Category Archives: beauty

Beauty Will Save the World

The mark of a truly wise man is that he is able to gather the seeds of wisdom in his midst and fears not to adopt them as his own.  Sometimes the wisdom is even snatched from the lips of an idiot.  Case in point: one of the wisest men of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II, was unafraid to adopt as his own the thesis of Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myskin in his novel The Idiot that “Beauty will save the world.”   In his 1999 Letter to Artists, the Pope said

“People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm[sparked by wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world” (Letter to Artists, 16).

Fast–forward to our day, seventeen years after the Pope put ink to paper and we, the “people of tomorrow,” are collectively more boring and duller than the simplest peasant from the so-called Dark Ages.  Our minds, thanks to their reduction to nothing but firing synapses, have atrophied paralyzing our capacity to wonder.  There is nothing new under the sun.  While the circumstances may have changed, the prescription is perennial—“every time humanity loses its way” it is the encounter with beauty that will set us “out again on the right path.”  What makes our circumstances rather unique is that in order for “beauty to save the world” it must first be rescued from the poison of subjectivism.

Most of us are quick to denounce relativism in both its axiomatic and moral forms.  But when it comes to its aesthetical claims, we find ourselves all too ready to concede that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  If beauty is entirely subjective, that is a matter strictly of personal taste, then how can we join the Pope’s aesthetical revolution, a revolution that always “stirs that hidden nostalgia for God” (LA, 16)?

Is there Such Thing as Objective Beauty?

The linking of beauty with truth and goodness was deliberate.  The truth ignites the intellect, the good moves the will, but the beautiful strikes the heart.  Beauty’s grip on the heart gives it an indomitable power to move us.  It is found in many disparate types of things—there are beautiful beaches, beautiful people, beautiful art, and beautiful music—so that it transcends all categories.  In this way it is the third wheel of the other two transcendentals.  Unlike its transcendental counterparts, goodness and truth, it can only be known when it is experienced.  Someone may tell you something is beautiful, but you are merely repeating what they have said until you experience it for yourself.  Beauty, therefore, because it is completely practical, is always threatened by a subjective interpretation.

When asked to define Time, St. Augustine says he could define it if you didn’t ask him to.  Beauty is like that in that we know what it is, but it is difficult to define.  The most succinct definition is that beauty is the material expression of the inner most identity of a thing.  Beauty reveals what a thing is and leads to knowledge of that thing.  This is why St. Thomas defines beauty as “that which when seen, pleases” (more on this definition in a moment).

When we attach the adjective beautiful to each of the things mentioned above, we are saying that there is some quality in that particular object that sets it apart from other objects of its kind.  A moment’s reflection and we realize that the beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the object itself.  Before beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, it must first be in the object eyed.  Because beauty is objective, St. Thomas sought to articulate some principles by which the beauty in the object could be moved to the eye of the beholder.

In a paragraph on the Trinity (for what could be more beautiful than God Himself?) in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas assigns three conditions:

“For beauty includes three conditions: integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by that very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color” (ST I, q.39, art.8).

  • A beautiful object has integrity meaning it reflect the fullness of the object’s being.  It lacks nothing that it ought to have.  A male peacock may have beautiful feathers, but if it is missing a leg then it tends towards ugliness.
  • A beautiful object has due proportion in that there is an order and unity to it.  Everything is in the right place and in the right amount.
  • A beautiful object has clarity in that what the object is, its ontological reality, shines forth.  Clarity means that the appearance (or sound in the case of music) of the object makes it clear what it is.

 These three conditions can be thought of as the objective components of beauty and give us a basis upon which to talk about and evaluate beauty.  We may call a church building that looks like an auditorium ugly not because we don’t like it, but because it lacks clarity and does not reveal what it is.  We may call DaVinci’s Mona Lisa beautiful because it has integrity, due proportion (it is filled with examples of the divine ratio) and clarity, even if the subject is a rather plain woman.

Why It All Matters

Once we recognize the objectivity of beauty we can return to St. Thomas’ definition of beauty as “that which, when seen, pleases.”  When St. Thomas refers to the beautiful as that which when seen delights he is referring to an intuitive seeing (knowledge) and not merely seeing with the eyes.  He is speaking of a delight of the intellect and not just the senses.  More accurately, the beautiful creates a delight in the mind that spills over into the senses, that is it strikes the heart.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not proof of subjectivity but proof that there is a need to cultivate taste.  Mozart’s Requiem is objectively beautiful, but the fact that I may not like it, is because I have deadened my taste buds from consuming so much ugliness.  The beautiful must be slowly reintroduced to my system before I can fully enjoy its richness.

