• Formation to the Catholic Priesthood
  • This Section has Five Articles and a Video

    I. Video Conference on Vocational Discernment from the Theologian to the Papal Household

    II. Letter to An Aspirant Priest by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P.

    III. Hope for the Liturgy: What to Expect from Today’s Newly-Ordained Priest by Fr. Kurt Besole, O.S.B.

    IV. The Priest and Liturgical Music by Jennifer Donelson

    V. Aquinas on the Priest: Sacramental Realism & the Indispensable & Irreplaceable Vocation of the Priest by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.

    VI. ‘Essentia et Non Gradu Tantum Differant’—A note on the priesthood and analogical predication by Thomas G. Guarino

    Video Conference on Vocational Discernment from the Theologian to the Papal Household

    Fr. Wojciech Giertych, O.P.

    Letter to an Aspirant priest

    Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P.
    Director of the Thomistic Institute, Rome

    Reading Time

    Pastrores Dabo Vobis
    Sacerdotalis Caelibatus
    Veritatis Gaudium

    grateful to you for getting in touch. Many people today would no doubt think you are strange for considering the priesthood, given the cloud that hangs over the Church. Others might congratulate you for heroism. Actually, both reactions are excessive. For a Catholic young man who is fervent in his faith, it’s a normal and reasonable thing to think seriously about being a priest, and rightly so. The truth is, if you have a calling to the priesthood you should gladly embrace it, because it’s an extraordinary vocation. It’s sad that more young men don’t consider it seriously and accept the calling.

    Let me begin with definitions, rather than advice. What is the priesthood, essentially? The Letter to the Hebrews and the First Letter to Timothy provide the answer. The office pertains first and foremost to Jesus himself, who is the unique “high priest” of all humanity (Heb. 7:26) and a “mediator” between God and human beings (1 Tim. 2:5). Traditionally, Christ’s priesthood is understood to operate in a twofold direction, as descending and ascending. The gifts of God descend to human beings through the unique priesthood of Christ because he is the unique source of grace and truth for the whole human race. The human community also ascends toward God first and foremost through Christ’s human obedience, reverence, and prayer, for he is the “pioneer of our faith” according to Hebrews 12:2.

    The ministerial priesthood in the Catholic Church takes its point of departure from these two forms of participation. Each Catholic priest is a fragile, limited human being who is called to participate in Christ’s priestly mission in an entirely derivative and subordinate way. The “descent” occurs through the communication of divine truth and sacramental grace, in which the priest is an instrument of God despite his own limitations. The “ascent” occurs principally in the liturgy and the priest’s pastoral governance, since the priest orients the Christian people toward authentic worship and a life of holiness. In both these senses, the priest is called to progressive conformity to Christ, and to conversion, by virtue of his sacramental ordination and his life of prayer, teaching, and care of souls. If he does this in genuine docility to the grace of God, the light of Christ shines out into the world through his ministry. If he does this in confrontation with or defection from the true mystery of Christ, he becomes a contradictory being in whom Christ’s mystery is rendered painfully obscure, to the detriment of the Church and even the potential scandal of the faithful. So the stakes are high, but even while you take this into account you should not be afraid. The grace of Christ is with every person who is called to be a priest.

    The first aim in seeking the priesthood, then, is to stay in the presence of Christ. The vocation makes sense only to the extent that we remain perpetually relative to him, his mystery, his truth, his Church. Christ gives priests a certain interior stability over time. To live in him is to become strong, not unstable. But the stability is dynamic: It only works if the minister remains spiritually poor and docile to Jesus, acting in him and for him. That is something deeper than a checklist of responsibilities or a sincere moral attitude. It is a habit of being that comes from the Holy Ghost. So it is good to start with this realism.

    Let me mention a few basic ideas about discernment of the priesthood and appropriate preparation. First, a brief word about motives. Why should a person want to be a priest? I’d be wary of those who suggest the necessity of prolonged psychological self-analysis on this point. Of course, we should seek to know ourselves. But the vocation does not arise out of some kind of profound act of introspection, and even less does it require that we go through an inner drama as a prerequisite to our entry into seminary. That way of thinking can easily be the stuff of narcissism. The vocation fundamentally comes from a desire for knowledge of Christ and intimacy with God, despite our natural and normal desire for marriage and children. The seminarian is a person who has given up the very good natural reality of life in a family to live for something he has learned to desire more: the search for God.

