Beauty is one of God’s attributes

When we visited Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon earlier this summer, one of the things that struck me was simply the beauty. From the Abbey’s website:

Beauty is one of the attributes of God, along with truth and goodness. For this reason monks are naturally attracted to it, and through the centuries have preserved it in their monasteries.

I’d read about the importance of beauty in the monastic tradition, but it wasn’t until I took a stroll through the monastery grounds that I really got it at a visceral level. Before I went out for my walk I stopped by the retreat house chapel to pray.

It’s a cozy room with a vibrant icon of The Death of Saint Benedict, created by my cousin, a monk and iconographer at Mt. Angel. After praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament for a while, I went upstairs to the retreat house lounge. Even though it had grand picture windows that boasted sweeping views of the Oregon countryside, what I always noticed was the bejeweled crucifix that stood at the entrance of the room.

Refreshed from the fresh coffee and cookies in the lounge, I stepped out of the retreat house and into the main courtyard, where I was met with a crisp breeze and a breathtaking view of the distant mountains.

(I should note that it was about 88 degrees. And, yes, that is “crisp” summer weather for us Texans.) Next I wound through the retreat house garden…

…and then spent some time at the library, which was designed by famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. He did it for only a nominal fee as a gift to the Benedictines for preserving Western civilization throughout the ages.

From there I walked through the halls of the seminary, which combines the best of old and new by having the latest and greatest “green” technology, like ceiling fixtures that enhance natural light…

…alongside artwork in the ancient craft of iconography.

Next I wandered over to one of the gardens, resting next to a pond overlooked by a statue of Our Lady. This one is just outside the cloister walls, so some of the monks can see it from their windows.

The sound of the enormous cast bronze bells thundered through the air to announce the start of noon prayer. Each one has a special name: for example, The Most Holy Trinity is the eight-ton bell that plays to note of A, the two-ton St. Joseph plays F. The bells have such special meaning that they’re kept as ornaments to the monastery grounds when they’re retired.

Listening to the monks’ chants echo through the halls of the church at noon prayer reminded me what it’s all about…

…a lesson that was emphasized when, after noon prayer, I took a walk through the monastery cemetery, where all the brothers who have made their home here throughout the ages lie in peace.

I sat down on a bench near the cemetery. I felt like I could explode with that unmistakable joy and all-encompassing peace that only comes from a brush with the divine. It was then that I realized, more deeply than I ever had before, that to be in the presence of beauty is to be in the presence of God.

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  1. Leah says

    Thanks for this. I had a similar experience visiting the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota, even though I'm not Catholic, and am in fact atheist, but I do sense I glimpse of something higher potential for ourselves when I'm in a place of great beauty, be it in nature or manmade or some combination.

  2. Lindsey says

    Wow, this is utterly beautiful, both your photos and your words describing the experience. If I ever make it to Oregon (we're in Texas, too:) I'll try to make a point to visit this place. How does it work, visiting a monestary? I presume you did not see the monks in cloister and you could not go into their living area…I should know this because I've visited a few places that I believe were cloistered (Little Clares in Brenham for one, and also a monestary in New Orleans, which I don't really remember).

  3. Athanasius contra mundum says

    I remembered how beautiful it is there as I read this.
    Did you get to see the museum?
    Mt Angel also has a great view of the surrounding countryside and Mts Hood, St Helen and Rainier on really clear days. There used to be a bench between Aquinas Hall and the Library where you could sit and enjoy this view, its been a few years to I don't know if its still there. The chapel in Aquinas has a glass etching of the Apostles in the boat with Jesus as the storm raged.

  4. Sebastian says

    Beauty is one of God's attributes. That is so spot on.

    We've been able to travel a lot over the last several years. We're in Japan at the moment. It is strikng how lovely the shrines and temples here are. Each one lovingly contructed to be both functional and beautiful.

    I think that western churches (particularly in the protestant tradition that I worship in) sometimes forget that. They put order and function ahead of beauty. But not acknowledging our yearning for beauty within worship leaves us looking for satisfaction for this yearning in other (sometimes far less worthy) aspects of our lives.

    Bring back beautiful churches into our daily encounters with worship.

  5. The Vogt Family says

    Thank you for sharing the beauty of your visit with us, Jen! Now if I can only convince my husband we need to go on retreat to Oregon… :)

  6. Anonymous says

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. It brings back memories of a very similar experience I had at Mt. Angel about 8 years ago!

  7. Joel V says

    Truly beautiful :) It’s a tremendous contrast from the church where I have recently started going. Ours is corrugated iron and timber, and is in the middle of the red Aussie desert. But no less beautiful for all that :)