Longing for God’s beauty
Dietrich von Hildebrand on the quasi-sacramental function of visible and audible beauty
“The elements upon which beauty of form depends, that is, when and under what circumstances it appears in visible and audible objects, are multiform and mysterious. There is no recipe, nor could anyone make rules to be followed to create something beautiful. Every individual case must have new individual inspiration. One thing, however, we can determine, that the conditions be in the sphere of the visible and audible, like proportion, composition, harmony, rhythm, etc.
“Here there is again revealed the whole mystery of the beauty of form, the transcendence in this sphere. Conditions, which are apparently trifling and external, have a strongly, profoundly, and significantly spiritual effect. It depends on outward conditions, so to speak, when a window opens, but that which we see through the window when it is once open is weighty, significant, and by no means external. Again and again it is necessary to understand the mystery of this beauty of form. It is directly attached to visible and audible things, but the reality about which it speaks qualitatively, the substance, whose quintessence it is, is a spiritual world which towers high above everything corporeal. This must also be brought out distinctly in the answer we give. The metaphysical beauty of a saint awakens in us a desire for closer association with him, for we know that this beauty is a reflection of his personality.
“With beauty of form, on the contrary, it is otherwise. The beauty of Monte Pellegrino in Palermo does not arouse the desire in us to caress it, but, as we behold its beauty, our heart is filled with a desire for loftier regions about which this beauty speaks, and it looks upward with longing. In order to behold this beauty, we need not know God, much less think of Him, for, objectively, there is a reflection of God in these things, not merely in the manner with which all that exists portrays God, but by having something appear in things of a relatively low ontological rank, which in a special manner announces God in its quality. Only when we have understood this quasi-sacramental function of the visible and audible, this mystery that God has entrusted to it, can we do justice to the function of this beauty in the life of the redeemed. It is not true that this beauty distracts us from God and is specifically mundane. On the contrary, it contains a summons; in it there dwells a sursum corda; it awakens awe in us; it elevates us above that which is base; it fills our hearts with a longing for the eternal beauty of God.”
— from Dietrich von Hildebrand, Beauty in the Light of Redemption (Hildebrand Project, 2019)