Beauty and Holiness

The Beauty of Holy Imagination


One of the most beautiful buildings in the world has survived twenty centuries since its construction during the great age of Rome. Replacing two earlier buildings lost to fire, this third one was built for the ages. After two thousand years, its coffered concrete ceiling remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and it still evokes awe and wonder among architects. The building is, of course, the Pantheon. Unlike some buildings of equal stature and antiquity, the Pantheon has survived because it was, in effect, ‘baptized.’ Having been a temple whose practices were anchored in pagan religious cults, its original Greek name suggests the building was dedicated to a multitude of Roman God’s. Indeed, many modern visitors know the building only by its classical name rather than by its later Christian one, even though the transition between the two occurred fourteen-hundred years ago!

Think about that for a moment. A pagan temple, apparently dedicated to a panoply of Roman deities, was consecrated as a church, and renamed to commemorate Christian saints. The building’s earlier purpose and meaning was not seen as dangerous to it being used for holy Christian worship! For many of us, that is unimaginable! A more likely outcome would have been for the building to have been razed, and its materials perhaps reused to build an entirely new building for Christ-inspired liturgies. This represents courage, the courage of holy imagination, turned loose to see what is good, positive and hopeful, even amidst a decaying or already dead civilization.

On Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil, we pray these words: “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Who among us has not ever felt cast down, prematurely old, or just not worth much? Do we have courage, the courage to see that we are among all the things that are being brought to their perfection? Sometimes, among all the things God has made, it can be hardest to imagine ourselves as the objects of God’s unbounded creative and redemptive possibilities. Yet, because of our Baptism, we are among the saints who have already passed beyond death into new life. God’s redemptive possibilities are all about new life, and for us! We come to see this as we practice the virtue of holy imagination.

A photo of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome (creative commons license). This is adapted from my homily for All Saints Sunday, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Beauty and Intimacy

Sadao Watanabe_Last Supper_1995


Because the humanity we inhabit involves the intertwined concepts of person and body, our notion of personal intimacy is interwoven with bodily intimacy. Intimacy provides a great challenge for western culture. Though we are barraged by displays of physical intimacy, we are naive about personal intimacy.

Many forms of our social interaction rest upon two assumptions: that personal intimacy is always physical and sexual; and, that sexual intimacy is merely physical. These widely held assumptions create spiritual challenges for us: we have a hard time imagining personal intimacy that is not sexual; and we have an equally hard time accepting that sexual intimacy is always personal, with relational implications. These assumptions hinder our ability to imagine personal intimacy that is not physical, and therefore our ability to follow Jesus into intimacy with God.

Think of John, the beloved disciple, at the Last Supper. Jesus loved him for who he was and not merely for his physical embodiment. Reclining against Jesus at the Last Supper table meant something very different in his culture than it would today. It expressed genuine friendship and love for Jesus, and prefigured the personal and intimate relationship we all have with Jesus, through Baptism. Our culture does not prepare us to perceive this truth. And when we don’t experience its beauty, we don’t believe it is real.

Intimacy with God always has some affinity with, but also clear differences from, our intimacy with other persons in this fallen world. Sometimes, our words, facial expressions and bodily gestures are not sincere, and we fall short of encouraging each other’s wholeness. We find ourselves merely creating the impression of a personal relationship and intimacy. But our intimacy with God never involves using one another. God cherishes us for who we are in his embrace, and not merely for who we are in our own eyes.

With God, we are always the end and goal of divine self-giving love. Jesus revealed and embodied God’s personal love and intimacy. His loving intimacy is nurturing and healing, and enables a wholeness that can only be called the beauty of holiness.


The above print, The Last Supper (1995), is by the Japanese Christian printmaker, Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996). For further reflection on these ideas, click here to see my homily exploring the theme of how Jesus is the Way into intimacy with God.

Community Permeated By Beauty

Stanley Spencer_the-resurrection

Stanley Spencer painted several Resurrections. They portray his vision of the new community, of which we have been made a part. He does not imagine resurrection as a one-by-one event, paralleling our human experience of how people are individually and serially born, receive Baptism and die. Instead, Spencer sees resurrection as a community event, which may be more true to Scripture than what most of us anticipate.

Here we see several people in a churchyard busily tending the graves of departed loved ones. Suddenly, they are surprised by a reunion with those who have gone before. Departed fellow-members of the Body of Christ, their arms joyfully upraised in a dance, gather with the eucharistic community here on earth. Resurrection is an interactive celebration, involving not just those we have known and remember, but also those we have never met.

Spencer’s resurrection paintings reverse what we imagine. At death, we think of individual persons lifted-up, out of this world, into his presence with those on the other side. But Spencer depicts our reunion with them as taking place on this side! And he is profoundly right. For when we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are baptized into the communion of saints, with whom we are now in active fellowship. Some of them first lived centuries ago. Others live with us today. Yet, in every eucharistic moment, we are all one and together, in the community of Jesus’ resurrection. His resurrection community is permeated by beauty, by the beauty of his holiness.

But who has seen or touched the resurrection of Jesus? Spencer helps us see the answer: All of us! All who now live in the fellowship of his resurrection. John speaks for us in his first letter, when he refers to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, … and touched with our own hands, concerning the word of life.” We think of the resurrection as something that happened to Jesus. Yet, we would not be celebrating his resurrection unless it also happened to the disciples.

His resurrection transforms every one of us. Not just one-by-one, and away, to dwell with the departed. Resurrection brings the company of the departed here, into our midst. Through Baptism, we can expect transformation within us, as individuals. We should also expect transformation between us in community! For in our fellowship with one another, we see and touch the beauty Jesus’ resurrection.


Resurrection: Rejoicing (1947), by Stanely Spencer (1891-1959). For the quote from John, see 1 John 1:1. Click here for a link to my Easter Sunday homily, on which this is based.

Hieronymus Bosch and the Beauty of Holy Week

Bosch- Hieronymus- Christ carrying the Cross - 1515 - Biggest copy


Hieronymus Bosch has succeeded in portraying something few other painters have come near achieving. He beautifully and compelling conveys the peaceful heart of Jesus, content to accept and receive all our scorn and its resulting pain. Bosch has captured the pure heart of Jesus, a vision of which Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jonathan Daniels were given a glimpse, and which shaped how they lived as well as how they died.

With sustained attention to the composition of the painting you will notice a significant detail. The faces of seventeen people appear in the painting, not counting Jesus nor his image on the legendary Veronica’s towel. Seventeen people who are part of the crowd, and not one of them is looking at Jesus! Not even the man with the orange hat in the left center of the painting. Though he is facing Jesus, his eyes are turned upward toward the man with whom he is apparently talking. A crowd full of agitated people, with Jesus in the middle, and not one of them is focused on him. In other words, all of them are focused on their own concerns and purposes. Though Jesus came into a world so in need of him, and into a city filled with human problems, the people around him are heedless to his significance. And yet, for them, for those who are happy to push him to his death, he will carry his cross.

As I reflect on this painting, I am challenged to consider which persons in Bosch’s crowd best represent me. And then, I am moved to think about how Jesus provided God’s self-portrait for the world.

Ask yourself: Do I embrace Jesus in the same way Bosch portrays Jesus holding his cross? Are my eyes usually focused on other people, and on other things, rather than on him? How often do I let pettiness, anger, jealousy and boredom take center stage in my attention, rather than a vision of the peaceful heart of Jesus? It helps to remember that, no matter what, he holds on to us just like he holds that cross.


The above painting is Christ Carrying the Cross, by Hieronymus Bosch, 1515. For my Palm Sunday homily, which makes reference to this painting, click here.