This post is inspired by a posting of the pix of a beautiful Cathedral (presumably in Abuja) by Fr. Emmanuel Ojeifo (Omokugbo Ojeifo)
The above question is not uncommon when people want to make an argument for the poor and the marginalized, insisting that scarce money and human resources should be maximally utilized to serve more important human needs than on inanimate things. This is especially the case for anti-religious minds, those who see no or little connection between the material and the spiritual world or those who think so materially that otherworldly considerations are seen as illusory. It is also used against the beautiful and costly adornment of Churches, pitching the appreciation of beauty against the care for the poor. But this isn’t new as even Jesus (or the woman who cared for him by anointing him with an expensive ointment) was criticized that the money could have been saved to care for the poor. Jesus’ answer is classic: “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7). This mindset is very prevalent today, coupled with a very truncated or poor appreciation of beauty, properly understood.
Beauty attracts, reveals and captivates, turning the dull human heart into an ecstatic gaze, of falling in love, with the object of admiration, the Other, the Sacred, the Divine, the Transcendental. The entire cosmos is wired in this rhythmic progressive form, for the heavens and the earth, and all within them, proclaim/declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1); and “the beauty of heaven, the glory of the stars, an ornament giving light in the highest places of the Lord” (Ecclesiasticus 43:9). The very first glimpse of God in scripture, in the opening chapter, reveals the manifestation of his artistic skills, prowess and distinctive genius in the work of creation. All his creatures and handiwork reveal his magnificently benevolent nature, beautifying the earth, adorning the firmaments, arousing wonder and amazement in men and causing all heavenly beings to rejoice (Job 38:4, 7; Gen. 1; 2). Thus, an appreciation of Godly beauty and art amazes and inspires human artistry, for the glory of God and pleasure of humans. This gives us a better insight into St. Iranaeus” saying in his ‘Against Heresies, Book 4:20:7’- “Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei” – For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God, often controversially translated as “The glory of God is man fully alive OR man fully alive is the glory of God.”
The fact that “the glory of the stars and the rainbow is the beauty of heaven, a gleaming array in the heights of the Lord” leads to the understanding that the outward beauty of God (from a human perspective) is expressed and perceivable as an aesthetic quality of his glory in his work of creation and redemption. God’s auto/ self-revelation, aside creation, is fully realized or climaxed in the divine “appearing” of his Son, the God-man, grounded in the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the Eternal Logos in the incarnation, cross, and descent into hell (John 1:1-5; Col. 2:9; Phil. 2:7 ). Christ, the fulfillment of all human longings and desires, points to the Temple, the House of Yahweh, his Father, as the locus epicentre of human worship of the Divine, manifested in his Body and by extension our bodies, the dwelling/temples of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, he frowned at the desecration of the Temple (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-47; John 2:13-16) and the Church, following suit, does not only demand our interior recollection but also adorns the Temple with external beauty to assist our interior piety.
Any good artistic work both invites and challenges, reveals and conceals, with an ‘inclusio’ and ‘exclusio,’ summoning and discriminating at the same time, having multi-layered meanings and significance for initiates and non-initiates alike. Thus, art, poetry, aesthetic and beauty speak to the good music, hymns, iconic mural paintings, glass windows, statues, beautiful internal and external designs in our churches that cannot but lure the heart and mind, motivating the soul and controlling bodily gestures in divine worship. Architectural aesthetics in the Church creates a sacred space that mirrors splendour and glory, opening up to the mind the portal to heaven (porta ad caelum), a glimpse into the heavenly and the celestial, pointing to something greater than what is seen, the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ The beauty of the Church speaks to the longing of the heart, faith lifting and human perception (intelligence et sensibilité), arousing spiritual perplexity and transcendence against counter-cultural materialism or utter human linear conception of worldliness.
Thus, following the Aristotelian-Scholastic categories, Aquinas lists five basic properties of being (ens) as transcendentals (thing (res), unity (unum), otherness (aliquid), truth (verum), and goodness (bonum), often associated with beauty (De ver. 1.1; De nat. gen. 2; De ver. 21.1–3; De pot. 9.7 ad 6; In 1 sent. 8.1.3). He sees beauty as closely and intimately to goodness (Summa theologiae 1a 2ae, 27.1 ad 3), based on the logic that physical beauty intimately connects with spiritual beauty (Summa theologiae 2a 2ae, 145.2 ad 3), for there is nothing that does not partake of beauty and the good (In Dion. de div. nom. 4.5; In 1 sent. 31.2.1; De ver. 22.1 ad 12).
This explains why so much detail is put into making the Temple or the Church beautiful (See 2 Chron. 3; 4:11-22; 1 Kings 6:1-14; 7:13-22, 48-50). Solomon faithfully and obediently observed all the directions and instructions of God in constructing the Temple, the most magnificent building ever, for the Temple built for God could not be more excelled for richness, beauty, and costly design. From biblical times, aesthetics mattered and still matters in our time, despite the criticisms, ignorance and its poor appreciation. The beauty of the Temple is aimed at the glorification of God and a sign of the manifestation of his glory to all us who come in to behold his glory. This aesthetics mirror the Theological Dramatic (Theo-Drama) of the divine-human dialogue, the prolegomena to earthly worship and an invitational access to divine/heavenly worship. It not only lifts up the hearts (sursum corda) of the faithful but also serves as a sign (sacramentum) to the unbelievers/pagans or neophytes, near and far, drawing all from merely external appreciation of forms and matter (sacramentum tantum) to interior union with God (res et sacramentum), with fruitful realization in the life of grace, love and divine presence (res tantum).
The beauty of the Temple/Church invites us to true worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:24), acknowledging the holiness of God and adoring him in reverent silence – an interior silence that inspires actions. For the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him (Habakkuk 2:20; Zechariah 2:13).
Peter J. Okafor is a Nigerian Roman Catholic Priest.