Christ and His Church to secular people and the modern culture:

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, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, 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.

Bishop Robert Barron has laid out a more explicit progression to evangelization that could leverage the arts—particularly at the early, more passive stages of conversion. He strongly advocates that, in our increasingly secular society, we begin with the beautiful, then move toward the good and the true:

Especially within our cultural matrix, so dominated by relativism and the valorization of the right to create one’s own system of meaning, commencing with either moral demand or the claim to truth will likely raise insuperable blocks in the person one wishes to evangelize.  (Who are you to tell me how to behave or what to believe?  How can you be so arrogant as to think that you should impose your thought patterns on me?)  This is precisely why moralizing and intellectualizing are often non-starters in regard to persuasion.  But there is something unthreatening about the beautiful.  Just look at the Sistine Chapel Ceiling or the Parthenon or Chartres Cathedral or Picasso’s “Guernica”; just read The Divine Comedy or Hamlet or The Wasteland; just watch Mother Teresa’s sisters working in the slums of Calcutta or Rory McIlroy’s golf swing or the movements of a ballet dancer.  All of these work a sort of alchemy in the soul, and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and finally to share.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the great advocates of the aesthetic approach to religion, said that the beautiful claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission.

Bishop Robert Barron, “Evangelizing Through Beauty”

Bishop Barron goes on to lay out a simple pattern: First we respond to the beautiful (“how wonderful!”), then to the good (“I want to participate!”), and finally, to the true (“now I understand!”). I am struck by the parallels I see between this approach and Sherry Weddell’s thresholds of conversion, which move from passive (trust, curiosity, openness) to active (seeking, intentional discipleship)—and more recently between this model and Deacon Ralph Poyo’s description of pre-evangelization, evangelization, and discipleship.


Of course, beauty by itself isn’t enough to convert hearts to Christ—I’m sure countless people visit the Sistine Chapel to enjoy the art and architecture without advancing at all in faith. It still take disciples to make disciples—to move people along the continuum from passively to actively seeking God, then changing their lives to do His will. But beauty may well be the universal inroad to the hearts of non-believers. People respond to beauty spontaneously, and often it catches them off guard—in those moments of wonder, when we glimpse something transcendent, we open our hearts to the good clothed in the beautiful, and ultimately to the truth from which both spring.

Art as resistance

As a young man, Pope John Paul II recognized and helped to harness the power of the arts to sustain his fellow Poles in the face of Nazi oppression of Polish culture and Catholic faith. His belief in the power of this type of resistance is evident by accounts of him and his fellow performers risking their lives to share dramatic readings of Polish poetry and literature even as Nazi forces searched for them. Polish pride and faith ran deep—so deep that the Nazis believed Poland must be turned into an intellectual wasteland to be controlled. In his book Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves, Jason Evert puts it this way: “Time and time again, the nation was trampled, occupied, and then resurrected. At many moments in history, Poland existed only as a culture and an idea, while its political identity was being repressed and overrun by various tyrants.”

What if we re-wrote that paragraph for the Church of today? The comparison is not exact, of course—we are not yet forbidden to practice our faith. But it is getting harder, day by day, and the dominant culture has now been overrun by sin and almost completely cleansed of Catholicism. Certainly we must fight the urge to retreat from this world and let it fall, to take the flame of Christ’s light we’ve been given and hide it away, so the world can’t snuff it out. In the face of the gathering darkness, perhaps it is time for cultural resistance here in America. Perhaps it’s time to “sing the old songs”—to preserve and pass on the true and the good at least in part by using the beautiful. And if this beauty is also the most effective tool of initial (or pre-) evangelization, so much the better; we should seek to create a robust Catholic arts scene now!

Beautiful lives: living as aesthetic witnesses

I once heard an atheist describe the celibate priesthood as a sort of performance art: a life lived publicly and visibly different, in order to communicate a particular view of the world—beautiful, perhaps, from a certain point of view, but ultimately only a symbolic gesture.

I believe this view of the priesthood is incomplete and inaccurate, but from the standpoint of a non-believer, perhaps it is not so bad. Perhaps our first witness to others is a sort of “aesthetic witness”: our initial testimony is the beauty of our lives as faithful Christians, as seen through the eyes of non-Catholics or non-believers who are nevertheless attracted to that certain something the faithful Catholic exudes. In a recent article analyzing the trend of Muslims emigrating to the Western world and converting to Christianity, Sherry Weddell cites another researcher’s list of the top five reasons Muslims convert. Number one and number three on the list: the example of Christian lives, particularly the love and respect for those who believe differently and women, and the dissatisfaction with their own lives under Islam.