    You should also beware of those who define the priestly vocation primarily in terms of public utility or personal happiness. Our American culture tends to think primarily in utilitarian and therapeutic terms. “If you are a priest, you will be useful to others and psychologically fulfilled. Maybe. Probably both, at least some of the time. But these are insufficient motives. The real driving force that sustains a person in the priesthood is the desire to do the will of God and to find God. A Benedictine abbot once told me, “The reasons I thought I entered are not the reasons I stayed. Over time a person stays in the vocation, amid joy and suffering, amid human recognition or cultural ignominy and scorn, for God alone. The stability of the priesthood is at base the stability of the Cross. It comes from God, his will and his grace, not human estimations of worth or success, psychological introspection, or pragmatic arguments.

    The positive way to put this is that the priest learns little by little to exist for God’s own sake, and not for any merely created thing. The priest is a sign to the world that human beings can exist for God himself, to enjoy God by knowledge and love, because God is worth it. Augustine puts it more powerfully: Nothing whatsoever is worth loving for itself except God. In this sense, the priest is the first one who has to learn to give up his idols. God alone remains. The rest turns to ash. This is why the Church depends deeply for her witness on the radicality of the religious life and the priesthood. These offices are meant to show in a visible way that the Church herself exists for God. And if the Catholic Church cannot do anything for God’s own sake, she cannot do anything of real importance in the world today. Ultimately her attempts to justify her own existence will become pathetic as she tries to prove her usefulness in purely human, political, or worldly terms.

    A second idea: The life of a priest is cantered around the truth of Catholic doctrine. This is something many seem to get wrong in the Church today. There are many people, both “progressive” and “traditionalist,” who begrudgingly accept the doctrinal mission of the Church. Doctrina in Latin means “teaching. The Church communicates the revelation of Christ confided to the Apostles. On a practical level, no one is more fundamentally responsible for this day to day than the Catholic priest, and if we don’t see that clearly as priests, our lives effectively become sterilised. Outside the celebration of the sacraments, the core responsibility of the priest is to teach the faith. If secularisation is happening in vast parts of Europe and North and South America today, the main reason is that this traditional function of the priesthood is being ignored or performed badly.

    In saying that the priest is meant to teach apostolic doctrine, I’m not saying you have to be an erudite intellectual, and certainly not a professional academic. Was St. Paul a professor of theology? In fact, priestly responsibilities are very different: The parish priest needs to instruct people at all levels and all ages, from the catechesis of young children to the instruction of working-class people to young professionals, academics, and cultural leaders. This is more challenging in some respects than what academics do, but you don’t need a PhD to do it. If a priest presents the mysteries of the faith simply, clearly, and accurately to others, the Holy Spirit works through him despite his limitations. It is amazing what can happen simply through a clear and courageous presentation of the teachings of the Catechism. It is important not to underestimate the power of truth.

    Seminary formation will give you the time to study the basic truths of the faith and to practice communicating them in a sufficiently clear way. The basic virtues you need to work on at this early stage are studiousness and courage. You need to form the habit of daily study of the faith and develop the courage to speak clearly about the faith to others with prudence and love, not stridency or defensiveness. This matters because the crisis in the priesthood today is above all a crisis of faith, and faith (as Aquinas rightly notes) is a supernatural grace given primarily to the intellect, not the heart. It consists in right judgment about the truth of Christianity, and how that truth should inform our lives. A Church and a priesthood without intellectual judgment regarding Christ risks devolving into a Church without faith . . . but also a Church without love, since love is guided and informed from within by an orientation toward truth. The bottom line is that you need to cultivate progressively a true Christian intellectual life wherein you learn to see reality in the light of Christ. This is what will allow you to evangelise, and to steady others in the storm.

