Karol Wojtyla (St John Paul II), as well as being a profound thinker and man of deep prayer, was a poet, a playwright and a lover of beauty. He knew the human person was oriented not simply towards truth, in a cold and rational way, but also to the good and to the beautiful. He knew that beauty had the power to awaken our souls to the transcendent.

This ‘way of beauty’ as an evangelical path, the via pulchritudinis, has been highlighted recently through the discovery of a set of spiritual exercises Wojtyla gave in 1962 during a Holy Week retreat for artists in Krakow. The exercises Wojtyla gave were called God is Beauty: A Retreat on the Gospel and Art, and they were only published in Poland several years ago. The English translation has been made available for the first time this year, thanks to the Theology of the Body Institute, headed by Christopher West.

Although it’s only available in e-book format in Australia, it is an absolute treasure. The heart of it lies with Wojtyla’s spiritual reflections—five given across five days—reflecting on what it means to say that God is Beauty, and what the relationship is between artists and their work, between artists and their God.

It is followed by commentary from various people, reflections, and a conversation between West’s colleague Bill Donaghy and a famous Irish-Catholic sculptor, Dony MacManus, called ‘Beauty is not an option’. Appropriately, the book is rich in beauty and style; it has been put together in such a way that people can treat it as a personal retreat guide.

In the first lesson, Wojtyla reflects upon the mysterious connection we have to beauty:

There is a certain unique sensitivity to beauty in the human soul; a kind of musical string that vibrates when a person meets up with beauty. Beauty delights and attracts. And because it attracts, this indicates that there is something else beyond it, which is hidden.

What lies beyond the beautiful, he says, is God: the absolute Beauty, the perfectly beautiful. In the incarnation, this Beauty became flesh; all our yearning, all our aching for the beautiful, is at bottom the ache for God. All art, all creative work that comes from human hands, is simply a reflection, a fragment, of the God who is Beauty.

In this way, artists bear a noble responsibility that comes with a tragic temptation: the artist can forget that they need the God of Beauty, not because they are an artist but because they are a person. To see God simply as a source of inspiration for their art is to idolise the art. God reveals his beauty through creation and redemption, and it is with this that the artist must first connect. On this idea, Wojtyla quotes a Polish poet:

A stream of Beauty flows through you, but you yourself are not Beauty.

In a sense, this book is timely. There is a growing awareness that Western culture is choosing to cut away its religious roots, distancing itself from the sources of inspiration that gave us the greatest art known to humanity. Literary critic Peter Craven, in the recently published Christianity Matters (Wilkinson), gives an impressive tour of the way in which Christianity has shaped most of our literature, music and art. He writes, ‘The New Testament is part of the air we breathe and may it ever be.’

In the final conversation between Bill Donaghy and Dony MacManus, which concludes this edition of God is Beauty, MacManus says that for at least a hundred years the Church has ‘dropped the ball’ when it comes to the promotion of beauty, resulting in extraordinary damage to our culture. In a world that inundates us with ugliness, there is a responsibility to lift our hearts to the beauty of God.

For those artists wanting to reconnect the arts with something meaningful and transcendent, this retreat given by Wojtyla is vital. It is a journey deep within to discover the God who is Beauty, and why we need him so much.