Why this discussion needs to happen is because Christians have abdicated their role as peddlers of the beautiful.  There is little beautiful Christian art.  There is little beautiful Christian music.  Even Christian movies are mostly ugly.  Rather than attempting to make something beautiful, using Aquinas’ criteria, they have tried to adopt the ugly forms the world uses and smuggle Christianity into them.  What comes out is something ugly and uninspiring.

A friend of mine and I were teaching a class together.  Before going to teach, we went to Mass.  As we were climbing the steps to go to the classroom, he said to me “that was a beautiful Mass.”  I agreed with him, but admittedly it wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I came out of Mass.  Those words left a lasting impression on me however because they were the last words he ever spoke.  A couple of minutes later he was on the floor after suffering a massive heart attack.  This was a holy man who had cultivated the habit of capturing the beautiful and allowing it to move him.  So moved that day that the Mass was like a springboard launching him from the sign to the full reality.  Please God he is seeing the full Beauty right now.  Ultimately this shows that beauty matters because Heaven is Beautiful and each encounter we have with it, only increases our longing for its fullness.

In an age in which all truth and goodness are thought to be relative, the power of beauty to move even the most hardened of hearts cannot be overlooked.  This of course assumes that we can present and point out those things that really are true, good and beautiful.  It just might be that beauty really will save the world!

On Nude Art

On May 13, 1981, a day marking the 64th anniversary of Our Lady’s first visit to Fatima, Pope John Paul II was shot by a would be assassin just prior to giving his Wednesday Audience address.  The attempt on his life, its connection to Fatima and Our Lady’s intercession has been well documented.  What has often been overlooked however is the fact that he was in the midst of giving a series of catecheses that was to become the Theology of the Body.  Had the assassin’s bullet found its mark, the Church would have been all the poorer without this great corpus on our the meaning of corporeal existence.  It was more than just a great personal love for the man Karol Wojtyla that spurred Our Lady to guide the bullet away from every major organ in the Pope’s body that day.  It was also motivated by her great love for all her children, especially those challenged by lust.  For she had told the visionaries during their “visit” to hell that “more souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” She knew of the Pope’s plan for “creating a climate favorable to the education of chastity” (TOB May 6, 1981) and that by embracing that education many souls would be saved.  It is no mere coincidence that the Pope had just completed an extended analysis of what is perhaps the greatest modern day challenge, pornography.  It is as if the Pope’s near death was Our Lady’s exclamation point on the previous week’s teaching.

The Pope began his discussion of pornography by pointing out that the human body is a perennial object of culture.  Because sexuality and the experience of love between man and woman is so deeply imbedded in what it means to be human, art and literature always find fertile ground in those two arenas.  But the Holy Father was also aware that the world, especially in the West, was rapidly being (re)transformed form a culture of the word into a culture of the image.  This resulted in a culture in which everything—from photoshoots to movies to reality TV shows to viral videos to hacked personal sex videos— finds its way to an audience.  With virtually unlimited access, the idea that certain things should be surrounded by discretion is anathema.  The Pope commented that even the use of the term “pornography” is a linguistic addition that represents a softening for what had previously been called obscaena, from which we get the word obscene.

The Puritanical Backfire

In many ways this represents a backfire of the puritanical approach that sought to keep even artistic representations of the naked human body hidden from sight.  The Church had forgotten some of what it meant to be Catholic—embracing all that is good, true and beautiful in the world—and adopted this priggish approach instead.  Men of the Church had even gone so far as to cover over nudes in Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel with unsightly loincloths.  But John Paul II was proposing a different approach, namely learning to distinguish between the obscene and the aesthetic through the development of  the ethos of the image.  So committed to this approach was he that he would later remove those same awkward loincloths in Michelangelo’s masterpiece in order to show “the splendor and dignity” of the naked human body (Homily at the Mass celebrating the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, 1994).

