Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once said that “to admire icons and the great masterpieces of art leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it.” What I found very interesting about this passage is the future pope’s juxtaposition of art as our guide, as the Virgil to our Dante, along a very deep personal interior journey AND the concept of purification - the need that we all have to be clean in the presence of God (and we are always in the presence of God).
When we fall into sin and addiction and uncleanliness, we place barriers up between ourselves and God. Indeed, in a very real way, we replace God with false ones - alcohol, drugs, sex…ourselves.Speaking for myself, I know that I have spent a great deal of my life being frustrated with God for never allowing me any lasting interior experience of Himself. However, only when I began realizing the extent of the pantheon of false idols I’d created for myself was I able to catch glimmers of the True Living God. This is what is meant by being clean in the presence of God.
The prophet Isaiah had to have his heart and lips cleansed by an angel as he was receiving his great prophetic commission. And, as Cardinal Ratzinger said, art has the capacity to give us these glimmers as well. Art moves us along our personal inner journey to realize both self and God and the deep need that we have of God’s cleansing grace, which acts upon us just as the burning ember acted upon Isaiah. As Catholics, we are blessed with a rich sacramental life, in which the sacrament of Reconciliation is always available to us. We are also blessed with a splendid artistic legacy that has been handed down to us through two millennia of art and artists. Let us pray, then, that neither of these great gifts ever be put to waste and that we may always see ourselves as the worthy heirs of a sacramental and artistic tradition unrivaled by any other faith.