Beauty and Catholic Life

by Fr. Timothy S. Reid

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!”—St. Augustine of Hippo

As Catholics, we know that the whole purpose of this life is to become holy so that we can live with God forever in heaven. Our goal is to become like God Himself, in whose image we have been created.

If God is Beauty Itself, as St. Augustine suggests in the quote above, then perhaps we can refer to this process as beautification! With this in mind, living a Catholic life is really a process of becoming more beautiful.

Defining Beauty

Before we can go any further, we must first understand what beauty is. Great philosophers of history like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas teach us that beauty is a quality, either natural or man-made, that delights the senses, the mind, or the soul. Beauty reveals or is a reflection of goodness, perfection, clarity, and simplicity. It is objectively attractive by its very nature. Beauty draws us out of ourselves toward something other.

Most importantly, beauty is not something we consume, but it is something that must be contemplated in order to be enjoyed. In other words, we must receive it and allow it to shape us. Beauty is something to ponder or to meditate upon.

To fully appreciate beauty, it is helpful to look at the way St. Augustine used the word “beauty” in the quote at the beginning of this article. For St. Augustine, “beauty” is another word for God Himself. God is not simply beautiful; He is Beauty.

In studying metaphysics, we learn that beauty, along with unity, truth, and goodness, is one of the transcendental attributes of being. These transcendental attributes are coextensive with being. Thus, if something is, it is one, true, good, and beautiful (although the beauty of an object may be only transcendental and not aesthetical). Transcendentals are objects of thought that surpass every limit of genus or category and that cannot be enclosed in any class because they imbue everything and are to be found everywhere. Beauty is not just another attribute or adjective like “prettiness,” or “ugliness.” There is a metaphysical reality to beauty that bespeaks of God Himself, and that’s why Augustine referred to God as “Beauty.” God is Beauty Itself.

“Beauty Will Save the World”

It may seem audacious to state that beauty is essential for living a Catholic life, but audacious claims about beauty have been made before. In 1970, the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In accepting this award, he wrote a speech that reflected on the statement of another Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “Beauty Will Save the World.” Solzhenitsyn wondered how this could be. In his acceptance speech, Solzhenitsyn pondered, “Was such a thing possible? When in our bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, elevated, yes; but whom has it saved?” [1]

Like Solzhenitsyn’s initial reaction to Dostoyevsky’s quote, most of us don’t see beauty as a necessity, but merely as a pleasant accessory to life. This is where Catholic thought and philosophy must step up to the plate. Dostoyevsky was right. Beauty can indeed save the world, and it does so one soul at a time. We need only to tap into the transcendental power of beauty and let it transform us. We need only to contemplate beauty. But how does this work?

The Interior Life of the Soul vs. the External Life

All of us live in two spheres of existence, one internal and one external. Unfortunately, the external life—the life of work, social engagements, and all that we do in the world—consumes most of us. Our American society values busyness. In fact, we often judge one another by how much we do. We fill every aspect of our lives with activity, and therefore it is easy for us to go long periods of time without praying or reflecting because we think we’re too busy.

However, although it is ignored by many of us, we also have an internal life, the life of the soul. This interior life, within which we pray, reflect, and contemplate, is far more important than the external, for it is where we come to know and love God. While we may attempt to escape the demands of the interior life by plunging into the exterior life of work and distraction, God continues to speak to us, trying to draw us to Himself. It is in the silence
of our interior life that we hear God speaking, and often He does so through beauty. Beauty helps us regain contact with our interior life.

Pierced by Beauty

Beauty’s power to connect us with our interior life stems from its transcendent nature. Beauty has an ability to pierce our hearts, to break them wide open so they can be filled with God’s presence. We need simply to be attentive to beauty when we come across it.

In 2005, I was fortunate to vacation in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. If you’ve ever been to these places, you know just how enthralling their beauty is. My favorite part of Yellowstone was the Great Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River that form the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. A friend and I spent an entire day hiking and driving around the rim of the canyon to see all the different views of this waterfall because we were so captivated by it. We were pierced by the beauty of the place. We couldn’t get enough of it.

Many of us have experienced this same phenomenon when faced with extraordinary beauty. Perhaps it was a sunrise or sunset on the ocean, an incredible mountain range, or even man-made beauty like one of the great churches of Christendom, such as the Chartres Cathedral. If we have the eyes to see, we can all be moved by objects of great beauty, whether it is a landscape, a building, or any art form.

One morning at Yellowstone, I got up early to see the sun rise on Lake Yellowstone. As I reached the shore of the lake, I remember immediately feeling the presence and grandeur of God. Not only did I feel assured of His presence, but I also felt a desire to be docile to that presence and power. At once I felt both gratitude for all His many gifts to me and contrition for all the ways I’ve offended Him. After some reflection, I realized my feelings at that moment made perfect sense.

What I was feeling was the power of beauty to pierce and shape our souls. We are pierced because we sense in something beautiful that which is transcendent. We sense God’s awesomeness, we sense His truth, and we sense His utter goodness. This leads us to feel gratitude, to desire to be docile to His power, and to feel contrition for our sins.