At either extreme the problem remains the same.  Without a guiding ethos, erotic art and pornography remain indistinguishable and we swing from license to prohibition and back again.  The ethos of the image provides an escape from this merry-go-round, but only if we are able to grasp two important points.

True art consists in taking ideas and imprinting them in matter.  It is the idea and the beauty with which it is presented that moves us.  This excitement of our aesthetic sensibilities then moves us to further contemplate the idea.  There is a certain universality of beautiful art as the particular is abstracted away.  This power to move however can be abused when the artist attempts to move the viewer or the listener merely by exciting their aesthetic sensibilities.  Now it is no longer the idea and the clarity in which it is presented that moves us, but the direct appeal to emotions.

The second point is related to the first.  Unlike all other objects that appear as the matter of art, a person is an object that is also a subject.  This means there is always a certain dignity attached to the human body as the subject of art which can never be lost, even if it is abused.  Instead, according to the Saint, the offense comes in the intention of the artist. If the artist intends to present a nude body so as to convey some truth about masculinity and femininity then one should consider it erotic art.  If, however, their intention is to present a body so as to excite sexual desire in the viewer then this would be considered pornographic.  This may even include someone who is not fully naked.  This is a favorite trick of Social Media and sites like FoxNews.com who like to present soft pornography in the form of “See such and such’s Beach Bod” or “Watch such and such’s Wardrobe failure” as click bait.

The Spousal Meaning

While there is a certain grey area between erotic art and pornography, there are far less than 50 shades.  In fact John Paul II thought it rather easy to discern the intention of the artist—whether or not the spousal meaning of the body is violated.  What this means practically is whether the work of art enables the viewer to more deeply understand the meaning of masculinity and femininity—of what it means to be a person.  Just as the body reveals the person in the real world, so too should the nude body reveal that there is a person (even if the model is anonymous) there.  As philosopher Roger Scruton puts it “The pornographic image is like a magic wand that turns subjects into objects…It causes people to hide behind their bodies.”  They become simply objects of desire and nothing more.

Regardless of the intent of the artist however, the Pope was realistic in that we are fallen and prone to what he calls the “look of concupiscense” in which we may look at a beautiful nude and still be moved to desire.  For that we must begin to develop what I will call a “spiritual aestheticism” as a corrective.  This means that we develop a taste for objective beauty in all arenas of our lives.  Only then will we see beauty in the human body and be moved to contemplation.  Returning to Scruton he gives what I think is an excellent tool for self-examination.  He mentions that the truly beautiful should stir our imagination (our bodily step towards wonder in our minds) and not fantasy.  The moment we find fantasy rising in our minds we know we have crossed over.

George Weigel once called the Theology of the Body a “theological time bomb” that was set to go off some time in our century.  Thanks to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary on that fateful May day in 1981, the fuse has already been lit.  Please God that the first target will be the scourge of pornography—not just to remove it from the moral landscape but to free all of us to see the beauty of the human person in and through the body.

 

On Reading Great Books

One of the marks of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth Century was their propensity for burning books in an attempt to “cleanse” the culture of any spirit that was contrary to their ideology.  Anyone who has read or seen the Book Thief can see an example of those who acted as a cultural remnant to keep the great works alive.  Every totalitarian culture has needed this remnant to act, and unfortunately ours is no different.  Interestingly enough though, we willingly give them away and no actual book burning is necessary.  Instead we bury them under a mountain of dust.  We cannot really say why other than “reading is boring.”  But I believe there is a deeper reason at work here, one that needs to be brought out into the light of day so that we can restore literary works to the prominent role they have held in nearly every culture that has gone by.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the United States has a 99% literacy rate.  Despite this incredible fact that nearly everyone can read, so few choose to except when absolutely necessary.  I deliberately referenced the CIA World Factbook and spoke of the “incredible fact” of nearly everyone being able to read.  At the heart of the Information Age is the fundamental confusion between information and understanding.  We confuse having a lot of facts about a thing with having an understanding of it.

Most people read merely for information.  They increase their store of facts, but have not increased their understanding.  In many ways, our patron saint is Cliff Clavin who could bombard the patrons at Cheers with fact after mind-blowing fact.  But all of these facts without an overall context in which to place them leaves us fragmented.  Where do these facts fit into reality and how do they help explain it?

