Many might consider prayer, aesthetics, and the spiritual life to be odd subjects to combine and I would agree. There is no specific point along my life’s trajectory that I can point to and say, “This is where it all began.” My interests in these subjects and the connections between them originated as many things in life do: from a sneaking suspicion. From an inner feeling, a whisper, a subconscious inkling that there was something hidden deep within that was waiting to be not just discovered, but apprehended. In time, this inkling germinated. It began to make its presence known to my conscious awareness in ways that were both irritating and mysterious. Like feeling a tiny pebble in your shoe that you keep looking for but can’t find. or noticing an unfamiliar shadow in the corner of your room. You keep staring at it intently because you know something’s there, but no matter how hard you stare you can’t bring it in to focus.
Eventually, my intuition about these connections began to speak so loudly that it became a quiet inner knowing. I sensed there were connections, but I lacked the knowledge and skills needed to articulate my intuitions. I needed to manifest them so that they could become both psychically and physically real. It is this desire that pushed me to become a theologian. After entering the ministry and completing my Master of Divinity, I could have just continued along the path of pastoral ministry. But the voice inside my head had ceased whispering and was now loudly calling out to me from the mountaintops just beyond the edge of my horizon. So, I decided to cross the valley and attempt to climb the mountain.
Like many in the Western world, I was introduced to aesthetics through the world of art. If the term “aesthetics” enters conversation, it is commonly associated with discussions related to the visual arts and philosophical notions regarding the nature of beauty or artistic taste. In the Western tradition, these associations are traced back to the writings of ancient Greek philosophers. Although appreciating the beautiful is the most well-known aspect of aesthetic theory, it is only one facet of a much broader field of inquiry that has expanded and transformed throughout Western history. One of the reasons beauty has remained such an important aspect of aesthetic theory is because of its power to overwhelm and captivate us. Even the idea of beauty is beautiful. The arts can create and convey beauty, so it is no coincidence that any discussions about beauty or aesthetics would eventually have to include them. Unlike the beauty found in nature, the beauty encountered in the arts is decidedly more subjective. Few people would find a sunrise ugly or grotesque, but many might find a artist’s visual interpretation of one not to their liking. The subjective aspects of artistic beauty are at least partially responsible for the development of theories regarding artistic taste in the Western tradition. “The beautiful,” whether natural or fabricated, always engages the senses.
Sensual experience is the primary factor that grounds art and beauty into the bedrock of aesthetics. In its broadest context, aesthetics is primarily concerned with sensory perception. Sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell are the building blocks for all human experience. As infants, touch is the first sense encountered within the womb. It paves the way for the development of our individuation as selves as we begin to perceive the boundaries of our bodies from those encountered in the world around us. Our capacity to distinguish between what is “me” and what is “not me” helps to form the core of all other mental constructs. Sensory perception is essential to human experience, and experience and perception are aesthetic. Since art and beauty must be perceived, they lie within the domain of aesthetic theory. However, aesthetic theory is not just about sensory perception but also about our ability to receive and process the information provided by our senses. Our passive senses, such as touch, hearing, and smell, are always open with or without our conscious awareness, but the concern of aesthetics is with that which is not only received but actively perceived and processed through conscious awareness. One of the reasons beauty has always been at the forefront of aesthetics is because of its ability to be consciously perceived and processed by the mind, body, and spirit. The sensations we receive when beholding the beautiful are so powerful that we can easily remember and relive them. Beauty’s power creates a readily available resource for any discussion about sensory phenomena, conscious awareness, our ability to process these phenomena, and their effects.
The data that beauty provides is ever-present and ever-fertile, but it cannot be mined until it has first been intimately experienced and successfully apprehended. “The Beautiful” is so overwhelmingly powerful that it can be easily perceived, but it is not so easily integrated or understood. Apprehension is an essential component in the aesthetic process because it enables us to discern the place and meaning of beauty in our world. Aesthetics, art, and spirituality are essential to humanity because of their ability to help us interpret and then express our values to the world. Throughout human history, all of humanity has expressed an unending thirst and constant search for meaning. Every culture is an expression of that society’s values as they are developed through the establishment of art, political structures, religious beliefs, and other cultural expressions. But these structures could not exist without the creation of just, ethical, and philosophical conclusions about the nature and character of physical and spiritual reality. The data and perspectives you hold regarding the divine, self, and others have powerful and direct connections to the way you interact with the world around you. The conclusions you make regarding these topics become your life’s guiding principles. These ultimate values comprise the ethical roadmap that will undergird every choice you make about the proper way to act, interact, or relate to others and the world around you.
For example, if you conclude that the world is a cruel and hostile place, you will be much more likely to advocate and commit acts of violence, as you have already concluded that you should be afraid and that this hostile environment requires that you do whatever it takes to ensure survival for yourself, your race, your country, etc. You will more than likely interact with others from a place of initial mistrust, defensiveness, and a willingness to abandon or cut alliances if it appears that they might hinder your chances for survival. The acquisition and exercise of unilateral power will be of great importance to you, and you will admire those whom you believe possess it. Your image of the divine will more than likely have been impregnated with images of power, vengeance, wrath, domination, war, control, retribution, or other similar concepts. You will be likely to judge yourself and your relation to others based upon personal power and your ability to dominate or exert your will and influence upon them. You will be prone to strive for dominance and have little tolerance for any perceived weakness in yourself or others. The natural world, from this perspective, is not a welcoming place but rather a cause for fear and anxiety. Other beings are to be conquered or dominated, and their lives will most assuredly be deemed of lesser value. While this example is an oversimplification, many of the positions expressed within it are accurate reflections of the ultimate values we encounter within our contemporary world.