    A third idea: A key challenge is to allow the grace of God to inform all the root desires of your heart. The priesthood is about having your hearts reoriented by divine love. This is a lifelong process. A priest is first and foremost a heart seeking God, which means he is also a person who is constantly surrendering to God, a sinner always being redeemed by the Cross, and exalted by the Cross. Nietzsche says that the priest is only dangerous if he really loves, by which he means that the delusion of Christianity only takes root if the person is a zealous fanatic. Mystically speaking, Nietzsche is right. The love of God has to guide us if we want to be of any real use to other people. The Church is not an office of sacral bureaucrats. St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke about the Cistercian monk as a wild caged lion, contained in his monastic cell but incessantly roaring to God. The priest is meant to be a troubadour, not a manager. When a person truly loves God, it is contagious.

    The ordinary denizens of the Church—the people of God—typically love the priests who serve them and reverence the mystery of the priesthood. Yet they only do so when they feel that he is truly at home with them, cares about them, and stands with them through their crises and under their crosses. A great deal of their trust in what the Church teaches is grounded in what they see in the lives of the personnel of the Church. When a priest prepares people for marriage with earnestness, hears their confessions with compassion, visits them or their loved ones when they are sick, counsels them when they are distressed, and buries their dead with confidence in the resurrection, then they will believe in the priesthood, and they will believe what the Church teaches.

    Beware the pitfalls of clerical culture: The acquisition of material comforts are not surrogates meant to make up for celibacy, as if expertise in restaurants and international travel are legitimate compensations for life without a family. Try to be the kind of seminarian who will wear work gloves and wash dishes, not one seeking to be served or esteemed. Priests spend time with the disheartened and the lonely, not just the well-functioning or successful (though the latter matter to God as well). Also, be aware of your own emotional life. If you are preparing for the priesthood you need to cultivate healthy friendships. Every seminarian and priest needs friends he can confide in, equals who are typically colleagues, and perhaps at times also married couples who are peers or elders. Our relationships should be characterised by appropriate boundaries, and should of course be entirely chaste (emotionally as well as physically), but not overly formal or robotic. Be earnest and never cede your capacity to say what you think out loud (in an appropriate way).

    That being said, if a man is preparing for the priesthood and still wants to have emotionally intense friendships with young women, he is fooling himself. Grace does not destroy nature. If a person has a vocation, he can still experience natural attraction to women, and this is one of the central places that boundaries and asceticism matter in the years a person is preparing for ordination, and afterward as well.

    Our culture does not understand or value priestly celibacy, and in a way that is a good thing. It’s an opportunity to bear radical witness to Christ. Celibacy is a sign of contradiction: It shows people that we can exist for something beyond the created order, for God himself. Yet in our own historical moment, there is a lack of confidence in any form of lifelong commitment. The vows of marital fidelity and the decision to have children are also difficult for many people to fathom. This does not mean our contemporaries are at ease with their sexuality. The prevalence of pornography, sterile cohabitation, and prolonged solitude without marriage and children are causing people to rethink the values of the sexual revolution. In this context, priestly celibacy for the sake of Christ serves as a point of orientation. You show all people, whether they have failed or succeeded in this domain, that they can offer their life to God in every circumstance and that their own work of asceticism is valued by the Church.

    The worldly mentality suspects celibacy of being a matter of repression and inhumane sacrifice of sexual pleasure. But when it is lived rightly, there is a beauty to the priesthood as a human and distinctly masculine mode of self-offering to God. Authentic priestly celibacy presents us with a form of masculinity that is spiritual and elevated. It helps other men be better husbands who are self-sacrificing, and helps women transcend some of the neuralgic complexities of power, resentment, and seduction. In fact, it manifests something profound that can exist between men and women only in Christ: true spiritual friendship.

    The truth about Christ himself is also at stake in the Church’s evaluation of celibacy. His example represents the Christological center of celibacy that cannot be ignored. He was himself celibate, as were St. Paul, St. John, and many other saints, as well as the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Are the mysterious lives of these most holy people intelligible to us? The celibate priesthood reflects and embodies this reality in the heart of the Church. Can our poor human frame bear the imprint of the imitatio Christi in this respect? History says yes. The fruitfulness of the Church flows in some sense from her commitment to celibacy in the life of religious orders. It was these above all who brought the gospel to the continents outside Europe, and it is these above all who often evangelise today in places both not yet and formerly Christian. Celibate priests may have no physical descendants, but by baptism they have many millions of children. Our skeptical, over-sexualised enemies may scoff, but their own diminishing demographics belie their false confidence. Ignore the despair of the naysayers (even if they are German cardinals) and seek purity in Christ.

