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The Most Beautiful Thing

The altar at St. Stephen's

The altar at St. Stephen's

The security guard asks me why I am crying. Everyone else has left, the lights have been turned off, and I’m the last one left in the cathedral. For beauty, I explain. For beauty, and because I will never see this place again. I am weeping, literally weeping as they drag me out of St. Stephens, screaming for them to let me spend the night there.

Do you want to see the kingdom of god? I mean really. Because it’s not a joke. This isn’t a gag or me trying to be cute. The kingdom of heaven is here, on earth, I’ve seen it. And when you do see it you will experience joy and sorrow and pain and ecstasy because the reality is you cannot stay in the kingdom of god forever, you are granted only a limited time there, and the knowledge of that is terrible.

One of the statues

One of the statues

The kingdom of god, my friends. The kingodom of heaven. It’s real. I’m an atheist and I’ll concede this point. How is this possible?

There are moments of pure artistic perfection. Moments that arrive as the culmination of years, decades of preparation, combined with a perfection of location and perfection of material, a confluence of human labor and passion and sheer love of beauty that dawns, finally, in one perfect moment in which that divinity that resides within us shines out so blindingly it blots out everything else and there is only love, beauty and perfection.

Above the entrance

Above the entrance

St. Stephen’s Basilica was completed in 1905. The inscription along the entablature, below the pediment reads “Ego sum via veritas et vita,” “I am the way of truth and life” (I think). It’s central dome is surrounded by a circular railing with statues perched on top. At the front, two symmetrical clock towers that flank the entrance. Within the church, at the altar, a statue of St. Stephen, lit with an eerie, celestial light. In a city overflowing with beauty, a city in which you want to photograph every other building, St. Stephen’s Basilica is the most beautiful thing. The Hagia Sophia is more majestic, more powerful, more central. She is a soaring beauty, layered with millenia of meaning, the accretions of several cultures, multi-significant, a history of humanity captured in the layers upon layers of evidence left on her. But for all that, she is still a ruined beauty, raped by conquest, her crosses washed out and torn down, damaged by neglect, earthquakes and war, her mosaics fading, her banisters graffitoed.

Painting from the interior

Painting from the interior

St. Stephen’s was built only one hundred years ago. She is still in her full glory, her gold not yet plundered, her artworks not yet stolen. She is what she was meant to be, untouched by the ravages of time. Perhaps Sophia looked like her once.

Supplementing the visual beauty of her architecture, her statuary, her paintings, her lighting, is her acoustics. I’ve heard the acoustics of the Byzantine cistern underneath Istanbul and thought them perfect. But they are perfect in a creepy, cthonic way, the pools of water softening sound to murderously quiet levels: the acoustics of the cistern befit a graveyard, with its doric columns standing on medusa heads, its darkness, the kind of place Percy Bysshe Shelley might deflower a child bride.

Stephen’s acoustics soar. They take the human voice and raise it, amplify it, enoble it, and reflect it back to the singer in a wave of sound somehow more lovely and more beautiful than before. The human voice is made perfect in this venue, augmented in a way I can’t understand but which overwhelms me utterly.

Shortly before the start of the performance

Shortly before the start of the performance

Behind and above the seating area is an organ of incredible size.

And Gyula Pfeiffer sits down at the keyboard.

And he begins to play. And the violinst accompanies him on Handel’s Xerxes. And it is beautiful. Painfully, soul crushingly, exhiliratingly beautiful, and you understand everything, the entire scope of human experience, everything is contained within the sound reverberating in this most perfect of all places.

But it’s not until the soprano starts singing Handel’s “Rejoice” that I start crying.

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthanai?

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthanai?

Do you want the kingdom of god? Do you want to know beauty, know truth, touch the divine, experience perfection? Come to this place. Come now, to Budapest, and listen to the organ of St. Stephen’s Basilica and experience what I have experienced but know also that you will likely never come back here, just as I will never come back here. You will experience this perfect beauty once, only once, and it will then be only an echo in your memory and you must be content with that forever. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart and I am stil weeping as I write this. I’ve heard the human voice perfected through the confluence of place, performer, and song. This is a terrible burden to bear. It is the way and the truth and the life. Come here, but you will either never leave, or you will experience the bitterness of being cast out of heaven itself.

When Odysseus heard the sirens sing, his mariners had to tie him to the mast to keep him from immediately abandoning them for the beauty of their song. Odysseus knew how the beauty of a song could trap a man, as completely as any cage. How can I leave this place? How can I possibly? I leave for Vienna tomorrow, and I can’t bear the thought of not hearing the organ of St. Stephen play again.

  1. Tim Foley
    July 20, 2009 at 7:35 am

    Because I know you’d appreciate it, all of the nouns in Ego sum via veritas et vita are nominative: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

    Sounds like an unreal experience.

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