Beauty needs defense. We usually jump to the side of goodness and truth when they are being attacked, as they often are, because we recognize their importance. Beauty, however, is not something we tend to passionately defend. It seems to us an added extra—a pretty little adornment to life—not something worth arguing about. But it needs defense precisely because of this perceived irrelevance.
It is the pursuit of beauty that many crusaders don’t want to fight for, that many leaders don’t allocate funds for, and many good people see as an extravagant waste. Beauty seems greedy and worldly to those fighting “the good fight,” as we cower in embarrassment at the “gaudy” Church past. After all, Jesus was born in the manger, with no beautiful crib or majestic presentation, right? He taught us to love the poor and not cling to this world. And so we assume that all beauty outside of nature is merely a distraction and perhaps even a vice.
But surely, Jesus’ birth does not mean that all children must be born in stables and that anything loftier is wrong. For if this is the case, then all people must live as carpenters and die on crosses with crowds jeering at them. And if we must sell all we have, then we must literally sell all we have. No occasional snack from the vending machine, no Christmas presents, no engagement rings; just sackcloth and bread until death.
That’s not what Jesus’ life necessarily means for all of us. He was born in a manger to show that even in the lowliest of places, beauty, truth, and goodness could be found. He chose to be poor so that we may see that riches do not determine ones’ virtue or happiness. He suffered to relate to our pain and show that we could rise above it. He died the most humiliating of deaths to take on the horrors of humanity at their worst. He did all of this so we might know that He was fully, truly a man, and to sanctify our sufferings. His criticism of the rich man was a criticism of greed, not riches. And never did He criticize the beautiful. In fact, when a lady poured fine perfumes on his feet and Jesus’ disciples threw a fit, insisting that the perfume could have been sold for money for the poor, he corrected them:
“This woman has done a great thing for me.”
Jesus’ life was simple, but simplicity does not entail a lack of beauty. It does not condemn expenditure on beauty. A simple life is one that lives detached from trivial matters, focused ever on the heavenly aspects within this world—and this includes beauty.
John Paul II wrote of our duty to beauty in his Letter to Artists: “The Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art … Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption. None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands…There is therefore an ethic, even a "spirituality" of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people…may your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”
Clearly this mission is an important one for artists, and for the Catholic Church. He reminds us that art is a participation in the great act of creation that started with God’s breath of life. Do we not speak of being “moved” by snow-topped mountains, or cascading rivers? Do we not find God in a baby’s face or a butterfly’s wings? We speak then of God in the natural beauty, but move on, as if it is an added extra. A nice little thing He did for us. But John Paul II reminds us that beauty is an essential aspect of God. It gives us hope. And the artist is responsible for this hope.
And so, if we dismiss the importance of art outside the realm of itself, what do we turn to in times of great joy or distress? Think of the slave spirituals, the Star Spangled Banner, the Song of Solomon, or every love poem ever written. Think of the story of the WWI Christmas Eve in which troops from clashing sides joined together in a momentary act of peace to sing “Silent Night.” And I’m sure nearly everyone can think of that “one song” that got them through it all, or that book that changed their life. Art, put so beautifully, “transfigure(s) matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.” Why does a five-year-old want to write, sing, dance, and draw? Because she sees God. She senses the eternal and she must express it. Beauty is the flower blooming in the desert, the smile amidst the tears, the song in the prison cell. Beauty gives us reason to hope because beauty shows us a glimpse of heaven when we can’t see it all too well. It makes us long for heaven. As the character Psyche in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, says to her sister,
“I have always—at least, ever since I can remember—had a kind of longing for death.”
“Ah, Psyche,” (says her sister, Orual) “have I made you so little happy as that?”
She replies, “You don’t understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills… with the wind and the sunshine… do you remember?... And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn’t (not yet) come and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home. The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from.”
Psyche saw the beauty of heaven and had to express it so that others might see it, and in turn, long for it. Psyche was an artist.
Catholicism had recognized this duty of the artist for thousands of years. Why else would we have the Sistine Chapel? The culture of wine and dancing teaches us that beautiful things are good means by which we praise God. In the same way that a husband wants to adorn his wife with a wedding ring, we should long to adorn God with the most beautiful of our earthly gifts. That is what churches did for so long. The finest jewels and gold were used on chalices and priests’ robes. And it was obvious why this was the case. Why would you not use the most beautiful materials to carry the Blood of Jesus? And yet today we have a new mindset, that of Jesus’ disciples when the fine perfume bottle broke. “You are wasting!! You are wasting!!”
And so the majority of Catholic Churches in America have been puritanized. They have been made simple and cost-efficient. Beautiful choirs have been replaced by a guitarist who’ll strum a chord here and there so that the crowd can trudge through touchy-feely “hymns” that sound more like they belong on a kid’s sing-a-long tape than in the presence of God Almighty. The idea of reforming the beauty of the Church is considered ridiculous, greedy, and impractical. “There are starving people on the streets! Why would we waste our money on a few paintings?”
And Jesus’ response, “The poor you will always have with you.”
It is often the beauty of St. Peters that draws the non-believers in. It makes people wonder, “well they must have something pretty great in there to have gone to all that effort.” Beauty lifts our souls to heaven, and as Mother Theresa tells us, our souls are starving more than our bodies. We could spend our dollars over and over to buy a sandwich every day for a homeless man. And this is a wonderful act of love. But what does that man have if he doesn’t have hope? He has no beautiful Church to turn to the day on which he has no sandwich. He has no rosary beads to run his fingers over. There are many satisfied Americans with plenty to eat and do, and little physical suffering, but no beauty to turn to. He may be comfortable, but is he joyful? The slave in the fields singing his heart out to his God with his brothers and sisters has more joy than the slaveholder sitting lonely in his empty house with no music to brighten his spirit.
And so I appeal to the Catholics, who promoted beauty more any than group of humanity ever has, to shamelessly remember their roots. There are people with bellies filled and bellies empty, both of whom need hope. We are always desperate for hope. And it’s not going to come from a political slogan or a few extra dollars. It’s not necessarily going to come from better health care or less suffering. It’s going to come from beauty.
We all have the ability to create, for everyone has been created. Sure, some people have more talent than others at expressing it, but not until we re-instill our childlike senses of wonder will we be able to hope. Not until we open our eyes will we be able to see heaven on earth. Not until we look to the mountains will we have a true longing—and not a sad longing—but a longing that is the “sweetest thing in all (our lives.)” We must all be artists for we are created in the image of the Great Artist. And it must be a great offense to him to disregard that. Sure, he will be born in a stable, just like I would live in a stable if I had to. But that doesn’t mean that I have to, or that I’m particularly called to. The point of the manger is that even amidst the lowliest of places, angels sang heavenly hymns and the most glorious star shone above. Amidst the most desperate of situations, hope was born, in the true, the good, and also in the beautiful.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.