What Is Beauty?

By Fr. Carter Griffin


Paul Claudel was eighteen years old and walking the streets of Paris on a cold and rainy afternoon. It was Christmas Day, 1886. Claudel was, like many in France at the time, a skeptic and an atheist. The young man decided to escape the rain and ducked into the Cathedral of Notre Dame where Vespers were being sung. Decades later he remembered where he stood, “near the second pillar at the entrance to the chancel, to the right, on the side of the sacristy.”

Then occurred the event which dominates my entire life. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such a strength of adherence, with such an uplifting of my entire being, with such powerful conviction, with such a certainty leaving no room for any kind of doubt, that since then all the books, all the arguments, all the incidents and accidents of a busy life have been unable to shake my faith, nor indeed to affect it in any way.

Claudel went on to become a diplomat and one of France's most famous poets and dramatists. He never swerved from his catholic faith, born in an experience of pure beauty. In this talk I would like to reflect on the power of beauty. Why does beauty have the power to stir souls? How can we recover a sense of beauty so that it helps people draw closer to Christ? Those are among the questions that I hope to address.

It is commonly said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. According to thinkers like Aristotle and Aquinas, that is only partly true. Something must first be beautiful in itself. The scholastics identified beauty as one of the three “transcendentals of being” together with truth and goodness. It is something real and in the world, not just a way of seeing things.

The most defining characteristic of beauty, St. Thomas Aquinas said, is claritas, that is, a brightness or radiance or clarity. There is a luminosity that emanates from a beautiful object, he said, that seizes the attention of the beholder in his eye, ear, or mind. As sight and hearing draw forth a response, whether we wish to or not, so too an experience of beauty draws forth a response from us, whether we look for it or not. When we see something truly beautiful, we can’t help but be moved by it. We want to experience it again.

Beauty is part of the original goodness of the world, a gift from the hand of the Creator. To recognize beauty is to make an act of gratitude to God. “Brethren,” St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). The Incarnation itself reminds us that God has not abandoned the world, that there is something worth saving here. Beauty can still be found, and it can awaken in us a longing for the beauty of the divine.

This is important in the life of the priest. Everyone knows that a priest is to be a mediator of truth and goodness. He is to preach the Gospel and guide souls toward a life of virtue. Perhaps less well known is that a priest is also to mediate beauty, to foster contact with the beautiful. The Church has always sponsored the creative work of artists in order to adorn her churches, but even more simply to bring beauty into the world as an echo of the divine. Like Paul Claudel, many have sensed something transcendent in the peaceful grandeur of a beautiful church.

Priests who expose themselves to beauty will be better equipped to foster it through their ministry. There is another reason, however, for us to make regular contact with beauty. We encounter a lot of ugliness in the course of our day. In our pastoral ministry we constantly come into contact with sin, failure, darkness, and suffering. It is necessary work, in fact much of the reason for our existence: to bring forgiveness, hope, light, and relief precisely into those places. But we are not immune from the residue. Exposure to beauty, even in its most elemental forms, can help offset those side effects of our pastoral ministry.

Father Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. A graduate of Princeton University and a former line officer in the United States Navy, he obtained his doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. After serving at St. Peter’s parish on Capitol Hill, in 2011 he was assigned to the newly-established St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, DC, where he now serves as Rector. He is the author of Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest and Cross-Examined: Catholic Responses to the World’s Questions, published by Emmaus Road Publishing.

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Forming Fathers: Seminary Wisdom for Every Priest seeks to remind priests of the lessons so greatly needed to fulfill their calling faithfully. Originally delivered by Fr. Carter Griffin as talks to seminarians, this series of short, inspiring vignettes can help rekindle a priest’s first love and awaken the aspirations that brought him into the seminary in the first place. Much of what is contained in these pages is also applicable to Catholic laymen, themselves called to the virtues of Christian manhood, the responsibilities of discipleship, and the dignity of spiritual fatherhood.