    What should we do about the sexual abuse crisis and the crisis of credibility of the priesthood and episcopacy? I’m sure when you mention to people that you are thinking about the priesthood, this is the first thing that comes into the minds of many.

    In one sense, it is indeed something worth worrying about. We must have a clear conviction about the need for human justice and ecclesial integrity at both the national and international levels. If you are in seminary or the diocesan or religious priesthood and you encounter individuals with problems in this domain, you have to be forthright and help bring things to light. The credibility of the Church will not be fully restored until all priests and bishops are subject to a coherent and reasonable set of disciplines, with ascetical norms and a consistent practice. This is happening little by little, despite the real setbacks we see. Outrage has its uses, but so does optimism.

    In another sense, as an individual seeking God, you should not worry too much about this. You have an obligation as a Christian to find joy in God above and beyond all the pathetic defects and failures of human beings in the Church. The whole point of ex opere operato is that the celebration of the sacraments renders Christ present to the Church despite all the defects of men. The whole point of the charism of dogmatic infallibility in the Church is that the apostolic doctrine remains clearly identifiable and inerrant even when some of the personnel of the Church fail to live by that doctrine or even believe in it.

    I’m not counselling indifference, but the prioritisation of concerns. The divine foundation of the Church comes first, not her human ministers. Super natural faith in Christ grounds us in those foundations where we can be in perpetual contact with Christ, a “living stone” (1 Pet. 2:4) untarnished by our human failings. If you learn to live at that level, you will see the Church for what she is in her depths and love her precisely because she is always united to Christ and enlivened by his holiness. This realisation, far from being a form of escapism, gives you the courage to fight for the reform of the Church and her clergy without ceding to discouragement or cynicism.

    Everyone is called to happiness, but in different ways and according to different rhythms in life. Marriage is the most natural and reasonable way to find happiness in this world. I’ve had countless friends who really began to be happy when they first became parents and “found themselves” through becoming a father or mother. But married people also experience the limitations of happiness in this life. They feel the need for deeper conversion to God as their ultimate hope and source of happiness. In most people this takes place in fits and starts over the course of a lifetime.

    The priest, meanwhile, skips some of the stages. Ultimately the vocation to the priesthood is a vocation to happiness, but in a different rhythm and in a higher key. By living without the natural recourse to happiness in a family, he has to “re-stabilise” at a higher register. This is both consoling and challenging, like the physical rest that comes not from sleeping, but from pausing during a steady climb toward a high peak. We can’t begin the climb by ourselves, but the grace of God makes it feasible, and not just bearable, but serene and peaceful. In John’s Gospel, Christ speaks about a peace the world cannot give (14:27). This is what is at the heart of the priestly vocation: becoming first a captive and then a permanent emissary of that peace. The bottom line is that we should not be afraid to surrender to the vocation, trusting in the happiness that comes from God alone. He does the essential work and we cooperate with it.

    The morality of modern liberalism is both permissive and unforgiving. For our secular contemporaries, everything depends on our autonomy and authenticity, but paradoxically we can achieve very little of importance, and if we lose the favour of the elite custodians of our culture, there is no way back into the fold. Catholicism is the opposite of this in almost every respect. Our spiritual lives don’t depend primarily on our own authority. Instead, God takes the first initiative by his gift of grace in Christ. Without him we may not amount to much, but with him our lives acquire both a profound center of gravity and a wonderful lightness of being. Even our sins are “useful” if we show them to Christ. He is a continual source of forgiveness and life, so that we can live without any despair.

    The Catholic moral tradition is about happiness, holy asceticism, joy, self-offering, humility, and deliverance. It points us toward the sublime, and promises us the intensity of divine love. If you pursue the priesthood and your vocation is confirmed by the Church, you will eventually stand at the nexus of this mystery, yourself a mediator between God and men, bound forever by ordination to Christ and his cross. The spiritual life of Jesus passes from Golgotha through the priest to the world, in the sacraments and apostolic preaching. It is both strange and severe to stand in that nexus, near the light that is never extinguished, to let it slowly change you, and burn your heart, and that of others through you. But it is a joyful existence as well. I encourage you to surrender to it.

    Thank you, again, for writing. Please know that I’ll be praying for you in your ongoing discernment.

