Michael D. O'Brien, bestselling author and visual artist spoke on Beauty and Christian art at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College's annual Wojtyla Institute Aug. 10-13. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Man needs beauty out of hunger for God, says author

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  • August 21, 2017

BARRY’S BAY, Ont. – Man’s need for beauty springs from his profound hunger for God, artist and best-selling author Michael D. O’Brien told a conference at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College.

“Man is made for eternal beauty,” O’Brien told about 50 teachers and others gathered for the annual Wojtyla Summer Institute Aug. 10-13 on the theme of beauty and Catholicism. “Beauty is one of the attributes of the Holy Trinity.”

“Beauty is not decoration on a wall” or “sensory stimulus in a concert hall,” but a “celestial language that passes all barriers” and goes “directly to the heart and touches us in ways rational thought cannot,” O’Brien said.

According to Catholic teaching, man is created in the image and likeness of God and has the capacity for reason, the capacity to love and the capacity to create, he said.

“We are all damaged gifts, on a journey through salvation history to Heaven, to what we were intended to be,” O’Brien said. The gift of art comes to our aid.

“If we are simply complex bio-mechanisms in a Darwinian universe, I would say ‘To heck with it!’” he said.

Art and beauty are intended to draw us higher, he said.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, beauty has three attributes: integrity, proportion and “claritas,” a “radiance or light radiating from within,” O’Brien said.

“Something has integrity if it is true to its nature, its being,” he said.  “A duck or a giraffe is a beautiful thing, but if a duck tries to behave like a giraffe or vice versa, it’s a catastrophe.”

Proportion is harmony, order, unity and a “sense of proper place in the hierarchy of being,” he said. We may see a lady with beautiful eyes, but if the two eyes are located on the same side of her nose, a “disharmony has entered,” he said.

“All communication between two beings is about communion, the thing towards which we are all being called, made possible through Christ’s sacrifice.”

This communion is a “taste of the eternal communion God desires for us in eternity in the love of the Holy Trinity,” he said.

The Christian artist must pray for the integration of truth, goodness and beauty in himself, O’Brien said. “This is how Christian artists works—not just as dead letters but true living words.”

O’Brien showed a slide show starting with paintings on cave walls, to the modern era.  After the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque era, art became politicized, he said. 

Western culture began a process of de-Christianization that began to “reshape man’s consciousness” from that of a providential God to a desolate spiritual cosmos, he said.

“We’re now seeing the increased diabolization of the west,” he said.

This art is “anti-human” and “attacks life and most importantly attacks man as the image of God,” O’Brien said. “Art has become darker, more violent, more horrific and even more enshrined by art galleries around the world.”

However, O’Brien pointed out that for every anti-human work of art, there are thousands of works of beauty that are nurtured by grace. A Catholic vision of art and culture is one that “brings forth fruit that gives life to others,” he said.

Author Ryan Topping, a fellow at St. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, traced a similar trajectory towards dehumanization in sacred architecture.

Having church washrooms that are up to code is secondary, he said. “The primary purpose is to allow the people of God to have a meeting of God and experience Him in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

Nature’s role in sacred architecture has to do with proportionality and the human being’s relationship to the universe, he said.  The body manifests pleasing proportions, he said, noting that if you calculate the largest distances to the stars, the big numbers in the universe, and the smallest numbers in the universe, “man is the mean point between the smallest and the biggest thing.”

“When you violate human scale, disaster ensues,” he said. He showed pictures of massive towers of housing projects, whose inhuman scale has contributed to the violence.  “People kill people,” he said.

Sacred architecture has been dominated by four architectural styles: the early Christian basilica-style; the Romanesque style that was “chunky and stable;” the Gothic, and the Baroque, he said.

In the modern era, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier thought wanted to “start from square one” with a “completely and utterly new beginning to church architecture,” Topping said.

The churches that emerged from his influence were utilitarian structures of glass and steel.

In the last 30 years, Topping said a new movement is leading to the building of beautiful churches again.  

“Beauty is everyone’s business,” he said.

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