Cliff Clavin

Of course, reading also takes a great deal of time and attention.  If I am reading merely to increase my store of information why bother reading at all when I can simply turn on the TV?  The average time a TV new show in America devotes to each subject is less than a minute.  This gives the viewer no time to interpret what the meaning of what they just saw is and they assume that the facts speak for themselves.  If the media is wise (often like serpents) they will spin the presentation of those facts and hide the interpretation within that presentation.  The point however is that each event become merely like an episode on a sit-com with very little connection to some overall story.  By next week, the focus will be on a new set of facts.

Reading for understanding however takes in information but attempts to fit it into an overall context.  It seeks to understand so that one might explain.  You are left fundamentally changed by an encounter with a good book because you have moved from understanding less to understanding more.  You will forget facts, but understanding never ceases.

There is a second reason why we do not read and that is because we have been conditioned to be chronological snobs.  To read the good books assumes that those who have gone before us are wiser than us in some way.  There is a certain inequality that must naturally exist between a teacher through speech or writing and a student.  We tend to think that those who have gone before us were simpletons.  We don’t read Aristotle’s metaphysics and his ethics because we proved his physics were wrong.

Even if we read good books by the authors who are still with us, we don’t like the presence of this inequality between teachers and students.  We prefer to have “facilitators” and not teachers.  All of the great men throughout history however were great readers and schooled in the classics.  Read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and see what a love of reading and learning turned him into.

Obviously it is not enough to say why we don’t read.  What makes reading an integral way for us to grow in understanding?

The most obvious reason is that we can only learn from teachers who are somehow present to us.  Books makes the great teachers who are absent present to us.  It is as if we can have a conversation with the greatest minds of those who ever lived.  I have long claimed that St. Thomas Aquinas is my spiritual father because of the conversations I have had with him through his writings.  The fact that he is a saint obviously helps facilitate that learning as well, but whether the author is a saint or not, reading allows us the vantage point of reality that is only possible when we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Culturally, we suffer from a form of ADD in which we cannot sit still or concentrate for any length of time.  This is because we have forgotten how to control our imaginations and memory.  The minute things are quiet, our imaginations begin to run amok.  However when we read, the mind seizes control of these two faculties to form images and recall other things related to what we are reading.  This soon becomes habitual and we have greater control of them even when we are not reading.  In many ways, reading can help to undo this effect of the Fall.

In reading this essay, one could rightly sense a certain amount of personal prejudice for reading Old Books.  The Old Books have stood the test of time not because they are particularly well written (most of them are), but because they shed light on the eternal truths.  As CS Lewis says in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, we ought to be prejudicial toward the Old Books because,

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

What makes Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets so enduring is his portrayal of the good and evil that runs through man’s heart.  The Divine Comedy is remarkable not just for its innovative use of terza rima, but also for the imaginative manner in which the author depicts man’s journey to his ultimate end that Dante built on St. Thomas’ philosophical vision of man.  With all the books on marriage and family being written today, which one could supplant Homer’s Odyssey in portraying the family as the center of civilization?

In closing, I can find no better summary than that of Chesterton (another giant we should mount), “It is always supposed that the man in question has discovered a new idea.  But, as a fact, what is new is not the idea, but only the isolation of the idea. The idea itself can be found, in all probability, scattered frequently enough through all the great books of a more classic or impartial temper, from Homer and Virgil to Fielding and Dickens. You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas.  The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all the answers to it as well.”

Finding Beauty in the Church

One of the great tragedies of recent times is that we have lost the sense of the beautiful.  We have become so focused on the practical that we are no longer concerned with the beautiful.  What is beautiful is thought to be only one’s opinion.  After all, beauty is in “the eye of the beholder.”  Some of this attitude has also made its way into the Church, especially when it comes to the building of churches.  The Catechism attempts to correct this attitude by reminding us that the buildings that Christians construct for divine worship ought to be seen as “not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (CCC 1180).  In other words, the church buildings ought to be beautiful.

Everything that exists shares in the transcendental properties of truth, goodness and beauty.  It is God who has each of these absolutely so that each experience of one of these properties can be a path to knowledge of Him.  This is why philosophers have always thought them to be objective and not dependent on anyone’s opinion.  Certainly in a fallen world we can struggle to recognize them, but that does not change the fact that they are not merely someone’s opinion.  In a culture that is dominated by the image, it is the beautiful that holds the most promise of leading us to God.  It is through beauty that we can be led to truth and goodness.

