In Defense of Beauty

It’s said that the three marks of the divine–that which is transcendent–is beauty, goodness, and truth. That which is beautiful, good, or truthful points towards God. This is why Catholic churches have traditionally been built with rich artwork and soaring architecture.

Modern society is at battle with these marks of transcendence. Not only is popular culture seeking to make goodness and truth relative, it also seeks to destroy beauty in favor of efficiency. We see examples of this with the literal destruction of beauty in Catholic churches across the country: high altars ripped down, intricate altar rails thrown away, detailed stained glass imagery replaced by abstract colors, beautiful vestments replaced by schlocky polyester sheets, and many more examples. Secular life has many examples too; most modern buildings favor high-efficiency materials to produce cookie-cutter strip malls dotting our roads, deep and meaningful music, artwork, and literature exists but seems to be harder and harder to find. Gone are the days when someone who cherished authentic beauty in society is to be regarded civilized.

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The soul’s longing for beauty may be hard to easily satisfy in today’s world but those who seek to live a counter-cultural, authentic, better and joyful life need to try. One must ask of everything surrounding their life, “does this reflect goodness, truth, or beauty”? It’s not the most efficient way of living, but it does produce better results. This point is reflected over and over by Rod Dreher in his book Crunchy Cons, “beauty is more important than efficiency”:

Appreciation of aesthetic quality–that is, beauty–is not a luxury, but key to the good life

In my now-heightened awareness of the lack of beauty plaguing both our churches and culture, I found the recent article by Paul Krause particularly edifying. He more eloquently states the same point while citing ancient thinkers such as Cicero and Platinus and their impact on classic Christian philosophy. These notions were once obvious to Christians. This unfortunately is no longer.

What’s hopeful, however, is the recent “re-renovations” of previously destroyed churches, the formation of architectural firms specializing in traditional beauty, and priests interested in offering reverent Masses (especially the TLM).

Quoting only parts from A Defense of Beauty and Excellence from the Classical Tradition (emphases mine):

There are many serious problems facing moderns, but one of the most troubling—and worrying—is the loss and degradation of beauty, not just in the arts, but in society as a whole. Classical Greek philosophy, to which Catholic philosophy largely inherited and preserved, maintained that beauty and morality were intertwined with one another. When Christianity began to spread, the Christian encounter with Greek philosophy was largely positive. However, over the last two centuries, the widening chasm between aesthetics and virtue, and the postmodern assertion that aesthetics is oppressive (and therefore needing deconstruction), has brought immeasurable harm to culture and society.

Culture means life. And for life to be truly flourishing in a teleological sense, Greek, Roman, traditional Jewish and Christian philosophy, always affirmed beauty as an integral aspect of the good life. In his masterpiece, Enneads, Plotinus opened his most famous section—on beauty—by writing, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.”

More…

[Plotinus stated] “Then again, all the virtues are a beauty of the soul, a beauty authentic beyond any of these others.”… As Plotinus explains, the ugly lacks a proper cultivation of reason, torn by lust and discord, lashes out and destroys beauty in the process—which also destroys harmony. It is interesting to note that Plotinus associated the ugly soul with the person preoccupied with only material things.

Catholics, best of all, understand the importance of the union of aesthetics with arête. Beauty, itself, demands a value judgement. There is nothing harsh or unfair with proclaiming this truth. That which is beautiful is good, and that which is ugly, as Plotinus recognized, is neither beautiful nor good. There are natural gradations of beauty. As Augustine explained, the gradations of beauty lift one up closer to Heaven and the Supreme Beauty that is God. This follows the insights of both Plato and Plotinus who recognized that the experience of even low beauty awakens an innate desire for greater beauty that drives one to greater excellence in search for beauty.

Cicero equally noted that people in their folly, are prone to destroy things beautiful and admirable. Nihilism is the end result of anti-intellectualism and relativism, not just the mere absence of values but the abject negation—destruction—of beauty and values.

The quote above is great. Relativism of beauty, truth, and goodness has an end result of not just the simple absence of each mark but a destruction of each. What did we see bishops and priests do in the 70’s? They didn’t just simply start making ugly new churches, they quite literally destroyed the beauty of old churches. The “art” that replaced traditional sacred art in many suburban parishes are kitschy felt banners and horrendously cheesy guitar music. Gross.

It is the inheritance of the classical marriage of aesthetics and moral excellence that had historically been a cornerstone of not just Catholic philosophy, but Western philosophy more generally—inspiring all aspects of culture: art, music, engineering, and literature, to reflect the highest excellence demanded of beauty itself. And in that beauty there exists an irresistible draw for the virtuous to defend all that is beautiful. The compulsion to defend the beautiful, itself, reflects the moral excellence of the person.

…in Confessions, Augustine stated that reading Virgil and Cicero had brought him to belief in God. Beauty is the brilliance of truth, and as Augustine said, “All truth belongs to God.” And we know where that road ultimately ends.

We all should start discerning what is beautiful in our homes and lives. Then we should slowly start surrounding our minds, bodies, and souls not only with what is truthful and good but also is beautiful. ☩

Signs of Hope: Catholic Hippies Getting Defensive and “Fussy” with New, Beautiful Parish Renovations

If you’re looking for a laugh, check out an article in the National “Catholic” Reporter (not to be confused with faithful Register) remarking on the opinion of Michael DeSanctis, a church building “consultant” and theology teacher. The entire article basically reads like that of a cornered, rabid raccoon. There is a stench of defensiveness because these holdovers haunting the turrets of the failed (and erroneously implemented) “reforms” of the Second Vatican Council are watching their utopia of a beige, frozen-in-the-1960s, kumbaya Catholicism slowly dissolve only 50 years later.

