Last week’s tragic death of John Forbes Nash, Jr. and his wife, Alicia Nash prompted an immediate outpouring of emotion praising the Nobel Laureate from Princeton University.  Defined as “a beautiful mind,” Professor Nash was a math genius whose life story inspired the Oscar-winning film by the same title.

The Beautiful

One need not excel in academics or in any field to merit the descriptive, beautiful.  The beautiful may be seen in a nurse’s assistant who tenderly cares for the most basic needs of a patient.  Or, we may observe how delicately a physician deals with the family of a terminally-ill patient. And how many teachers spend extra time beyond class hours to help troubled students? Whenever a person acts unselfishly, there we see love in action, always beautiful.  Every infant is born with a beautiful soul that calls for expression.

Of course, the beautiful is not limited to persons.  External stimuli attract us: a cool, sunny spring day, observing children at play, reading good literature, or listening to a piece of music.

The Road to Character

David Brooks, a journalist for the New York Times, has recently published a best-seller, The Road to Character which has sparked widespread interest, especially among those in search of moral depth.  For years, Brooks has asked himself why, despite his career successes, feeling superficial has disturbed him, and why other people seem to be more content.  He notes that these people “radiate an inner light.  They can be in any walk of life, seem deeply good, listen well, make you feel funny and valued.  You often catch them looking after other people and as they do, their laughter is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude.  They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing.  They are not thinking about themselves at all.”

As one example, Brooks cites Monsignor Raymond East, an African-American Catholic priest and pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington, D.C., one of the poorest parishes in the nation’s capital.  This priest is “insanely happy,” Brooks observes. “A few years ago, I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people.”

The Road to Character reveals the author’s concerns and addresses traditionally-religious topics but without reference to organized religion.  He knows that many readers harbor a deep mistrust of mainline faith-traditions.  Catholics, Protestants, and Jews have left behind their churches and synagogues in search of experiences powerful enough to effect interior change, help them cope with life’s hardships, and put them on the road to a contented life.    

The Relationship to Crown All Others

Central to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths is the awareness that God summons us as a community of believers and as individuals—called even by name—for a special reason.  God initiates and establishes a mutual yet unequal relationship, the sacred bond of a covenantal union. As with Abraham, our father in faith, our relationship with God covers the whole of our lives. It embraces every aspect of our prayer and worship, our observance, our work, thought, activity, and our relationships with others.
As with Abraham and his descendants, we believe that nothing happens by chance, for God acts in every event of life.  Through the ups and downs of life, we are guided by God’s abiding presence. 

Psalm 8 proclaims the lofty truth that we have been created a little lower than God; we are made according to the divine image, in glory and honor.  The mandate is to act accordingly. Time and again, the Psalms make reference to this sacred bond: “Come to me in your distress, and I will save you” (Psalm 50).  “O Lord, my God, answer me, when I call, you gave me room when I was in distress, be gracious to me, and hear my prayer” (Psalm 4).

The relationship with God precedes and crowns all others.  It shines out “like shook foil” to others.

When asked about the meaning of holiness, Brooks confesses his uncertainty about what it is.  Is it a ‘do-it-yourself’ activity or does it depend on this something called grace?  He is certain that people like Monsignor East reveal an inner radiance that he describes and much admires.  But explain it, define it?  He cannot quite do that.  Still, Brooks summarizes the qualities he admires:  a profound humility, that is, thinking about others; awareness of one’s core sin and conquers it; recognizing one’s need for “redemptive assistance from outside” or grace; unselfish, energizing love; responding to the call within the call of one’s vocation; and finally, the conscience leap—getting beyond power, prestige, and position.  Dorothy Day is another person whom the author admires.

Building a Better World

An increasing number of men and women no longer adhere to a faith-tradition.  Perhaps they’re not even aware that a relationship with God is possible. Still, atheists, agnostics—secularists all, can and do come to terms with their decisions and, without a religious framework, build a better society.  Believers see themselves as co-creators with a mandate from the Creator to build a better world. 

The breakdown and tearing down we witness today only prompts dedicated people to build that better world, expressed in the words of “Ulysses” by Alfred Lloyd Tennyson:

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manner, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
. . .
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
. . .   “to shine in use.” 

Here are beautiful minds, beautiful people.