Similarly, the apprehension of beauty can provide insight into the ultimate value of both physical and spiritual reality. An encounter with that which is truly beautiful is so powerful that it not only captivates but, in many instances, overwhelms the senses. Our ability to perceive such beauty is itself a wonder. Such powerful sensory input can produce equally powerful emotions. These experiences are uplifting; they lift us and fill us with indescribable sensations and emotions. Joy, love, oneness, peace, ecstasy, light, hope, exhilaration, and a host of other emotions are all part of beauty’s powerful allure. This uplifting is referred to in theological circles as anagogy. The truly beautiful is not just a sensual or emotional experience, but a spiritual one as well. The anagogical is not just a sensory uplifting but an uplifting that moves us to such a degree that we are carried up into the higher vibrations of Spirit. Experiencing beauty lifts us into the realms of the eternal. “The Beautiful” touches every aspect of our being, and in doing so, it both lifts and changes us with its touch. Such powerful experiences provide ample fodder for philosophical, spiritual, and aesthetic examination. This uplifting is the reason why beauty and aesthetics have become intimately linked to the spiritual. The anagogic states experienced by an encounter with “The Beautiful” are the very same states associated with religious or spiritual experiences like bliss, ecstasy, transcendence, deep inner peace, inner illumination, joy, love, or enlightenment. These states invoke sensations and emotions, and center around our relations to self, the divine, and others. These feelings and relations spring from our perceptions and the conclusions we arrive at based upon those perceptions. These feelings are what renders them aesthetic and transcendent.
The experience of transcendence has played a more prominent role in theological and philosophical discussions of beauty because of its connection to “The Good” and “The True. “The Good,” “The True,” and The Beautiful” are known as “The Transcendentals.” These three exist in direct relation to one another and are often apprehended simultaneously. When not encountered together, their existence is often still interdependent.
Let us begin the articulation of this phenomenon by considering “The Beautiful.” The anagogic power of beauty leads one to sense the presence of “The Good” and “The True.” That which we deem beautiful we often also deem good, true, and trustworthy. That which we find true and trustworthy we also deem good. That which is good must also be true, or it could not be good.
As “The Good” reveals its truth, we also encounter its beauty. As we encounter goodness and truth, we also encounter their inherent beauty. This transcendental triad leads us to the recognition of ethical and virtuous qualities as a direct result of our experience with them. They take us higher and transform us as a result of the experience. As we lift vibrationally, we can then transcend the normal limits of human perception and gain access to the supra-sensuous. The insights we obtain from this level of awareness are distinctly different from those in everyday life. These distinctions are the reasons behind the powerful and captivating nature of these impressions. Their distinct difference from our “normal” experience creates a brief but drastic spike above our usual range of perception, touching mind, body, and soul so deeply they cannot be forgotten.
Prayer is practiced universally among countless spiritual and religious traditions. It is the most common and most relied upon activity for opening oneself to communication with the divine. As we go within through practices like prayer and meditation, we sharpen our senses and their ability to perceive and receive higher levels of sensual experience. As our senses become more attuned to higher levels of perception, the fabric of our everyday life becomes richer. Also, we have lifted to such a degree that anagogic states become far more frequent and consistent in our life experience. Prayer and other practices allow us to develop and heighten what the colonial exhorter Jonathan Edwards referred to as the ”spiritual senses.” In the Christian context, these senses were acquired by the believer as a byproduct of the conversion experience and its accompanying spiritual awakening. These spiritual senses are the means by which the soul would develop and strive to ever-higher levels of virtue, beauty, and grace. The states Edwards speaks of are anagogic and reflect our ability to access the supra-sensuous. This access touches our lives and changes us in slight ways that progressively shift and expand our consciousness into the higher states we describe as enlightenment.
The occurrence of these enlightened states in both the spiritual and creative realms is the context for my interest in this seemingly odd combination. Spirituality can exist without art or religion, but religion cannot exist for long without art or spirituality. The art world apparatus has managed to exclude discussion of spirituality or religion from art, but it has been unable to dissociate itself from the captivating spirituality of beauty. As an artist, I feel the movement of Spirit whenever I engage deeply engage in the creative process. As I began to explore and deepen my spirituality through prayer and meditation, I recognized the feelings I had in those moments as similar and often identical to those I experience during the creative process. My studies in undergraduate art history reminded me that for most of humanity’s history art was created for religious and spiritual purposes. The deeper I delved into theology, the more confident I became that none of this was a coincidence. Initially, I lacked the tools needed to articulate what mind and spirit were confirming. I eventually came to a point in time when I could no longer accept the discontent my ignorance was creating within me. I looked toward the horizon and saw a gigantic mountain whose summit was shrouded by clouds. Somewhere from that summit, a still, small voice was whispering out to me. I began to move forward, but a deep and enormous valley blocked my path. I decided to embark on the long and difficult journey to cross the valley and attempt to climb the mountain. I can now hear the whisper more clearly. But I still have so much further to climb.
 Leroi Jones, Home: Social Essays (New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1998), 212.
 Earle J. Coleman, Creativity and Spirituality: Bonds between Art and Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 188.
 John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema eds, A Jonathan Edwards Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 141.