One Moment of Beauty

For those of you who are not familiar with Paul Tillich, he is considered one the foremost theologians of the twentieth century. He had a vast knowledge of both philosophy and the history of thought. He was my intellectual mentor. One of the most profound, in my view, and deeply important concepts of his is “The Dimension of Depth”. I’ll have a dedicated essay on this but you can get a sense of it from his words below. Tillich was a Christian theologian but his theism was controversial. He was even called an atheist by some because of his claim that the term “Being-Itself” was the only non-metaphorical statement that could be made about God. Many, including myself, view him as a Christian panentheist.  While I disagree with him that divine revelation only comes to the few, I think this recounting of his religious experience speaks well to the divine depth of everything.

paultillich

“One Moment of Beauty” which originally appeared in Parade, Sunday Star Ledger, 25 September 1955:

Divine revelation comes to few men, but understanding of it came to me one moment 36 years ago. I looked, for the first time, at beauty revealed by a man who had been dead more than 400 years. As the son of a Protestant minister in eastern Germany in the days before World War I, I had grown up in the belief that visual beauty is unimportant. My father’s parish houses as we moved from city to city were like all parish houses of the time – gloomy, unattractive and furnished in the bad taste of the later nineteenth century. Ministers’ sons spent long hours learning to recite poetry, practicing music and memorizing church history. Neither at home nor at school was I taught that there is beauty we can see. Strangely, I first found the existence of beauty in the trenches of World War I. At 28, I became a chaplain in the German army and served for five ugly years until the war ended. To take my mind off the mud, blood and death of the Western Front, I thumbed through the picture magazines at the field bookstores. In some of them I found reproductions of the great and moving paintings of the ages. At rest camps and in the lulls in the bitter battles, especially at Verdun, I huddled in dugouts studying this “new world” by candle and lantern light. But at the end of the war I still had never seen the original paintings in all their glory. Going to Berlin, I hurried to the Kaiser Friederich Museum. There on the wall was a picture that had comforted me in battle: Madonna with Singing Angels, painted by Sandro Botticelli in the fifteenth century. Gazing up at it, I felt a state approaching ecstasy. In the beauty of the painting there was Beauty itself. It shone through the colors of the paint as the light of day shines through the stained-glass windows of a medieval church. As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisioned so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me. I turned away shaken. That moment has affected my whole life, giving me the keys for the interpretation of human existence, brought vital joy and spiritual truth. I compare it with what is usually called revelation in the language of religion. I know that no artistic experience can match the moments in which prophets were grasped in the power of the Divine Presence, but I believe there is an analogy between revelation and what I felt. In both cases, the experience goes beyond the way we encounter reality in our daily lives. It opens up depths experienced in no other way. I know now that the picture is not the greatest. I have seen greater since then. But that moment of ecstasy has never been repeated.

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