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October 23, 2013
A world of beauty
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Lately, the words beauty and beautiful have been featured in essays among Catholic writers. Perhaps they have been prompted by the document, “The Way of Beauty,” issued by the Pontifical Council for Culture (2006), urging our church leaders to promote the ways of bringing beauty into the culture, thus evangelizing the culture. 

October is the month of beauty, of lovely fall colors spread across the landscape of our country. So, it is fitting to revisit the beautiful once again.
Beauty is a universal need, and no one can live without some kind of beauty. A thing of beauty uplifts the entire person if the pleasure derived from it is morally sound and aesthetically honest.  Instinctively we know that beauty is a power that attracts and elevates. Gazing at a sunset, visiting a museum, listening to beautiful music, sharing a fine meal, deriving satisfaction from a mathematical or scientific project – all these experiences of beauty are designed for us to enjoy.  Beauty stirs the desire to love.  A person deprived of beauty is like a person deprived of love.   

What Is Beauty?

Beauty is a word whose meaning remains largely misunderstood. Of all creatures, only human beings are capable of delighting in beauty; only human beings can make things beautiful and can make beautiful things.  Common sense tells us that beauty goes deeper than mere externals; it is not synonymous with a pretty face or a finely-tuned body.  The culture would have us equate human beauty with physical appeal. Today, the media exercises enormous power by defining beauty and dictating their own standards for judging it. Companies spend billions of dollars selling cosmetics, high fashion, and weight-reducers that claim to beautify what is skin deep while theater and film equate love with romance and sex.  Beauty resides below the surface of things and cannot be externally applied like a new hairdo or icing on a cake.  Beauty is credible when it is joined with her “two sisters,” truth and goodness, and it is a fraud unless it is completed by them.

Beauty, Strictly Speaking and Broadly Speaking 

Beauty pleases, delights, gives enjoyment and deep satisfaction, Strictly speaking, beauty is anything that simply and solely delights, gives enjoyment and deep satisfaction by the knowledge of it. This strict definition of beauty applies to a work of art like Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “The Nutcracker Ballet Suite” or to the film, “Singin’ in the Rain.”  Broadly speaking, the beautiful is “anything that both delights and causes some other disquieting emotion in the beholder’s mind” (Francis Kovach, Philosophy of Beauty, 29). The sublime delights and awes. The tragic delights and saddens, and the comic delights and evokes laughter.  In the thrilling film, “Witness for the Prosecution,” the viewer is kept in suspense until the film’s last chilling moment.

Beauty and Society

Beauty builds up society when it helps to lighten our burdens and comfort our spirits.  Every culture pursues beauty in its own way. A nation enjoys the beauty of civic, religious, and national holidays and the majestic vistas of national parks and playgrounds.  Labor Day, for example, helps us to value both work and leisure. Art exhibits together with music and literary events celebrate the human spirit. A society, long deprived of beauty, compensates with coarse, vulgar, and even offensive pleasure that debases human dignity.

The Beautiful and the Ugly

The beautiful and the ugly are alike in one sense. Both attract attention. Both fascinate. Both draw us in. But this is where the likeness ends. Penetrating to the psyche’s deepest levels, beauty gives meaning to life. Beauty elevates, gives us joy, makes us feel greater than we are, and consoles the spirit bringing with it an inner peace. Beauty is associated with the sacred and the godly.  Just saying the word beauty is like praying it. 

The Ugly

In contrast to beauty, the ugly debases; it horrifies. Its mask may fascinate, but the intention is to corrupt its onlookers who stand frozen before it, glued incredulously to the horror.  Little by little, it drags down. Without our doing, the ugly saddens the heart, agitates the spirit, and depresses the psyche.  At its sight, we cringe; we retreat from it lest we be caught in its clutches. The ugly is associated with evil, the ungodly, and even the occult, and satanic.

Today, our children are being taught ugliness in all its repulsive guises from the outré of Miley Cyrus to the offensive lyrics of Rap which debase women’s dignity. 

The Ugly and Grotesque: Pagan, Occult Halloween

The lovely month of October is marred by Halloween, a sinister grotesque kind of evil; it is a day that worships paganism and the occult. Asked the meaning of Halloween festivities, most people shrug their mindless shoulders: ‘I don’t know, but it’s a lot of fun.’

In its present form, Halloween has pushed its way—no, it has steamrolled its way into October beauty. Halloween is a multi-million dollar business. Since the end of September, stores have been showcasing brassy orange and ominous black in the form of skeletons, pumpkins, ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and other creepy creatures. 

At the same time, school authorities recognize the danger of vandalism and harmful pranks associated with Halloween. They warn against psychosis resulting from the bad dreams of sensitive children. In its present form, Halloween is rooted in the unholy and unhealthy regions of darkness. Some schools have banned Halloween antics, and in the process, all holidays are in danger of being abolished.

Beauty, Leisure, and the Sabbath

To experience beauty, one needs leisure time, time to relax, however brief or prolonged.  Yet, often a relentless work ethic dismisses it as time wasted.  Many guard leisure as a precious value, but in practice it is challenged everywhere.  Still, it is a prerequisite for the survival of every culture. Leisure is a satisfying kind of activity and not just cessation from work, not idleness, not wasting time. It disengages us from the cares of life freeing us to enjoy natural and artistic beauty. Leisure evokes creativity but varies from one person to another and from one culture to another.  Leisure for one may be work for another. Many work on the weekend so that others may relax on the weekend. Leisure is characterized by certain universal similarities, bringing with it freedom from external constraint, joy and meaning to life. Sunday worship, reading a book, taking a walk, gardening, attending or playing a ball game, enjoying sound TV programs, or taking the coffee break are qualitatively the same: they refresh and enrich a person for the return to routine of work. Leisure is self-authenticating with no need for apology, defense, or justification.

Ceaseless work and overwork destroy the spirit because, in practice, they tend to view men and women as machines. Acedia and ennui, a state of listlessness and boredom, dull the sense of wonder, a thought implicit in the psalm verse: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). Without periodic rest to restore the soul, acedia and ennui, afflict one’s overall well-being that weaken the taste for God and spiritual activities.  Loss of employment and financial crisis can provoke despair and can trigger acedia and ennui. While coping with such extreme hardship, attention to unplanned leisure can remind one that being is as important as doing. Activity follows being, which is then transformed into communication and relationship with others.  So, to be is to be a living dynamism desirous of communicating. Our bodies register the need for leisure. We work to live and not the other way round. Leisure, not work, refreshes the human spirit. Leisure activates a ripple effect: The experience of beauty evokes wonder, wonder evokes reverence for nature, for the arts, and most of all, reverence for one another as God’s images. 

Collectively, Americans rank among the most driven people in the world. Our style, competition. Puritanical tendencies are resolved only by justifying leisure as earned by work or as necessary to continue our work. Moreover, Sunday worship, the highest form of human activity, can become distasteful because it is perceived as unproductive, and therefore, meaningless. Unlike business and other practical transactions, liturgy is an end in itself.

Leisure remains not only the basis of culture but a preparation for divine worship. Western civilization is indebted to the Jews for keeping the Sabbath. In fact, they gave us the weekend beginning on Friday at sundown. As if to confirm the need for leisure, Jesus tells us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

Beauty in Today’s World

How can we think of beauty in a world of unspeakable suffering?  How can we speak about it when truth, goodness, and love are called into question? Despite the grim news and horrific images that enter our homes daily, even relentlessly, we still yearn for beauty, truth, and goodness, all attributes of love. The human race may be flawed by limitation and sin, but at heart we do want these qualities supported in the family, in the Church, and in society at large.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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