One of the experiences that caused David Clayton to convert to Catholicism occurred when he stumbled into a church.
It wasn’t just any church. It was the London Oratory in England, known for its beautiful liturgy and choir. At the time, Clayton, an Englishman, did not know what the Mass was, nor did he know that the church was Catholic.
“It was one of the most beautiful, moving experiences,” said Clayton, artist in residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. “The choir, the incense, the obvious sense of reverence and dignity communicated a sense of faith. The art and the architecture — everything seemed to be part of a single, unified experience directing me into something.”
“It was that experience that started the quest of why is it that some art is appropriate in creating that experience,” he said.
Clayton’s quest led him to create a program at Thomas More known as the Way of Beauty. It combines the study of pattern, harmony, symmetry and order in nature and mathematics and draws on the principles of early Church thinkers such as St. Augustine and Boethius, as well as recent ones, such as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The program began in the fall of 2009 and is mandatory for all freshmen.
William Fahey, the college’s president, said the program is a great preparation for freshman students to learn about Western art because all sophomores are required to spend a semester in Rome.
“They spend almost every day after their humanities classes in Rome tromping around looking at churches,” he said. “This would arm them with a full year of theoretical knowledge about art before they go to Rome.”
There is another practical benefit to the program, he added. Many students view art, especially liturgical art, as a matter of individual taste, with little sense of how to evaluate it.
“So they have no ability to express why one thing is more beautiful, why something might not be the best way of depicting man or to represent God and religious things,” Fahey said. “My hope would be that students who pass through the program would be articulate defenders of what beauty is.”
The curator of art at the Foundation for Sacred Arts in Washington, Rachel Ross, agreed with Fahey, adding that “we, as Catholics — really as a culture — have lost an appreciation for beauty, for genuine beauty, for an objective standard of beauty.”
She said that the Way of Beauty program offers students a way to examine the role beauty plays in people’s lives and in the culture and the ways it shapes and expresses people’s worldviews. It also shows the importance of beauty within sacred and liturgical settings, she said.
And so students learn how to paint icons, chant the Divine Office, and reproduce traditional designs used during medieval times, such as those used on a Gothic window in churches, among other things.
“I would hope when they go out to their parishes or wherever they are that they will have a very active interest in helping the culture renew itself and elevate the discourse about art and the kind of art that people want to see in public places,” Fahey said. In addition to developing in students the ability to understand beauty, another hope, Clayton said, is that something deeper happens — that people moved by beauty are also moved to love the source of all beauty: God.
“Some people see the beauty of creation, and it stops there, but, ultimately, what God is doing is he is calling us to him through the beauty of that creation — and the study of this develops that faculty in the student,” said Clayton, a graduate of Oxford University who studied the theology and technique of Eastern Christian art under a Russian master and studied the classical techniques of realist paintings in Florence, Italy. “That is the hope. It increases their capacity to love and serve their fellow man.”
Clayton also hopes that the “transforming principle” is evident through this traditional liberal arts education.
“It allows the individual to grow in virtue,” he said. “The fullest education is one where you are actually practicing and creating because, if you develop that creative faculty and are open to inspiration and understand the nature of beauty, it has to be rounded off by creating beauty.”
He added: “If you are doing that, then you are opening yourself up to inspiration, and God is working through you.”
The importance of the program in their overall education should not be minimized, either, said John Zmirak, writer in residence at the college. He equated a modern college education to “a smashed mosaic,” with students taking courses as a “grab bag of information” that has been “cobbled into a slapdash” pattern.
“What we’re trying to do is to teach students to see civilization as a plant that has roots, and it has a trunk; it has branches; it has leaves; it has flowers,” Zmirak said. “I think looking for order and beauty as evidence of the divine plan and learning to create works of beauty — the experience of all that — helps students to integrate their learning, and integration is a rare thing in modern education.”
Cherie McCabe, an art student taking the Way of Beauty program at the college, said the courses are inspiring.
“It reminds you that your goal is … to want to be in heaven,” McCabe said. “You want to live the Liturgy of the Hours, and you want to live the liturgical calendar as much as possible. You can live it daily, or as an artist you can incorporate those in prayer before you paint. It all points to the divine, finally.”
Carlos Briceño writes from Naperville, Illinois.