It was the summer of my 12th birthday when I found myself flipping through a large coffee table book filled with the world’s greatest artistic masterpieces. Halfway through the book I came across several of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings.
The ethereal wisps of his brushstroke and vividness of the colors arrested my heart and mind. Something within me stirred to life and my imagination was fired with the absolute certainty that “there is much more to life than what we see.” While I did not have the words to describe what I was feeling, looking back now, I realize that this was one of my first experiences of beauty, one of the three great transcendentals.
Transcendentals (coming from the Latin word “to exceed”) are universal values that point us to transcend or go beyond what is known or experienced and cause us to reflect upon the meaning behind life, our purpose and why we exist. Transcendentals are timeless attributes and the bedrock of much of our experiences that define us as human beings. We have all had such experiences that take our breath away — being present in the room when a child is born, being moved to tears when “Ave Maria” is sung or reading a passage of Scripture that is particularly apt for where we find ourselves. That’s the thing about beauty — it arrests, it transforms, it inspires, and invites wonder and awe. Through an experience of beauty, we are lifted out of our own world to contemplate the grandeur of life. Beauty leads us to God, the ultimate source of all beauty.
In the history of philosophy, great attention was given to the transcendentals, particularly in the Greek and medieval world. The three classic transcendentals are: beauty, truth and goodness. These values tell us something about who God is. God does not simply have truth or offer us truth or express beauty or “do good things.” God IS truth, God IS beauty and God IS goodness, which are all attributes of the Trinity. In experiencing beauty, truth and goodness, we can experience and gain an understanding of God.
The Greek word for beautiful is “to kalon.” It is strongly related to the word “kalein” which means “to call.” When we experience beauty, we feel a call, a longing for God, even if we are not always conscious of it. But we must look, not just to the experience of beauty, truth or goodness, but to the meaning behind it all — which is God.
Nature is not God, beauty is not God. Only God is God. St. Augustine, in his book, “The Confessions” (Book Ten, chapter six), expresses this as follows: “And what is this God? I asked the earth and it answered: ‘I am not he;’ and all things that are in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they answered: ‘We are not your God; seek higher.’ … And they cried out in a great voice: ‘He made us.’”
Who made it all? God made us.
During July, my family and I had the opportunity to visit the Beyond Van Gogh exhibition in Milwaukee. This exhibition describes itself as “an immersive experience bringing Van Gogh’s iconic works to life, appearing and disappearing, flowing across multiple surfaces and heightening the senses with their immense detail.” It sounded amazing and it was.
Upon stepping into the main room, Van Gogh’s artwork was brought to life, transitioning the viewer from being a passive bystander to active engagement with the paintings that unfolded. Life and art blended together in a seamless way. I watched my children carefully go through this experience. Each of them was awed by the beauty, the richness of the colors and the vividness of the scenes.
As for me, I found myself weeping with delight. “Why are you crying, Mom?” my youngest child asked me. “It’s hard to explain,” I said. “It just takes my breath away because it’s just so beautiful.” “I know what you mean,” he said, and took my hand in his little one. “I can feel it, too.” “What does it feel like?” I asked him. “It feels like God is right here,” he said. And he was.
Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church” (Loyola Press).