“Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.”
– Edgar Allen Poe
There must have been, at some point or other, an experience in your life in which you were moved to tears, or were gripped by an overwhelming need to bury your head somewhere and cry. Not out of compassion or grief or, conversely, relief; nor as a result of recalling a memory, but simply as a result of a pure sensory experience whose impact was so immediate, so raw and unforced, that your reaction was derived from a source that no rational part of your brain could effectively compete with. And that source, I’d like to believe, is the encounter with Beauty.
To be open to this encounter is a gift by default. But the great tragedy of human experience is that all too often, at times unknowingly, we are forced to shut the door on possibilities which allow this encounter to occur; we are distracted and convinced that we have no time for it; that in today’s day and age, the search for Beauty is a lost battle, perhaps selfish even, as a naive attempt to distract oneself from the harshness and “true ugliness” of reality. But Beauty is not necessarily goodness, as it permeates all, even the darkest corners of our daily experience. Rather, “the world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink in despair” (Pontifical Council for Council, “Via pulchritudinis”, II.3, 2006).
The mission of Pietre Vive, an international community of lay (and not) Ignatian youths, is to assist people, often unknown strangers, in rediscovering a part of this Beauty through the works of art and icons that “decorate” our churches. Its mission departs from the idea that the image has an innate capacity to transcend borders, be them of time, of space, of belief, of language and culture. It even transcends the realm of what can be seen. Much of our experience of the world is, in fact, related to the kind of images we are fed. It is how we make sense of the world in our search of something that is true, because abstract thought alone cannot satisfy us in the same way than an image, or a sound or a taste can. And words can only but be comparative, a cerebral attempt, in evoking the same experience on encountering, say, the infinite view of the sea, sky and ocean; or the harmonic stillness when diving underwater, or the radiating brilliance of the sun, filtering through leaves in a forest, or even the taste of chocolate.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22) We must incessantly set ourselves the challenge to gaze upon the world as if it were our first time – to look at the “good” and the “bad” through uncorrupted, unbiased and curious eyes, to train ourselves in patiently seeing again what we so often miss. Knowledge, therefore, is not a prerequisite to encounter Beauty. Rather, knowledge is a product and would only get in the way if it were to come before. The fear of being inadequate – of not knowing enough in order to speak about art, or a sculpture, or a building, or even about faith – is in fact, one of the main challenges that a new or even more experienced members of Pietre Vive, must face. I faced it too, and it bubbles and rises each time I stand at the door of the church, or at the feet of a new opportunity. Yet the fear will never be overcome by attempting to know more. Doubt will linger on. It can, however, be readily overcome through the power of your own eyes, with every realisation that you have encountered Beauty, or at least, glimpsed a part of it.