Thus beauty can help soften our hearts and open our souls to God. This is what helps us to reconnect with the interior life of our hearts and souls. Because beauty must be contemplated to be enjoyed, it quiets us down and makes us focus. Most importantly, beauty draws us out of ourselves. Specifically, beauty draws us toward God, who is Beauty Itself. It implants within us a seed of hope, as well as the desire for the higher and nobler things of life, such as moral goodness, which is the best kind of beauty.

The Corruption and Abuse of Beauty

The power of beauty, however, can work in reverse. Just as we grow in holiness when we contemplate beauty, whenever we cast beauty from our lives, misuse beauty, or corrupt that which is beautiful, we develop vices.

Whether we realize it or not, our environments have a great power to shape us. If we expose ourselves to truly beautiful places, truly beautiful objects, and truly beautiful people, we desire to become beautiful ourselves because beauty awakens our desires for the higher and nobler things of life. But if we expose ourselves to places, things, or people that are devoid of beauty, our taste for the higher and nobler things of life is dulled and corrupted, and we begin to accept a life without beauty. In fact, over time we can lose our ability to recognize beauty when we see it—especially the beauty of moral goodness in other people. And it is then that we lose hope.

One thing that good parents do is ensure that their children associate with the right kinds of friends in the right kind of places. Anyone who has children knows that their children’s friends and surroundings can shape them in a very powerful way. Children whose friends are morally upright (i.e., who possess moral beauty) are more likely to be morally upright themselves. Beauty begets beauty. Alas, the converse is also true: Children can be negatively influenced by friends and associates who do not possess moral beauty.

Moreover, if we abuse beauty or participate in its corruption, this too will have a negative impact on our souls. We see this happening all too often in our society in the area of modesty. For example, many women today fall into the trap of thinking that they will appear more beautiful to men by exposing more of their bodies, so they wear very revealing clothing. But sadly, all these women accomplish is a cheapening of their natural beauty and a lessening of their moral purity.

Instead of becoming more beautiful, women lose some of their humanity and become mere objects of sexual gratification for men by dressing immodestly. When women gratuitously expose their physical beauty, most men are not led to contemplate that beauty; they are led to consume it and use it to fuel impure thoughts. Obviously, this is harmful for both the woman and the men ogling her.

Another extreme example in which we see the degradation of beauty leading to vicious consequences is pornography. The whole point of pornography is not to contemplate beauty, but to use beauty and to twist it in order to satisfy lustful desires. Pornography is a mockery of beauty. Whereas beauty naturally draws us out of ourselves, those things that mock, abuse, and corrupt beauty make us turn inward on ourselves. They make us shut out everything else, and in the process we have a very hard time hearing God. In the long run we lose all taste for God and for that which is true, good, and beautiful.

Catholic Living as a Process of Beautification

While so much of our society is wrapped up in physical beauty, as Catholics we know that inner beauty (or moral goodness) is what matters most. Think about it. Is anything more attractive than holiness in a person? Isn’t there something about holy people that makes you want to be around them? Saints always attract a crowd. Think of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, or Padre Pio. It’s been proven true throughout all of history. Let’s face it—by secular standards, Mother Teresa wasn’t going to win any beauty pageants. But if you were ever in her presence, you know that she possessed a certain magnetism that drew people to her. Mother Teresa was attractive to others because of her holiness—because of her moral beauty.

Indeed, the saints show us the beauty to which we are called as Christians. They show us the beauty that is possible for man. They are wonderful reflections of Beauty Itself. Moreover, none of the saints acquired their beauty, their holiness, without regular experiences with Beauty Itself. Likewise, we cannot hope to grow in holiness unless we are firmly atuned to the interior life of the soul whereby we come to know God.

By experiencing and enjoying beauty in the world around us, we can reconnect ourselves with the interior life of the soul that so many of us have lost contact with or neglected. The contemplation of beauty slows us down, it makes us pause and focus. Beauty invites us to meditate. In a sense, the experience of beauty feeds our souls. It reminds us that we have eternal and immortal souls, and that we were created to live eternally with God in heaven.

The experience of beauty is actually a foretaste of heaven because it leads us to God, drawing us out of ourselves toward Him, and thus into deeper prayer. As we plunge deeper into prayer, we become holier, more beautiful, more like God Himself, and more fully prepared for heaven when we die. Thus, beauty is not merely one of life’s pleasantries; it is of vital importance. For if we allow ourselves to be captivated by beauty, it can help sanctify us.

Conclusion

Beauty does have the power to save the world, one soul at a time. We need only open ourselves to that power, which is none other than the transcendent power of God Himself. We must contemplate it in all its forms and allow it to shape and mold our souls. Therefore, as we continue on our journey of life toward heaven, let us take time not just to stop and smell the flowers, but also to contemplate their beauty. Beauty is our portal to the interior life of our soul. It is through beauty that we can come to know and love God better in this life, which will only increase our desire to be with Him in the next.

Fr. T.S. Reid is a convert to Catholicism and currently serves as pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

[1] Columbia University Augustine Club Archive, “Alexander Solzhenitsyn Nobel Lecture,” The Augustine Club at Columbia University, available from

http://www.columbia.edu/ cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/nobel-lit1970.htm
.

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