The Way of BeautyRescuing our children through the arts

The arts seek beauty and belong solely to the realm of human creativity. They please the intellect by pleasing the senses. For pre-school children, much of their day is given over to the arts.

They sing and recite poetry, learn and play musical instruments; they paint, draw and sculpt; they dance. These are creative ways in which children express themselves. The arts order their feelings and emotions to help them interact with their classmates. In the process, they learn respect for others, develop poise and largesse of heart. For pre-schoolers, the arts are serious business. When first grade begins for them, the arts have already prepared the groundwork for success in subjects that can challenge even the best of young students.

Personal Experiences

Some years ago, I taught in New York’s Catholic elementary schools, many of which were located in blighted areas. In these depressed pockets of a sprawling city, the crime rate and unemployment were high, and the children’s morale, low. They were surrounded by abuse of every name, the worst being, addiction and pornography. In one school, most of the children’s parents worked in a local mental institution.

In the classroom, the children daily participated in the fine arts, and after some preparation, they came to love the poetry, music, or visual arts planned for the day. In fact, they would often sit quietly in a contemplative pose, gazing at a work of art or listening to a classical piece of music. What did I observe from these classroom activities in the arts? First, beauty revealed itself to the children, who sensed order, harmony, and goodness in what they beheld. Second, each thing of beauty shone forth as its own conspicuous form Third, drawn to the beautiful, the children were overcome by the experience, and during these moments, they were able to put aside their personal concerns. Fourth, the contemplation of beauty gave them deep satisfaction. In a word, the experience lifted them up beyond themselves. They sensed the inherent quality of beauty in nature, which brings with it “a self-evidence that enlightens without mediation” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, I: 37). The experience of artistic beauty uplifted them, and all that is good in life came together for these children.

In addition to classroom subjects, I directed the liturgical music in the parish. My responsibilities of training youth choirs and large groups of children convinced me that if you want adults to sing in church, you have to teach them to sing in school. The choirs consisted of mostly African-American and Hispanic children, who were as solicitous as I about maintaining the highest musical standards. The older children were acutely sensitive about singing in perfect pitch, and without apology, let the younger members know this. Year after year, their hard work won for the school music awards and other accolades. Their repertoire ran the gamut from Gregorian chant to contemporary sacred music. Whether singing in unison or in four parts, they were bearers of the Church’s musical tradition. Happiness for them meant belonging to the parish choir with a mission to excel. We were a family.

Poverty and Children

Today millions of children live in anxiety-ridden households. Many are homeless. How can beauty possibly enter their lives? For them, the argument for beauty is even greater and more urgent. The arts have been known to rescue at-risk children from difficult home environments and circumstances of poverty and abuse. Their dignity is at stake, and the Church’s social teaching extends to education for beauty that permeates their lives. In an age that glorifies ugliness in so many forms, education for beauty is not an option but a necessity. Children should be engaged in the arts as soon as possible because, once they are trapped in addictive behavior, it is difficult to lead them out of the squalor of ugliness promoted by the public as well as those false artists who provoke scandal.

The opportunity to wonder at the marvels of God’s creation belongs to children who have a right to beauty.

School of Beauty in Sao Paolo, Brazil

About thirty years ago, a religious sister of the Holy Cross, Sr. Angela Mary, C.S.C. (Carey), founded the Cultural and Sports Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Having served in the city as the headmistress of an exclusive private school, she was appalled at the poverty she witnessed among the children in the slums. She was determined to bring beauty into their lives even in the midst of their external misery.

Sister began with a one-room concrete shack at the edge of one of the largest favelas in the city taking in children for hot meals and schooling in the arts. Her foundational principles were beauty, friendship, respect, and dignity of every person. Today, the Culture and Sports Center spans the equivalent of a city block having been built entirely by donations. It serves one hundred fifty meals a day. The children receive religious education and classes in music, painting, sculpture, ceramics, and ballet. Recently, a string orchestra has been started. Sports activities are also part of their experience at the center. The entire enterprise is built on God’s gift of beauty to each person, for the arts are never separated from the faith. In fact, the arts are used to vivify the faith for the children.

El Sistema and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra

In 1975, El Sistema was begun in Venezuela by the economist and musician, José Antonio Abreu. Originally named the Social Action for Music, the wealthy Abreu saw the orchestra as a symbol for the ideal society. Today this advocacy program educates poor and at-risk children in the beauty of music. Music gives meaning and energy to their lives. Gustavo Dudamel is the current the face of El Sistema. He conducts the Los Angeles symphony orchestra as well as the Simon Bolivar symphony orchestra composed of these at-risk children. Audiences have been known to weep at the powerful feeling expressed by the orchestra.

Children are natural contemplatives, and natural contemplation is the stepping stone to contemplation of God. It was St. Irenaeus who wrote that “the glory of God is man (and woman) fully alive, and that the glory of man (and woman) is the contemplation of God.”

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