In an article entitled "Art and the Beauty of Faith," Father Raymond de Souza references the writings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who before he became pope wrote that there were "two compelling 'arguments'" for the Church's faith being true – the first was the lives of the saints and their living "Christian witness"; and the second was the art that [the Church] has nurtured in her midst."
De Souza goes on to say, "Theology is necessary, but it is holiness and beauty that persuades."
In this way he meditates on the importance of the "gift of beauty" as an engine that inspires, defines and encourages faith.
"We do not live in a very beautiful world," and in this sense the Church offers us beauty in many forms: certainly through the saintly or graced life; but also through the beauty that faith has inspired, which in turn inspires us to "look up, to raise the eyes of a disenchanted culture above the daily grind to that which is beautiful.
"That is the role of the Christian in ugly times, to make present that which is beautiful. Like the biblical steward we bring out our treasures old and new, beauty from our history and from our current circumstance."
It struck me that the context de Souza provided was ideal for speaking about the beauty of the Saint John's Bible, a magnificent, illuminated manuscript, the first such project commissioned by Benedictine monks in over 500 years.
St. Mary's University College Calgary has been fortunate to attract a number of major donors who raised $350,000, not just to fund the acquisition of the seven remarkable volumes themselves, but also the infrastructure the university would need to guarantee that the works were widely seen and appreciated: guest speakers, unveilings in schools, parishes and churches; sacred art workshops and more.
As the project's originator here at the university, I have not only set a blistering pace of activities and events, but I have also had the pleasure of attending virtually all of them, and in this context have often thought about the value of beauty in the space of the sacred.
In this sense I was reminded, time and again, that the sheer splendour of the work was overwhelming, but never decorative.
To watch people interacting with this remarkable collection – turning the pages, running fingers over gold leaf, or reading aloud from familiar Scripture presented in almost otherworldly detail – to see this was to be reminded that human beings need exactly what de Souza identified: a vehicle to draw them out of the ugly and mundane, so that their eyes can witness something greater, certainly than themselves, but also greater than anything they might have imagined possible.
The Saint John's Bible has produced exactly this interaction with the beauty of faith. It has offered evidence that beauty "is born from the faith."
And it has provided an inclusive language connecting divided viewers in ways that even they have found surprising.
As Juvenal once said, "Rare is the union of beauty and purity."
(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)