The Ineffable (Dennis Aubrey)


A man stood transfixed on the Acropolis in Athens, stunned at the beauty of the Parthenon. He turned to an old man standing nearby and said, “How lucky they must have been to live with all of this beauty.” He responded, “Ask, Stranger, what must they have suffered to need such beauty.”

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris  Photo by PJ McKey

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Photo by PJ McKey

Much of my writing is done late, after I awake from sleep in the middle of the night. I get up and look at the churches that PJ and I photograph. Often something happens that is hard to describe – I am so moved by the churches that I begin to weep.

Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Cahors (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I don’t think that these are tears of sadness or loss, but in response to some characteristic of beauty found in stones wrenched from the earth, shaped, and arranged by human hands. These most earth born objects were raised high in the air to became part of a soaring monument, a beauty indescribable.

Dome, Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Dome, Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is not the pure beauty that moves me to tears, but something contained within that beauty – the suffering that made it necessary. Sophia Loren once said “If you haven’t cried, your eyes can’t be beautiful.”

It is often said that there is beauty in suffering. I think this is true at times, as evidenced by Therese Frare’s famous photo of the man dying of AIDS. There can even be beauty in horror, as shown by James Nachtwey’s photo of a victim of Rwandan genocide. But most of the time it is just suffering and horror – the pain is too close and too intense to elicit a reaction to beauty.

In “The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick”, the meditations on a series of hallucinations that that the author experienced in February and March 1974, Dick writes, “The beautiful and imperishable comes into existence due to the suffering of individual perishable creatures who themselves are not beautiful … This is the terrible law of the universe. This is the basic law; it is a fact … Absolute suffering leads to — is the means to — absolute beauty.”

Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire)

Fresco with cruciifix Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

But I do not believe it is suffering experienced that creates beauty, but suffering endured. It is this suffering endured that we find in all that is truly beautiful, and the intermediary step of creation allows us to gaze at even the greatest suffering and find the great human dimension of beauty.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Medieval man understood this completely while contemplating the suffering of the Christ Redeemer. The sacrifice was enough to make men and women weep with sorrow, but their eyes looked up at these magnificent churches to find the most moving and beautiful representations of the cruelest of crucifixions, transforming pain into salvation.

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Modern man perhaps feels the beauty of the suffering in a different way. Kimon Friar wrote of the Nikos Kazantzakis “Odyssey,” “A man must then embrace the annihilating abyss without any hope, he must say that nothing exists, neither life nor death and must accept this necessity bravely, with exultation and song. He may then build the affirmative structure of his life over this abyss in an ecstasy of tragic joy.”

In this way both non-believers and believers find that their own suffering adds a dimension to the suffering of those who created the churches a thousand years ago. It is like a great shimmering arc of suffering reaching back across and through time, creating a new beauty, a beauty almost beyond bearing. This is the reason we weep when we see these churches.

North side aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the quiet of our thoughts, our emotions drained, we are left with beauty that we cannot describe, perfections that we cannot express. We are left with the ineffable.

Crucifixion window, Cathédrale de Saint Pierre

Crucifixion window, Cathédrale de Saint Pierre

The quote with which I began this post is one that I remember from many years ago, but cannot find or identify. I reconstructed it not so much from memory as from the effect that it had on me. If anyone knows the source, or the real quote, please let me know. (Upon reflection, this may be from a lecture by the great Leon Katz at Carnegie-Mellon University).

A French version of this post was made by the site “En passant par Saint Vincent”.

18 responses to “The Ineffable (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I never heard your opening quotation before, but it naturally brought to my mind Ruskin’s discussion in ‘The Nature of the Gothic’ of “the servile ornament” and dehumanising perfection which built The Parthenon and its like, in contrast with the vigorous, incomplete, “savage” ornament in the creative craftsmanship of the mediaeval artisan. The sufferings at the front of Ruskin’s mind here concern the stifling or flowering of individual creativity, and how he believes that to be expressed in the buildings thus formed.

    • John, did not recall the “servile ornament” phrase by Ruskin. But I do remember how his work cut against the worship of the classical world and brought renewed attention to the magnificent Gothic works.

    • Thanks, Kalli. We have so many responses to the many churches that we photographed. Often I intend to merely write about a particular church, but am moved in some way to write something else. That happened with this post – what was going to be a post on Saint Pierre de Beaumont, changed completely when I was listening to Preisner’s Requiem, especially the Lacrymosa section that I linked to in the last paragraph.

  2. I have been following your magnificent body of work for some time. This is another beautiful addition. You have caused me to reflect a bit on differences in national character perhaps expressed in a nation’s churches, as well as changes over the ages. I’d be very interested in your explorations of Spanish expressions in this vein, especially the ongoing work of modernity in the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.

    • We are planning our next trip and will be in the Catalunya region in September, moving from the Prades area to the Monestir de Sant Pere de Rodes. We have not photographed the Sagrada Familia, which will be on the list for a later time. I am enchanted with the images that I have seen and regret that we have not been able to monitor its construction over time. How few opportunities we would have in these days to do so. Thanks, Mike, for your thoughts.

  3. I know the tears of which you speak. For me they are hot tears that uniquely cause a burning sensation or ache in my tear ducts that only happen during moments of insight/experience on the profound nature of love. These churches you photograph are loving monuments to love’s source; the depth of man’s gratitude contained and reflected within the stones is a glorious thing and the well from which hot tears are drawn.

    • Kerri, it never ceases to amaze us that we see stone soaring so high above us in these churches. I like the thought that love and gratitude are as much a part of the mortar that binds as much as the suffering that I wrote about.

    • Do you miss France, Emily? BTW, PJ and I will be going to Toulouse for a couple of days in early October, I think. We’ll go back to Saint Sernin, of course, but will be looking for other places as well. Your photos of the Cathedral intrigued us. Hope you are well.

      • I do, especially when I see your beautiful pictures! That’s wonderful, I will look forward so much to seeing your pictures of Toulouse. If you want a new church to visit you should stop by St Pierre des Chartreux, it was my favorite

  4. Pingback: L’Ineffable | En passant par Saint-Vincent...

  5. Writing about Rebbe Barukh of Medzobzh in “Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle against Melancholy” Elie Wiesel observed:

    “[H]e understood that one must never avoid questions, as one must not turn one’s gaze away from the abyss….. The beauty of Rebbe Barukh is that he could speak of faith not as opposed to anguish but as being part of it. ‘Faith and the abyss are next to one another,’ he told his disciples.

    Compare that with yours and I find a deep kinship:

    “‘A man must then embrace the annihilating abyss without any hope, he must say that nothing exists, neither life nor death and must accept this necessity bravely, with exultation and song. He may then build the affirmative structure of his life over this abyss in an ecstasy of tragic joy.’”

    “In this way both non-believers and believers find that their own suffering adds a dimension to the suffering of those who created the churches a thousand years ago. It is like a great shimmering arc of suffering reaching back across and through time, creating a new beauty, a beauty almost beyond bearing. This is the reason we weep when we see these churches.”

    • Gordon, Elie Wiesel has been an important voice to me for decades. Thank you for the comparison (which is far too generous). It’s funny, though; as I read the last paragraph of your comment, I thought “I didn’t know Wiesel wrote about churches …”

      It is so good to hear from you again. You have always seen what we are really trying to convey with our photographs at Via Lucis, and that helps keep us on track.

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