I’ll offer three additional examples:

  1. Some years ago, I worked with a young woman who was smart, energetic, confident, and ready to change the world. Unfortunately she had also bought into many of the prevailing cultural views that led her away from God and the church. I enjoyed working with her and talking with her, and in my off time, I worried about and prayed for her. After she left our work together, I shared with her our family Christmas letter. She thanked me for including her on our mailing, and—despite our significantly different worldviews—she told me that she hoped, one day, to have a family life like mine.
  2. My own re-entry into the church was due, in part, to a similar witness. When I first met my wife, I was attracted not only by her appearance, but by something else in her that I hadn’t seen in other girls—a sense of joy, peace, and solidity I had not encountered before. I knew almost immediately that I wanted what she had, even before I could articulate it, and before she knew what it was I lacked. Step by step, I moved closer to the truth, drawn at first not by the Church or its teachings, or even by faith in Christ or a belief in God, but by the beauty of a young woman who appeared to be free of the worldly concerns that weighed on me and striving to become nothing more than herself.
  3. Finally, recall the story of the atheist intellectual Edith Stein visiting cathedrals for the architecture, but being deeply moved by the sight of a woman kneeling among her shopping bags in silent prayer. It was one of her first nudges toward faith, religious life, martyrdom, and sainthood. The beauty of a magnificent church juxtaposed with that of a faithful life began to remove barriers and arouse curiosity. It did not, by itself, activate her pursuit of God, but it struck her and stayed with her. Although completely unaware, the woman resting from her shopping by spending time with the Lord provided a beautiful, visible witness.

The effect of a good life on those around us should be no surprise. We are inundated each day with so-called lifestyle marketing: we are rarely sold products anymore, but new versions of ourselves associated with particular brands or products. Emotional appeal is often more important than rational appeal in driving decisions, which are only later justified and bolstered by “facts.” How can we, as Catholics interested in preserving the faith and leading others to Christ, leverage the innate appeal of living in spirit (manifesting the fruits of the spirit) and truth to move people who may not even realize that they are seeking? Perhaps by lifestyle evangelization—aesthetic witness—living visible and unapologetically Catholic lives and sharing those lives with others, making the beauty of Catholicism apparent and giving credit to God for His blessings.

Some practical (and not so practical) ideas

Some time ago, when Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” program was still going strong at the Fitzgerald Theater and on radios across the country, a priest friend suggested that the world needed “A Prairie Home Companion” for Catholics. He envisioned a weekly program—radio, television, or podcast—in which songs, jokes, and stories were shared that were funny, heart-warming, moving, enlightening, and definitely (but not ham-fistedly) Catholic. He imagined something that people from all faiths and walks of life would tune into (just like not everyone who listened to Keillor was Lutheran), and would find themselves in the one place in the media where Catholic families and Catholic culture were presented as normal and beautiful—where Catholics could find encouragement and non-Catholics might begin to trust and ask questions.

Imagine that. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea, although I have no idea where to start. As a writer, I’d start with stories, I guess. We have no shortage of beautiful, humorous or heart-rending stories of Catholic family life in this community. I better get writing.

  • What if we brought into our parishes exhibitions, literary or musical works, or events in support of Catholic artists and Catholic thought. We used to have a Christian concert series at the old church, and we’ve hosted a couple of one-man plays—but what if we committed to investing in lectures, concerts, plays, and displays, not in order to raise money, but to raise awareness: to evangelize, catechize, encourage, and build community?
  • What if we sponsored a Catholic Film Club at the local theater: renting a theater and showing good Catholic films, or good films with Catholic themes, with time to reflect, pray and socialize?
  • What is we devoted a portion of our time to reviewing and promoting Catholic artists and performers, events, exhibitions, and books, so that people can find material that engages and enlightens them?
  • What if we prayed more in public or opened our church for public adoration and prayer, or for public tours, and then invited people to join us—and ultimately to come again, to stay with us, to make a choice for Christ?
  • What if we all had parish stickers on our cars (like the school parents do) and were committed to being aesthetic witnesses—recognizing that people are looking at us as Catholic men and women and families? Would we change about how we behave if we knew they knew we were Catholic?
  • What if we were unapologetically Catholic? What if we embraced the stereotypes (big families, solemn liturgies, etc.) and ran with them: “Yeah, you know what? That is funny—let’s talk about that!”

We have a beautiful church, beautiful families, beautiful liturgy, sacraments, teachings, and traditions. How can we better share that beauty to draw people to Christ?


One thought on “Aesthetic Witnesses: Using Beauty to Build the Kingdom

  1. Pingback: Motherland of Mercy, Part III: Pope St. John Paul II | Archangel Stomp

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