On Beauty’s Relation to Truth – A Personal Testimony

When I was a freshmen in High School I had largely lost my faith. I was not an atheist, more of an agnostic. If God existed, I didn’t care. I was in a rather angry stage of my life. And frankly there were some things that I had every right to be angry about, things I need not discuss here.

I still went to Church, commanded there by my mother who did not care to discuss my many reasons for not going (thanks be to God that she did not cave in to my demands).

So there I sat in Church, bored out of my mind. I don’t remember that the priest had much to say and if he did I wasn’t in the mood to listen. But one Sunday, a small choir appeared. It was a choir of High School students. I don’t remember what they sang, I just remember that the girls in that choir were awfully pretty. Later that week in Religious Education (we called it CCD in those days), a man came into class and invited us to sign up for the new choir. “Is that the choir that sang last Sunday?”, I asked. “Indeed it was.”  he said. “Sign me up,”  I said. I remember that my mother laughed a bit because, of all the gifts I had manifested growing up, singing was not one of them.

But there it was. Beauty had hooked me. I will not promise you there was not lust admixed in my attraction. I will simply say that beauty drew me. And through that beauty the Lord would restore me to the truth. The Lord had my attention and my presence through that beauty and now the truth would gently permeate my unbelieving soul.

As luck would have it we sang a lot of traditional music in that choir. We weren’t the typical youth choir which sang a steady diet of folk music. I had never liked folk music, sacred or secular. It just didn’t impress me (just my personal opinion, I don’t say you have to agree). But the classical compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Marcello, and the like impressed me. Here too, (remember I was a teenager)  it was related to girls 🙂  You see, folk music, at least the Church stuff,  has very little of a bass line to sing. But classical music used a lot of counter-point and hence the basses were kept busy and we got to sing a lot of low notes! Are you getting the picture?  Young teenager me, wanted to impress the girls in the choir with my deep voice. Classical music gave me the opportunity to do that. Hence,  my preference for the classical, simple as that.

But here too beauty was on the way. It was not as quickly appreciated as the beauty of the young ladies. It was a slowly discovered beauty. At first the music was just fun to sing, but slowly its beauty infused my soul. And as it’s beauty attracted me, the message of faith contained in that sacred music also became attractive. We would study not just the notes but also the words. I remember once singing a section of a Beethoven Credo (by then I was in my first year of college and we were preparing for a concert). The choir director explained  that the steady beating of the bass notes was to represent the hammer blows of  Christ being nailed to the cross as we sang “crucifixus etiam pro nobis.” (and he was also crucified for us). It was powerful to sing those notes. So the message began to sink in.

I need not say much more. My point is that God used beauty to draw me:  the immediate beauty of the girls in the Choir,  and the discovered beauty of the music. But it was through these beauties that I discovered the beauty of Truth. I joined the choir to meet my bride. In the end I did meet my bride. For it was through my deepening involvement with the Church through music that I discovered my Bride was the Church herself. My bride is beautiful and she is true.

This video is an excerpt from the film The Mission. Fr. Gabriel has gone deep into the rain forest were an untrusting and often violent people fear his arrival and hide preparing to stalk and kill him. But he takes out his oboe and plays a beautiful song (my first girlfriend played the oboe). The beauty draws them out of hiding and helps them accept him into their village. Beauty opened the door for truth and Fr. Gabriel begins to preach Christ.

24 Replies to “On Beauty’s Relation to Truth – A Personal Testimony”

  1. Beautiful post. Music has a particular draw to me. I am very selective about the kind of music I listen to as well (can’t play anything or sing, really). My mp3 has songs that reflect my life and certain events in my life. I was also angry at God for personal reasons. Sometimes I still wonder where God was at those times.

    But then, one day while bodysurfing in the ocean, and later marveling at how powerful and beautiful the ocean is (I love being in and around water), that God has been there for me. God prevented things from getting worse. God kept me on this Earth for a reason. I still have plenty more living and learning to do. And if anything else bad happens…well, I’ve been through some pretty bad stuff, I think I can take it. With God’s help, of course 🙂

    And hearing thunder, I think I am now about to marvel at how terrible this storm is gonna be….

  2. “The choir director explained that the steady beating of the bass notes was to represent the hammer blows of Christ being nailed to the cross as we sang “crucifixus etiam pro nobis.” (and he was also crucified for us). It was powerful to sing those notes. So the message began to sink in.”

    Lovely post. I also attended church for the music primarily during my teen years … and now I am here because of another type of beauty — of words. Thank you.

  3. What a wonderful reflection. I just finished listening to Claude Bolling’s California Suite. Such Joy and beauty in it too.
    The 20th Century was largely a denial of beauty. In some way I think that this denial of beauty has infected the Catholic Church in the USA. Ugly music, Ugly churches, Ugly vestments, Ugly chalices, Ugly altars, Ugly liturgy, Ugly dress for the servers.
    Add to this that even the candles in our church aren’t real candles is certainly a metaphor. Lex Orandi Lex Credendi.

  4. Yes, there is a relationship between beauty and truth, but in this fallen world beauty is not a sure guide to truth. For instance, I’ve heard that one particularly nasty (and untruthful) chap can appear as an angel of light.

  5. Msgr. Pope,

    Were you singing the Mass in C? If that’s the one, you might remember this. I have done some extensive analysis of the Credo from that Mass, and Beethoven was a genius.

