The title of this essay might suggest that its author has just landed from a utopian galaxy. Hasn’t she heard of the human condition? The waters are rough out there. Beauty is the last thing on our minds.
The pursuit of beauty is instinctive, therefore, universal. There is never a moment when we do not want to look beautiful, feel beautiful, and stay beautiful. We like to impress others with our attractive qualities. If men prefer the word handsome to beauty, so be it. If the phrase, looking good, suits others, so be it. The point is that beauty is an integral part of being human however it is pursued in different cultures.
Scripture’s Compelling Verses
The teaching on beauty echoes two verses from the Old Testament: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” (Gen 1:26) and “Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5). In the verse from Genesis, “image” could be construed in realistic terms to imply a physical resemblance like that between parent and child. “Likeness” is used to exclude the idea of equality between humankind and the Deity and to modify it.
The likeness to God makes men and women different from animals. Moreover, being made “in the image and likeness of God” involves a similarity of nature with God who is spirit. Men and women have an intellect to think things through ‘in the tangle of their minds,’ a will to decide freely, even against God, a memory which links the present to the past, and an imagination which opens the door to creative activity.
Animals can perform amazing feats: birds fly, amphibians live in water and on land, dogs, so keenly attuned to human beings, are man’s best friend. But none of them can do mathematics or make consequential life decisions. None can make a work of art or wonder at and enjoy beautiful things. While animals glorify God simply by being who they are, only men and women can commune with God in prayer. This last point is true because, at heart, we long for communion with the God of life (Ps 84:2, 42:2 ).
What does all this say? It paves the way for a higher revelation: Men and women share in the divine nature. God’s gracious activity prompts us to reach out higher and higher, to stretch ourselves toward divinity. This is what is known as grace, the active receptivity of the soul to say yes when yes is needed and no when no is needed.
Focus of the Church Fathers
The early Church Fathers used another way of describing the phrase, ‘born for beauty.’ They spent their entire lives teaching and preaching one of the best loved verses, given here with the fullness of poetic prose: “God became man that man might become God.” Such a bold, imaginative, and powerful statement! (The original Hebrew seemed blasphemous, so instead, translators substituted the word angels for God. Moreover, with the expected use inclusive language, the poetic balance of the phrase is lost.)
Still, the point is clear. We were made to be exalted high above the angels. The body-soul unity far exceeds the spiritual beings of angels. Church Fathers like Sts. Irenaeus (d ca 202), Athanasius (d 373), Gregory Nazianzen (d 390) and Gregory of Nyssa (d ca 395) developed the doctrine of image and likeness and taught salvation history from the this all-encompassing view of God. They spoke of man and woman being divinized – the process of becoming godlike. Christ seeks out humanity and deigns to assume the frailty of human nature that it might be ennobled, transformed into a new creation, and brought to life in full measure. Put another way, he abased himself to become one of us in order to raise us up to divinity. In the Offertory Rite too, the priest mingles water and wine to symbolize our sharing in the divinity of Christ. God became man that man might become God!
The Fathers wrote on almost every conceivable topic of human experience which affected the life of the Church – the human condition, the role of the body, work, silence and prayer, conversion of heart, and self-abandonment to Providence. Whatever the topic, their writings were focused on the transformation of men and women into the image and likeness of God.
The Fathers revealed the unity between doctrine and life, between faith and morals. Living out the beautiful dogmas in practice brings about the transformation of the person into godlikeness – the holiness of beauty. As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, “I have to become me, and that me has to become God. When I am not like God, I am not me” (Asking the Fathers, 29.
One Life to Lead
Suffering of whatever stripe can foster brute ugliness, or it can shape and soften a person into a beautiful person. Take the example of the Jesuit priest, Fr. Walter Ciszek. For some twenty-five years, this “Vatican spy” suffered from abusive power in the Gulags of atheistic Russia. Early in his imprisonment when rescue seemed improbable, he concluded, erroneously so, that he would die there. Slowly, he grasped the age-old wisdom:
Providence had allowed this event to happen; this would be the way to live out his vocation for the rest of his life in Russia. He could not change the circumstances. So he stopped fighting reality and settled in as best he could to raw, subhuman conditions. The only way to avoid physical, mental, and spiritual breakdown was to live in the sacrament of the present moment. This was the place where the beauty of his soul took effect. This was the place where he started to become God’s work of art. In 1963, Walter Ciszek was released and was returned to America. The young, brash, and proud Walter of pre-Russia emerged, transformed into a warm, compassionate, beautiful, and loving Walter of post-Russian years.
There are other examples of such beautiful people: the wife whose husband suffers from a malignant brain tumor, parents with a troubled child, the family that has been abandoned by one parent, parents with a special-needs child. Tempted to descend into bitterness, depression, and despair, these people choose another way – blending two processes, human mechanisms that help to cope with stress, and prayer.
Teaching Beauty to Our Children
How odd! We look for beauty in so many places – in diets, spa treatments, cosmetic surgery, and the like. There is nothing wrong with these supports. If beauty attracts and elevates us, and we know it does, then beauty must emerge from the interior. The makeover begins with mulling over Genesis 1:26. Our children, indeed all of us, need to be assured that all men and women have been born for beauty and that we are destined to become God’s works of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as he meant us to live it” (2:10).
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.