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Isn’t this where everyone pictures getting married?

Michael states that a major problem in the Catholic Church today is parishes “re-renovating” churches into making them actually look like Catholic churches again. Many of these dinosaurs–who came of age during the enlightened sexual revolution–cringe at the joyful, passionate, and polite undoing of their “renovations” of the 60’s and 70’s which really was just destruction: the removal of intricate altar rails, the painting over of sacred art, the removal of stained glass depicting saints, the carpeting over of marble or parquet floors, the removal of baptismal fonts, and much more. Read an abbreviated version below with my emphases and comments:

New clericalism is imposing old ways on modern church architecture

Church architecture has become a frontline of the liturgy wars as Catholic churches undergo re-renovations.

Restoration-minded pastors, most who came of age well after Vatican II, are ordering the changes. Gone are what they sometimes disparage as “Pizza Hut” churches. The goal is to restore tradition. They impose altar rails, the placement of the Blessed Sacrament near the altar, and use expensive marble on the floor to seal off the sanctuary area as a polished and exclusive arena for clerical liturgical action. Sometimes the choir gets relegated to a back loft, providing disembodied sound. In other parishes, circular seating arrangements are abandoned in favor of long rows of pews.

Those misguided pastors, if only they came of age during V2, then they would know the damage they are causing! I like how they are “imposing” the placement tabernacles near the altar. Isn’t Rome require the tabernacle be close to the altar (if not centered under the crucifix where it should be)? Why is this so controversial? I also laugh at him saying the choir gets “relegated” to the back loft. It’s actually called the “choir loft”, you know, where the choir is supposed to be. And the “disembodied” sound should sound disembodied quite literally, it should remind us of angels singing.

“Architecture is how we express our liturgy,” DeSanctis recently told NCR in a phone interview, noting that the generation of post-Vatican II priests routinely came out of the sanctuary to interact with their parishioners during liturgy. They built churches with a focus on circular design, to bring the congregation closer together, as well lowered the altar to bring the priest closer to the congregation.

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Everyone is a priest and Father is just one of us!

First off, again, I am pretty certain that, according to GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal), priests are not supposed to “interact” with the congregation outside of distributing the Eucharist. What does he want these priests to do exactly? What exactly does he assume the purpose of Mass is?

But that has changed with the emergence of many younger clergy, schooled in seminary with the thought of Pope Benedict, who re-emphasized clerical distinctions. Across the country, DeSanctis has noticed how many pastors are redesigning the suburban churches built in the 1960s and ’70s with a focus on priestly action.

It’s pretty obvious the disdain for young, faithful Catholics, isn’t it? Sorry that nearly all the Millennials who engaged in the Church right now care about beauty, liturgy, and “distinctions” between clergy and laity. One of the biggest problems of the past 50 years has been the erosion of these distinctions. Many priests came to understand their holy vocation as just another day job (contributing to many behaving very badly) which devastated the number of men interested in the priesthood. It’s not about “priestly action”, it’s about offering the Mass for the congregation, something they can’t do.

In his article, DeSanctis offers a defense for the much-maligned modernist suburban church, with its focus on nurturing community. He begins with St. Jude the Apostle Church in Erie, a product of postwar Catholicism. It is a modernist structure with a distinctive summit cross, built to be “a place of worship completely at home in the modern world.” St. Jude’s, he notes, fit into the modern suburban American landscape, and that was its strength…

However, that model has changed. St. Jude’s has undergone a re-renovation in recent years.

Elaborate candles now serve as boundaries to mark off the sanctuary from the pews. The altar area has now been transformed by marble, visually setting itself off. The new architecture, intended to recapture traditional elements, has a “look at me” clerical mindset, writes DeSanctis.

The sanctuary and pews (nave) are indeed very distinct places and it should be obvious. The altar should be noticeable since that is where the sacrifice of the Mass takes place. And “traditional elements” do not exist for their own glory. The goal of soaring ceilings of artwork and masonry is to direct our gaze towards heaven and the glory of God. It is also to help us see beauty in the world, beyond the mundane and temporal imagery of carpeting, abstract stained glass, and solid-green polyester vestments.

He notes that such changes are examples of “fussy territoriality” expressed through physical changes made by “a wave of priests intent on undoing the achievements of their immediate predecessors, a generation or two of men animated by the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.”

Church architecture needs to bring clergy and laity together, notes DeSanctis

Hmmm, who exactly is acting fussy here? And, again, mentioning those awful young priests. Can’t all priests just be old? Can we stop ordaining new priests all together? Their passion for Catholicism is really just messing everything up! The whole problem with this mindset is they are so concerned by their human achievement rather than serving Mother Church. This is why we have visible musicians performing at Mass, priests packing sermons with laugh lines and clapping after Mass. The whole problem is that our worship has been of ourselves; the priest too often looks at the congregation and praises them while the congregation looks back at the priest and laughs or claps. It’s circular entertainment rather than vertical worship.


Quite a funny article because you can smell the defensiveness which means things are going in the right direction. In 500 years, I expect the years between 1960-2030 to be just an odd historical blip on our 2,000+ year timeline. ☩

CS Lewis: Holiness isn’t Dull, it’s Irresistible

If Christianity feels like a chore to you, dig deeper. Once it clicks, it’s like the Wizard of Oz; life goes from black & white to color. Every person, art, and (upright) activity you love…you love more deeply. Beauty is found in places you never expected. As Saint John Paul II stated: “life with Christ is a wonderful adventure”.

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If you don’t believe seeking holiness is joyful, exciting, and irresistible, keep digging, keep reading, keep praying, and seek out beautiful liturgies to surround your reception of the Eucharist.

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls’ but they are the walls of a playground.

-GK Chesterton