    Hope for the Liturgy: What to Expect from Today’s Newly-Ordained Priest

    Fr. Kurt Besole, O.S.B.
    Director of Liturgical Formation at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City, Rome

    The Priest and Liturgical Music

    Jennifer Donelson

    Aquinas on the Priest: Sacramental Realism and the Indispensable and Irreplaceable Vocation of the Priest

    Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.
    St. John’s Seminary
    Brighton, Massachusetts

    ‘Essentia et Non gradu tantum differant’
    A note on the priesthood and analogical predication

    Thomas G. Guarino
    Roman Catholic Theologian

  • Sacred Theology
  • This Section has Two Articles

    I. Theology
    Today: Is it necessary?
    II. Retrieving
    a Sacramental World View in a Mechanistic World by Rik Van Nieuwenhove

    Theology Today—Is it necessary?

    Belief—according to St. Augustine—is to think with assent. Theology is nothing more than the deduction of virtually revealed truths from revealed data by means of reason enlightened by faith.

    Theology is both a speculative and a practical science, although as a unit it is more speculative than practical. Speaking of Theology in general, St. Thomas Aquinas says: ‘In other sciences it is sufficient that man be perfect intellectually, but in this science it is necessary that he also be perfect effectively, for we are to speak of great mysteries and explain wisdom to the perfect. But each one is want to judge things according to his dispositions; thus he who is dominated by anger judges in a very different manner during his seizure of anger than when he is calm. Therefore, Aristotle says that each one seeks his own end in those things to which he is particularly inclined’.

    The highest activity of man is in the understanding of the essential principles regulating and explaining the order of reality. It is only through the knowledge of eternal truth that human affairs can be wisely understood and regulated. We post-moderns are divorced from perennial wisdom in so far as we refuse the primacy of the speculative intelligence for the hegemony of the practical intellect and the will. In the measure that this is the case, we lack the tools to judge human and divine events. We no longer know, nor does our education gear us to know our place in the order of things, and in the divine economy. Yet, we cannot act virtuously without a certain degree of vision and acceptance of this divine plan, that is, of reality.

    The task of regaining an understanding of this perennial wisdom is, essentially, a spiritual and intellectual one. The possessors of this knowledge constitute authority in the spiritual sphere. But this spiritual authority derives from the trusteeship of our Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian tradition, not from the modern law of democracy and universal adult suffrage. Having refused the highest authority—divine truth—all other authorities have been or are being overthrown or rendered incapable of fulfilling their office: chaos and anarchy are growing everywhere. The garden inevitably turns to a wasteland. How can anything be fruitful when the final end of all things is being put aside?

    The following essays, written by authorities expressing the perennial teaching of the church, are offered to help us fulfil the ultimate end of the Christian life—the Glory of God. Even the incarnation of the Word and the redemption of the human race have no other finality than the glory of God: ‘And when all things are made subject to him, then the Son himself will also be subject to him who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28). For that reason, St. Paul exhorts us not to take a single step which will not lead to the glory of God: ‘Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or do anything else, do all for the glory of God’ (1 Cor. 10:31).

    After the glory of God, and perfectly subordinated to it, the Christian life has for its end or goal the sanctification of one’s own soul. This is tantamount to saying that all Christians are called to sanctity or the perfection of the Christian life, at least by a remote and sufficient call, although in various degrees, according to the measure of their predestination in Christ.

    Man’s ultimate beatitude, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is his supreme perfection. The Angelic Doctor tells us that beatitude or perfection in glory requires two conditions: the total perfection of the one who is beatified and the knowledge of the one possessed.

    Retrieving a Sacramental World View in a Mechanistic World

    Rik Van Nieuwenhove
    Roman Catholic Theologian

    Reading Time
    For any Catholic theologian the question whether or not creation reveals something of the splendour and beauty of its Creator is an important one. In this paper I will address an important aspect of this question: can we recapture elements of the pre-modern, traditional sacramental worldview in a profoundly mechanistic world, dominated by indifferent, objectivist laws of science? In order to address this issue, I will first briefly sketch the sacramental worldview by discussing a small treatise by Hugh of St Victor, De tribus diebus.

