O mystic rose

This magnificent window is the thirteenth-century north rose window at Notre-Dame de Paris. St Thomas Aquinas would have seen this window when it was brand new – a pretty mind-boggling thought.

That observation is made by Fr Robert Barron in his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of Faith (see previous post). Fr Barron continues by describing the window as a demonstration of St Thomas’s description of beauty as “occurring at the intersection of three elements: wholeness, harmony and radiance”.

But as Fr Barron goes on to point out, this window’s beauty is more than skin-deep. It is rich in symbolism intended to give “a foretaste of the beauty of the beatific vision”.

First, there is its numerical symbolism:

Around the central figures of Christ and his mother are eight small circles. Then on the next major row we find sixteen circular images (medaillons in French), and on the next twice sixteen, or thirty-two, images, and then finally another row of thirty-two. If we add thirty-two, thirty-two, sixteen, and eight, we arrive at eighty-eight. In a word, the entire window is an artistic meditation on the number eight.

Eight is “a symbol of eternity, since it stands immediately outside of seven, which evokes the seven days of the week, or the completed cycle of time”.

A second important area of symbolism is the window’s complexity. When Fr Barron first visited Paris as a young man, he returned to Notre-Dame every day to look at this window, “partly because there was so much to take in”. He continues:

The vision of God is like that. Saint Bernard said that heaven will slake our thirst, but the very slaking will, paradoxically, make us thirsty for more. We will know all that we want to know, but that very satisfaction will convince us how much we don’t know. Thomas Aquinas said that what the saints in heaven grasp for the first time is just how incomprehensible God is and therefore just what an adventure the life of heaven will be.

The north rose window at Notre-Dame reflects only one tiny facet of the incomprehensible, inexhaustible God who has revealed himself to us in Christ and whom we encounter in his church. But what a facet!

The Beatitudes and true happiness

Fr Robert Barron has an interesting analysis of the Beatitudes in his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of Faith. Fr Barron begins by observing that “Blessed” is the first word uttered by Jesus in his role as “the new Moses” (as St Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount presents him):

The Greek term in Matthew’s Gospel is makarios, which is probably best rendered with the simple word “happy.” The law that the new Moses offers is a pattern of life that promises, quite simply, to make us happy.

To see how the beatitudes set out “a pattern of life to make us happy”, Fr Barron suggests an analysis which distinguishes between the “positive” and “negative” beatitudes. Working out from the centre, the four “positive” beatitudes are:

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

The four “negative” beatitudes (those which can strike us as “confounding and counterintuitive) are then:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Fr Barron suggests that these four beatitudes address the ways in which “the mysterious curvature of the will that we call original sin” cause us to “deviate from the very actions and attitudes that will make us happy”: in particular, the way we try to satisfy our hunger for God with created things. Following Thomas Aquinas, Barron identifies these as wealth, pleasure, power, and honour, which he describes as four “addictions”.

So “blessed are the poor in spirit” is “neither a romanticizing of economic poverty nor a demonization of wealth”, but rather “a formula for detachment”: for freeing ourselves from our addiction to wealth and material things.

Similarly, “blessed are those who mourn” can be expressed, Fr Barron suggests, as “how blessed you are if you are not addicted to good feelings”. Pleasure is a good thing in itself – and Jesus is not calling us to a puritanical renunciation of all pleasant sensations – but when we treat pleasure as an absolute good, it becomes an addiction that can rule our lives.

“Blessed are the meek” is about breaking our addiction to worldly power. Again, Jesus is not saying that any exercise of political power is always wrong, but about being detached from the drive to power that can be “the strongest, most irresistible temptation of all”.

Finally, “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” addresses our addiction to personal honour, to being well thought-of. “Many people who are not terribly attracted to wealth, pleasure, or power are held captive by their desire for the approval of others,” Fr Barron observes. To be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, by contrast, is to face mockery and dishonour for the sake of the crucified Christ.

And it is this crucified Christ who best exemplifies what he teaches in the beatitudes:

Thomas Aquinas said that if you want to see the perfect exemplification of the beatitudes, you should look to Christ crucified. The saint specified this observation as follows: if you want beatitude (happiness), despise what Jesus despised on the cross and love what he loved on the cross.

On the cross, Jesus despised the four worldly addictions of wealth, pleasure, power and honour, as he was stripped naked; suffered physical, mental and spiritual agony; rendered helpless and powerless; and exposed to the ultimate of dishonour through suffering the death of a common criminal.

What did Jesus love on the cross? “The will of his Father.” And loving the will and mission of his Father to the end, he was able to live out the beatitudes to the full, with what he loved and what he despised on the cross being “in a strange balance”:

Poor in spirit, meek, mourning, and persecuted, he was able to be pure of heart, to seek righteousness utterly, to become the ultimate peacemaker, and to be the perfect conduit of the divine mercy to the world. Though it is supremely paradoxical to say so, the crucified Jesus is the man of beatitude, a truly happy man.