    Right before the “Deum de Deo…” The statement that Jesus is God, and thus the implication of our belief in the Most Holy Trinity, Beethoven has three measures of insturmental music. 3 measures, each with a dotted half note-receiving three beats-, 3 notes, and all three are E-flat chords. It took me awhile to figure this out, but E-flat is the key of royalty for Beethoven. It is the key of the Eroica symphony-written in memory of Napolean and the key of the Emporer Concerto! In three measures of music, without any words, we see Beethoven’s acknowledgement that Christ is King and rules together with the other Persons of the Most Holy Trinity.

  6. I agree a lot with your post that music can draw people in closer to relationship with God. I sing with a local choir called Choralis, and while I’ve been singing with them 80% of the music we sing is sacred liturgical music. Variations on the mass by Bach, Mozart, and we’re currently singing the Oratorio Elijah by Mendelssohn. All of the liturgical pieces we sing are beautiful in that they were written to give praise! And I have learned so much by singing these songs.

    At the same time, while not everyone likes the current tradition of folk worship, I have found that some of the more “folksy” songs can have just as much of an impact on me spiritually. It is just a new art form–but it is all in worship of the same God. I think both styles (classical or more modern) have their place, and both can be equally as beautiful and divinely inspired.

    1. Yes, I’ve grown to like some of the genre much more. Back in the 1970s though it was stuff like: “Sons of God” “Whatsoever you do” I have also grown to like some of the Contempory Christian genre.

  7. I think this is probably my favourite post of the year. I can identify with all of this. I remember, when growing up, one girl at my church who always meant that I was well-groomed and punctual for Mass. Is there nothing God can’t use? 🙂

    It is incredible the way in which we appear to be wired for beauty. I guess in some way we are still haunted by Eve, the pinnacle and crown of God’s creation.

    People often don’t know that “Gabriel’s Oboe” actually has lyrics to it. The translation of the Italian (“Nella Fantasia”) is simply beautiful:

    In my imagination I see a just world,
    Everyone lives in peace and in honesty there.
    I dream of souls that are always free,
    Like the clouds that fly,
    Full of humanity in the depths of the soul.

    In my imagination I see a bright world,
    Even the night is less dark there.
    I dream of souls that are always free,
    Like clouds that fly.

    In my imagination there exists a warm wind,
    That breathes on the cities, like a friend.
    I dream of souls that are always free,
    Like clouds that fly,
    Full of humanity in the depths of the soul.

    I heartily recommend getting Chloe Agnew rendition of it :).

  8. When I sang in a V2 mass choir, I sang a lot of the songs around the house, and especially the psalms, and I thought they helped my prayer life. Something about the classical though. Something about an oboe for me. Like the opera ads say, “It’s not what you think, it’s what you feel.” Loved this post.

  9. Thank you so much, Msgr, I don’t sing but my husband loves classical music. I like to listen to chant while I embroider. I’ve just finished an icon for one of our priests for his 50th jubilee. My prayer while doing the embroidery was that people would look at it and see Jesus and I wanted it to be beautiful because, as you say, beauty leads to truth. When a friend who is not a Catholic and doesn’t practice her faith looked at it, she had tears in her eyes, just like I did reading about the Beethoven Credo. Thank you for your priesthood and ministry in this blog.

  10. Oh no, Teo Matteo, then Msgr. Pope wouldn’t have time to blog with us. Not that he does not deserve it,
    but I truly think he does more good here among us.
    Thank you Msgr.

  11. Its interesting how often i have seen young men show up at Mass dressed like.. well slobs is a polite word. then when they realize that there are (gasp) girls at church…. why some of these young men suddenly develop clean clothing….
    it is also true that a young lady can be encouraged to dress a bit better for church if she has it brought to her attention that there are young men (and THEIR parents) in attendance, and she wants to make a good impression…

    it is rare for the young to be consistently thoughtful of the Real presence, but something a bit more obvious can be seen with mundane eyes.

    we are physical beings, and often our attention/mind/spirit is profoundly affected by what we see, touch, taste, hear, etc. this is why music is SO powerful, and why a pretty girl in the choir is such an attention getter……

    and why i lament the lack of the Rosary in so many parishes.. it is a physical and verbal method of meditative prayer…. and is what brought me to the church… and it has some lovely sung versions tooo…

  12. Msgr. Pope,

    What a story. The lure of beautiful music, the temptation to sing.

    30 years ago (back in the Middle Ages) we moved. Over the Triduum, Dottie, a member of the choir, must haved heard me singing. After the Good Friday services, she asked if I would be interested in joining the choir.

    Having never been in a choir, we talked and I came to the next practice.

    One year I heard of a night of discernment for those who might be interested in the Diaconate.

    My wife and I went. Several years later, the Bishop laid his hands on me, and asked for obedience to him.

    I can’t prove it, but I firmly believe Dottie was an angel of the Lord. The pilgrimage continues. With its Good Fridays and Easter Sundays.

    I have been truly blessed to have met people in ways that would never have happened.


  13. Since I subscribed for this Catholic News, I have a file called Msgr. Ch. Pope, were I keep all your letters. Everynow and then I refer to them for my own spiritual good. But this letter, a small but important part of your personal story made me shed some tears. Thank you Monsignor.

  14. Your story brought back a lot of memories for me. I too was attracted to the church choir by the pretty girls when I was a teenager. I may not have had your doubts, but a desire to sing was also not at the top of my list for joining. Here I am, some 30 something years later, still singing in the church choir. Now it’s for the Glory of God and a love of the music.

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