“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime, that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which on the part of pleasure.” Burke’s description of the sublime is, on another reading, an ideal entry point into an introduction to Catholicism. The Catholicism of Antiquity, the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, of Gothic Baroque, up until the Second Vatican Council, was all about the sublime instead of the beautiful.
Burke draws a distinction between the sublime and the beautiful in that, where the sublime causes a sense of terror, horror, and fear, the beautiful causes a sense of pleasantry. “[S]ublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from its insensibility; the great in many cases love the right line, and when it deviates, it often makes a strong deviation; beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy.” Scripture, however, points to the sublime rather than the beautiful. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10) as all know or should know. Fear, not a pleasant beholding and carefree approach. That carefree and nonchalant approach caused Nadab and Abihu to be struck down by the Lord’s all-consuming fire.
Man does not have an egalitarian and symmetric relationship to, or with, God. Man’s relationship to God is one of thunderous asymmetry; God is radically greater and superior to man and man should tremble before the presence of the Almighty. One cannot look upon the tremendous face of God and live, as God told Moses on Mount Sinai. Job reminds his friends in conversation, “As soon as he shall move himself, he shall trouble you: and his dread shall fall upon you. Your remembrance shall be compared to ashes, and your necks shall be brought to clay” (Jb. 13:11-12). Man is so dependent upon God and God is so immense, so enormous, so engrossing that we cannot but tremble, bow, and look away lest our eyeballs melt.
The sense of the sublime is immediately felt before any great cathedral, crucifix, or the great works of Catholic art. Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Elevation of the Cross” and “The Crucified Christ” should immediately make manifest that sense of horror, terror, and trembling before God. The bloody and bleeding Christ on the Cross is not a pleasant aesthetic image but an altogether sensational one. The dark crevices and dimly lit spaces of a cathedral, though light shines in through the stained-glass windows for purposive illumination, creates a feeling of existential angst and emptiness rather than triumphant smoothness and a sense of homeliness. The Passion of Christ and Holy Week processions are equally dark, gloomy, and splendidly horrifying with veiled men dressed in dark or red robes facelessly marching in solemn order.
Catholicism’s emphasis on reverence, care, and rules is not about legalism as anti-Catholic Protestants claim. Instead, it is about embodying that sense of reverent fear before the Lord. If one does not have that sense of fear before God, one is not wise or has been enlightened by God. The care taken in Mass, or the care that used to be integral to Mass, the care taken in the preparation and consumption of the Eucharist, the care taken in the approach to God at the Altar, all was a physicalized embodiment of how wisdom begins. The Catholic emphasis on reverence, care, and right action before God is not to make the same mistakes that Nadab and Abihu did. It is to stand before the Living God with dreadful reverence and submission. Hence the genuflecting upon entry into the sanctuary of the Lord.
The loss of dread has had disastrous consequences for Christians all over the world, and for Catholics in particular. The reality of the fire of Hell has attempted to be cleansed by the wishful fantasies of post-Vatican II theologians hoping for an empty Hell. These men, and their non-dreadful Catholic proteges and stooges, look back upon the dying world like Lot’s wife. They will be zapped accordingly.
It is true that beauty is a gateway to God and has always been a foundational part of Catholic consciousness and culture. However, the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime by Burke is both helpful and unhelpful in understanding the terrifying magnanimity of the Catholic sense of beauty which blurs the line between the sublime and the beautiful. In fact, this is what Catholicism gets right and does better than any other religion in the world; it blurs the line between dread and pleasantry to create a horrifying sense of wonder that is at once repulsive yet seductively alluring. Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion” perfectly captures this blurring of the lines; we are simultaneously left in a state of horror and seductive splendor at his masterpiece. The decrepit Suffering Servant of Isaiah and Wisdom is so thoroughly extirpated it is a horrifying reminder of the totality of radical love to the point of self-giving death and how far short we fall from that example.
From this disposition, who can—in all honesty—read about the Plagues of Egypt, the sudden and spectacular destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the turning of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, the brutalization of Christ during His crucifixion, or upon the image of the blood-drunk harlot Mystery Babylon, and not be equally filled with a feeling of repugnance and wondrous marvel like St. John upon seeing the Whore riding the Seven Headed Beast? The darkness of Catholicism is its enduring and most seductive feature. It is truly shrouded in mystery as the Trinity, creation, and the nature of the covenant. And David does write that “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him” (Ps. 97:2). That dark mystery culminated in the death of Christ and as we read, “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land” (Lk. 23:44).
When society, and man, grows arrogant, soft, and hedonistic, living a life of extreme carefree pleasure the frightful radiance of God strikes men blind and dead. The thunder and lightning of God, that all-consuming fire that enveloped Sodom and Gomorrah, Nadab and Abihu, that dread one should have before the Lord who is a consuming flame and not the “nectar of ambrosia” per the Hellenic Neoplatonists, should fill one with the strongest emotion possible where trembling legs give way the whole body falls in prostration before the Lord. The effulgence of God is so total, consuming, and unstoppable, one is compelled either to rush blindly to Eternity or turn in terror from it and flee into the wilderness for shade being chased by the specter of the fire of Eternity.
Modernity needs a good dose of the glimmering darkness of God. Indeed, the greatest, the most sublime, moment of the Old Testament was in darkness, “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more” (Dt. 5:22). For the blood, cobwebs, and shadowed halls one walks is illuminated by the single light at the end of the tunnel which transforms the spatial aesthetical dimension of existence manages to cause the horrifying and gratuitous to have a peculiar charm to it.
What mediates the sublime and the beautiful? God, who is the vastest object of all and the only object of proper love which subsumes all things like a consuming fire. And the God who mediates the sublime and the beautiful enchantingly calls us through pools of blood, fire, and locusts to that beatific light. Lest we forget that entry into Heaven comes with the coming of the Lord in spectacular and blinding glory wielding fire, a sword, and commanding an army of chariots whereby ashes shall arise, with tears and mourning, and shall be judged to eternal rest or torment which was won by the resurrection and is a far, far, far, different portrait than what is usually offered up on Resurrection Sunday. The true primal spirit of Christianity understands the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ not as beautiful but as sublime, and that the Resurrection’s fulfillment is in Last Judgement and not the empty tomb.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
*This post was originally published on this site on April 19, 2019 under the title “Terror, the Sublime, and Catholicism.” It is reposted here on Good Friday, April 15, 2021 for obvious reasons.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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