Friday, February 10, 2012

Pursuing Beauty

Beauty, it is often remarked, is in the eye of the beholder.  I disagree.  Beauty is objective.  Something is beautiful or it is not.  The quality of beauty can be determined by the degree to which a thing is reflective of truth.  Beauty and truth walk hand in hand.  It is for this reason that we can say, for instance, that Michelangelo's David is beautiful.  The manner in which he captures the human form, the kingly dignity of the shepherd boy, and the symmetry and balance of the sculpture all speak to truth.  They portray the glory with which man has been created.  Likewise, the same artist's The Creation of Man, the centerpiece of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, is beautiful.  Besides elements I have already described in David, in this work the hand of God and the hand of Adam nearly touch; God and man are almost one.  God has made him nearly his equal.  How beautiful.  Even a piece such as Picasso's Guernica can be considered beautiful.  The horror of war and the affront it present to man who is otherwise good as expressed by the piece is beautiful, even though the mural is not realistic in appearance per se.  By way of contrast, pornography is not beautiful.  It tells a lie about humanity.  

I have been thinking about this of late as the Parish Youth Commission at Blessed Sacrament has been working through John Paul the Great's Familiaris consortio.  Therein he describes the role of the family in the modern world, and he admonishes families to become a source of renewal within society.  A family is, after all, the most basic cell of society.  As we have entered our deliberations about the meaning of this document, there has been a resounding call for deeper education of people.  Particularly, we constantly find ourselves decrying the vast ignorance most people have concerning JPII's Theology of the Body.  I agree.  This is something that all Catholics ought to learn.  I have encountered a growing awareness, however, that even more fundamentally, families must encounter beauty.

Beauty moves us beyond ourselves.  It elevates our minds toward God who is truth.  Beauty is essential if we are to find value in what at times can be a very ugly life.  Think of the caricatures of communist life; the dull, grey, utilitarian architecture of the eastern bloc.  There is nothing beautiful in that.  Think of the high, elaborate, almost gaudy structures of the Baroque period.  Ah beauty.  What is the difference.  I suggest that the difference lies in capacity of the one to draw one outside of one's self. 

As a result, it become essential for the family to find and appreciate that which is beautiful.  That which is beautiful opens the heart to receive that which is true.  Thus, to completely change a culture, Catholic families must make a deliberate effort to experience beauty.  I suggest that the following are ways in which we do this:
1) Our children should be familiar with beautiful music.  In my own childhood this took place automatically, as the classics of Western Music provided the score for most Bugs Bunny sketches.  Kids ought to be able to identify these classics, and even if they do not listen to them as part of their recreation, they should at least acknowledge that they are beautiful.
2) The literature we read ought to be beautiful.  Pulp fiction has its place.  I get a kick out of a thriller I can plow through before going to bed at night.  These sorts of book, however, tend to poorly portray the truth of human goodness.  Instead of these, one ought, from time to time, to delve into the classics.  We consider them classic for a reason.
3) Cinema can be beautiful, both in message and in art.  We should look for beautiful cinema.
4) We should insist on beautiful liturgies.  The music, the vestments, the Sacred Vessels, and everything about the liturgy ought to be beautiful.  
These are not really hard things to do, and they will draw us toward Truth.  They will draw us toward God.  They will help us change the world.  They will help make the world holy.


  1. good job-sure gives one alot to think about. Why are we as humans try to turn something beautiful into something ugly, something good into bad and then try to convince others that something bad can be good for you???? We just do so many things backwards and it is getting worse. This is great-thank-you- May God bless you more-E :)

  2. Garrison Keillor went on a rant one time during Prairie Home Companion about how in our wealthy nation what a travesty it is that we have so few opportunities to be in beautiful places, largely because of utilitarianism. Our office buildings and homes are indistinguishable from our churches, filled with tackboard cabinets, flourescent lighting, and stain-resistant carpeting. This sort of mediocrity and focus on the cheap, disposable, and the functional helps us to remain focused in on ourselves and stifles the artists among us. A great little tirade.


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