    This is an attractive work, which not only gives an eloquent expression of the sacramental worldview but which also reveals how beauty was understood in objective, ontological terms (i.e., in terms of the forma of things). This sacramental worldview was gradually displaced by a mechanistic worldview, in which our natural world has often become religiously opaque. In the final part of this contribution I will examine the thought of Simone Weil in whose writings we find fascinating resources as to how to perceive the divine in the middle of a mechanistic, indifferent world. Between these two sections I will briefly discuss the Romantic response to the rise of the mechanistic worldview. I will argue that Romantic art, while undoubtedly revealing the depths of human subjectivity, and often expressing the human search for the transcendent in a sublime manner, portrays nature through the lens of human subjectivity in marked contrast to the objectivity that characterised pre-modern approaches.


    Most pre-modern Christian thinkers held a theology of creation which can be best characterised as sacramental. This is the case whether they were from Neo-platonic stock (such as Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena Scotus, Bonaventure), or were at least partly influenced by Aristotelian thought (cf. Thomas Aquinas). In this context “sacramental” means that all of these thinkers saw the world as pregnant with pointers towards the divine. Creation does not merely point to God but also, in revealing him, allows us to encounter God. Thus, creation re-presents God: it makes him present again. For Bonaventure, for instance, the created universe, in its beauty and its order, is a vestige of the Trinity, reflecting the power, wisdom, and benevolence of the triune God . He describes the universe as “a ladder by which we can ascend to God” . In the second chapter of The Soul’s Journey into God Bonaventure captures this sacramental worldview eloquently: “These creatures, I say, are exemplars, or rather exemplifications, presented to souls still untrained and immersed in sensible things, so that through sensible things, which they see, they may be lifted to the intelligible things, which they do not see, moving from signs to what is signified [per signa ad signata]” . One of the most eloquent (but least well-known) expressions of the medieval sacramental worldview is to be found in a short treatise by Hugh of St Victor, entitled De tribus diebus invisibilis lucis [The Three Days of the Invisible Light] . I will discuss it here in some detail as this will allow me to illustrate how the pre-modern sacramental approach differs from more aesthetic approaches to nature during the Romantic period. De tribus diebus is a work of theology, aesthetics, and spirituality (an aspect of the treatise I cannot discuss here). The “Three Days” mentioned in the title of the treatise refer to fear of the Lord (in response to God’s Power), truth (in response to God’s Wisdom), and love (in response to God’s Goodness) . God’s Power, Wisdom, and Goodness (benignitas) must, of course, be understood in a Trinitarian way, and are appropriated to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively . The immensity of created things reveals the divine Power, while the beauty (decor) of creatures manifests divine Wisdom, and their usefulness (utilitas) reflects the divine Goodness. As Hugh puts it: “Visible things are the image (simulacrum) of invisible things. The immensity of the created world is the image of invisible power; its beauty is the image of invisible wisdom, and its usefulness the image of invisible goodness”.

    Hugh pays particular attention to the beauty of the created world which reveals the divine Wisdom:

    This entire sensible world is like a book written by the finger of God, that is, created by divine might. Individual creatures are like shapes that are not the product of human design, but they are invested by God to manifest and, in a way, to signify his invisible Wisdom. Imagine an illiterate person who looks at an open book: he will see shapes but will not understand the written letters. Similarly, the foolish and sensual person does not perceive the things that are of God (1 Cor. 2:14); he will look at visible creatures as merely external appearances but he will not be able to understand their meaning. The spiritual person, on the other hand, who can judge all things (1 Cor. 2:15), knows, when contemplating the external beauty [pulcritudino] of things, how to admire in this the inner Wisdom of the Creator.