St. Thomas defines beauty as “that which when seen, pleases.”  At first glance this seems to be supporting the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  But what St. Thomas means by “seen” is in the intellectual sense—as in grasped.  The fact that it must be “grasped” reminds us that beauty is in the object and not in the “eye of the beholder.”   To further explain beauty, he defines its three constituent elements as integrity, due proportion and clarity.  Integrity means that there is a wholeness in that a thing has all that it should have.  Due proportion refers to an inner harmony so that all of its various parts fit together to make the whole.  It also refers to a thing being proportionate to its purpose.  Finally, clarity or radiance is related to the other two in that it is a measure of the object’s ability to communicate its wholeness and proportionality to us and revealing what it is and what it is meant to be.  While most people could not define these three elements, they still refer to them when they perceive that something is “missing something” (integrity), looks like it should be something else (due proportion) or simply doesn’t look like it should (clarity).

So then Catholic churches are beautiful only to the extent that they reveal what is going on in them.  In other words, a church is beautiful when the theology that underpins the architecture is true.  This theme of what makes a church beautiful is taken up in Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, Spirit of the Liturgy.  His point mainly is that because the Liturgy itself is a work of God and is meant to reveal a heavenly reality it cannot change.  What can change are the externals (like the architecture and décor of the church) which serve to amplify and clarify these heavenly realities.  The church building ought to serve as a sacramental reality.  Like all sacramental it should refer to the past, the present and the future.

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First, it recalls and fulfills the temple by revealing the continuity between the Old and New Testaments.  It is a continuation of the Temple where there was sacrifice and the presence of God.  This is why the altar is always the centerpiece of the church.  The altar reveals what the church is for—the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ.  Without an altar you do not have a Catholic church.  It is also why the Tabernacle should be situated inside the church building and right behind the altar.  If the Tabernacle is stuck in some far away chapel, the reality of the presence of God receiving our sacrifice is more difficult to detect and there is a subtraction of its overall beauty.

The Christian church buildings were meant to be a continuation of not just the Temple, but the Synagogue as well.   The synagogue was the place of verbal prayer and scripture reading and teaching.  This is why the ambo is set off from the altar.  The Word remains enshrined in a place of honor.  One difference is that synagogues faced Jerusalem because it was regarded as the place of God’s earthly presence while churches faced east.  This is because the Church has always interpreted Psalm 19 as representing Christ as the rising sun.  This is meant to reveal the cosmic dimension of the liturgy and the belief that the Lord will return from the East.  It is also why prior to Vatican II the people and the priest both faced the same direction—they were both anticipating and praying for Christ’s return when we will all participate in the Liturgy of Heaven fully and not in sign.  This understanding clearly was lost once the priest faced the people.  Once this meaning is no longer grasped we begin to see churches in which the people sit around the altar in some fashion, facing each other.

The great churches also have pillars and walls that were decorated with flowers and ivy.  This is meant to serve as a reminder of the Garden of Eden when the entire world was God’s Temple.  God created the world and gave it to man as a space of worship.  It is also meant to be a foretaste of what is to come in the “New Heaven and New Earth.”

Finally, the church building ought to be so decorated as to give us foretaste of our heavenly future.  This is why we find statues of the saints within the sanctuary itself.  The statues of Our Lady are usually situated somewhere near the front on the right side of the altar.  She is the Queen of Heaven and Earth that sits at God’s “right hand arrayed in gold” (Ps 45).  All of the statues portray the saints not as they might appear in history but as they might appear in their heavenly glory.  There also ought to be depictions of the angels as well to remind us of all the members of the Church Triumphant that join us in each liturgy.

Obviously there is much more that can be said and should be included with the architecture and decoration, but the overall point is that the goal of church buildings ought to be beauty.  If you want to increase Mass attendance, build beautiful churches.  Insofar as the architects depart from the three aspects of beauty that Aquinas mentions, they will fail to convey to the people the magnitude of what is going on.    As Dr. Denis McNamara says in his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, “..good liturgical architecture ought to be like good preaching.  It should attract and please the uneducated, edify and educate those who bring grater knowledge and delight the specialist who is capable of deep contemplation.”