    As this quotation suggests, faith offers us a hermeneutical perspective from which we can perceive a deeper dimension of reality. The fact that we need faith to perceive the world as revelatory of God obviously does not imply that we somehow attribute a sacramental dimension to our created world; on the contrary, in Hugh’s view, this dimension is firmly embedded in its ontological structure, so to speak (especially through its forms) . In a number of highly lyrical passages Hugh speaks of “the artwork of the universe” (machina uniuersitatis), praising the astonishing beauty, harmony, and diversity of our created universe. Now, it is especially beauty which draws the mind to God. While the immensity of creation relates first and foremost to the sheer existence or being of things, beauty is related to the form of created things. He explains why: Existence [essentia] as such, without form [absque forma], can be characterized as a kind of formlessness. That which exists without form, resembles God insofar as it exists, but it differs from God insofar as it lacks form. That which has form bears a greater resemblance to God than that which is lacking in form. From this it follows that the beauty of created things, which is closely related to their forms, better discloses God than the immensity of created beings, which only relates to their existence. Similarly, beauty surpasses usefulness in its revelatory character. Usefulness, Hugh writes, has to do with fulfilling a function (utilitas uero ad actum). Beauty, on the other hand, relates to the nature (habitus) or character of something, which is more essential and abiding than mere function: after all, “the character of a thing is a natural given, while it receives its function only by appointment”. In short, the nature or form of a thing is of greater importance than the function it is asked to fulfil. Hugh summarises: “This is why, in the acquisition of knowledge, the image [simulacrum] of beauty takes precedence over both immensity and usefulness, for it is more radiant in its revelation [quia est in manifestatione euidentius]”. More than the sheer existence or the usefulness of things, it is their beauty that draws us near to God. The reason why the beauty of the forms of things has this power to draw us near to God is ultimately Christocentric and even Trinitarian: “It is beautifully fitting [pulcre] that we begin our quest for wisdom with the image [simulacrum] of this Wisdom. For it is through Wisdom that the Father has revealed himself, both when he bestowed fleshly being on his Wisdom, but also when he created the world through his Wisdom”. Thus, the beauty of creation reflects and manifests the Word of God, through whom all things have been made, and who himself became Wisdom incarnate, drawing all things to God. This brief engagement with Hugh’s thought (and the sacramental understanding of the world it contains) suggests why medieval thinkers did not develop aesthetics as an independent discipline (something which only occurred in the 18th century): Hugh discusses beauty in ontological terms. Aesthetics is part of ontology. As previous quotations suggested, it is the form of things which is the locus of their beauty. (Although the words Hugh uses for beauty are decor and pulcritudo the connection between form and beauty is partly inspired by the fact that the classic Latin word forma can mean both form and beauty.) It is only when epistemological concerns take centre place in philosophy that aesthetics will emancipate itself from this ontological context. Moreover, issues of beauty became more pressing in a mechanistic world, governed by anonymous laws of science. To this we now turn.


    If “sacrament” is the key hermeneutical concept to characterise the pre-modern worldview, “machine” is the key concept to characterise the modern worldview. The story of this major shift is well-known, and need not be outlined here in any detail: from the medieval geocentric and hierarchical world order to heliocentrism (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo). This culminated in the work of Newton (Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica), published in 1687, which advanced the notion that discoverable laws of physics (especially gravity) govern this world. Newton’s work was, in turn, perfected by Pierre-Simon de Laplace (d. 1827). What is significant is that the way we see the world will also have repercussions for the way we see God and ourselves. In 1748 Julien Offray de La Mettrie published a work under the revealing title L’Homme machine. It is little wonder that in the first half of the 18th century we witness the rise of Deism; or that the said Laplace had no scope in his works for God (To Napoleon: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là”.) It is equally unsurprising that Christians defend the existence of God by appealing to mechanical analogies, such as the watchmaker analogy (by William Paley in 1802). Even natural life is subject to anonymous laws, such as the laws of evolution and natural selection, as Charles Darwin made clear in his On the Origins of the Species (1859). Before I discuss the Romantic response to this mechanistic worldview I want to briefly mention another one: the positivist one. From a theological point of view it is hardly interesting. The positivist sticks, rather naively, to scientific “facts”, and appears to be unable to acquire a deeper, third-dimensional view of this world. His views are naïve insofar as he remains blissfully unaware of the fiduciary nature of all human rationality. We have mentioned the intellectual ancestry of these views in the eighteenth century. A contemporary spokesperson of this view is, of course, Richard Dawkins. Much more interesting for our theme is the Romantic stance. Gadamer observed many years ago that increasing objectivisation of our worldview goes hand in hand with the growth of subjectivisation. During the 18th century we see a surge of interest in aesthetics as a distinct discipline. From the end of the 18th century, and during the 19th century, the artist has become the new priest. In other words, in a deeply mechanical world, the human subject creates a counter-world, in which she can escape and find solace. The mechanical world