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. ☩

Cool Advertisements to Raise Money for MKE Basilica

The St. Josaphat Basilica is one of two basilicas in Wisconsin and, I’d argue, the most beautiful church in the state. Made in the 1800’s by Polish immigrants as a “smaller version” of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, this church dripping with artistic and sacred beauty is in need of serious repairs. They are trying to raise $7.5m total to complete what needs to be done. They are accepting donations here and have already raised $2m.

The diocese is putting up some really cool bus stop advertisements around downtown Milwaukee to draw attention to their cause, it’s nice to see an injection of the sacred into normally secular surroundings!

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The Church’s Apparent Problem with Beauty

This weekend I attended Mass at a beautiful cathedral. My family and I were out of town and we acted on a suggestion from a friend. The architecture, murals, and statues all worked to fix our gaze upward to heaven, helping achieve the proper disposition for Mass. Sure, they removed nearly all of the gorgeous communion rails (there were tiny four-foot segments left on each end) and the wall altar was replaced with a very bland backdrop to the Tabernacle, but it seemed like most of the church weathered the 60’s and 70’s pretty well.

The problem isn’t that the church lacked beauty, the problem is that the liturgy simply didn’t match. It begs the question, why do so many in the Catholic Church seemingly have a problem with beauty–sometimes it’s a bland and ugly modern church that lacks beauty, sometime’s it’s the prayers (or lack-thereof) used by a priest, sometimes it’s vestments, sometimes it’s art, and sometimes it’s music. Beauty, historically, was something the Church embraced. The architecture of old churches reflects not only the beauty we revered but showcases the talent and sacrifice of the faithful. The Church gave birth to some of the most beautiful music (beyond liturgical) the world has seen. Catholic art through the centuries has always been cherished by Catholics and secularists alike who respect the qualitative ways the human mind is able to capture its relationship to both the natural and supernatural worlds. For most of the Church’s existence, the liturgy was seen as the centerpiece of the Kingdom on Earth, handled with the respect it rightfully is due. What changed? There’s truth to the joke among Anglicans (who, as a group, still take the liturgy seriously) that when someone gets the “Roman itch”, the cure is attending Mass. Ouch.

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The very non-beautiful modern interior (and against the Vatican’s request) of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee.

Of course there’s pockets within the American Church that are an exception to this rule, but this is not common for a typical American Catholic. The typical American Catholic encounters a Church on Sunday that oozes with cheesiness and a lost sense of purpose. The typical American Catholic cringes at most “church music” either because of the musicians’ musical shortcomings or because of the Here I am Lord hymns. The typical American Catholic is used to frumpy and purposeless altar servers (in contrast to altar boys). And sometimes this frumpiness is matched only by the celebrant of the Mass, the priest. Avoiding any sort of traditional cassocks or vestments, the typical American Catholic assumes the garments have always been akin to a ghost costume from 1979’s Halloween. The typical American Catholic thinks all priests give homilies that lack any sort of mental or spiritual stimulation, secretly pondering if the priest is even all that intelligent–it’s no wonder many are quick to deem the Church being anti-intellectual. The typical American Catholic sees being Catholic as just a part of their life rather than their life being part of being Catholic.

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Believe it or not, you still can find parishes with very serious and well-trained altar boys who take pride in what they do.

This brings be back to Mass at this beautiful cathedral with the liturgy that didn’t match its surroundings. It was jarring to see altar girls waltz up to the altar in ill-fitting white robes followed by a priest in a purple sheet (that very well could have been from Bed, Bath, and Beyond) and an infomercial-style mic wrapped around his cheekbone. It was also jarring when the church is long and narrow but they still feel the need for seven “Eucharistic ministers” beyond the priest, especially when the “mini Communion” on the altar for the “ministers” lasts nearly as long as Communion to the other parishioners.

Catholicism that doesn’t stimulate our minds, bodies, or souls will work against the Faith. Many cradle Catholics will inevitably waver in their faith and the liturgy must exist to bear witness to the unworldly mystery that takes place at Mass rather than something that so reeks of a man-made event. If the Church fails to prove itself unique to the wavering, the wavering will begin to wonder why they take an hour out of the week to attend such a schlocky event. And, certainly, protestants or non-religious who find themselves in a typical American Catholic church see nothing special going on. These people we want to bring into the Faith see no reason to. Honestly, think for a moment about the most standard, milquetoast, cheesy Catholic parish you have been to recently. Then think about witnessing that as an outsider. What would be going through your head?

The Church has a very serious problem right now. Luckily, millions of young Catholics are working now to bring beauty back to the Faith either by fixing the issues handed to us with the Ordinary Form liturgy or embracing and spreading the Extraordinary Form.

The focal point of our Faith, our Church, and our lives is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is like a diamond. Would the typical American put a diamond in a cheap wooden band? Would we put a diamond in a lanyard necklace? Of course not. We put diamonds in beautiful, rich settings to highlight and showcase its value and meaning to us. The liturgy (and architecture, art, music) that surrounds our diamond, the Eucharist, should be the beautiful, serious, and intellectual setting such a treasure deserves.

On The Prodigal Son, Artwork, and Fatherhood

I can’t be certain of where, but at some point over the last month I came across Rembrandt’s depiction of the Prodigal Son parable (pictured below). While I am sure I have seen this famous 1660’s painting before in my life, I have never actually seen it for what it is because I haven’t come across it since understanding the story that inspired it.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal | Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal | Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

A couple years ago, as I was in the process of finding the Faith again, I got the news that I would soon be a father. During this time I read something that catalyzed my formation as a Catholic man and father, it said that if there’s only one thing a Catholic father must read about fatherhood, it’s the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. It pointed out the importance of understanding that a real father forgives unforgivable acts and is virtuous even when common sense begs him not to be. Not aware of this apparently famous parable, I turned to scripture to read just what this was all about.

After reading the short Gospel story, I sat in silence longer than the time it took to read. It was as if Jesus told this parable with me in mind. This story–depicted beautifully in both paintings pictured above–was the key to understanding my own past. True, many young people leave their parents in search of a selfish and “wild” lifestyle, squandering not only money entrusted to them but also the goodwill and trust of their parents; but not all children return to the open arms of unconditional forgiveness and redemption. I did. After reading the story a couple more times, I knew what kind of father I was to be.

So coming across the Rembrandt recently, the story moved me once again by being able to visualize this monumental moment in both the son’s and father’s lives in this story. This painting shows the story’s message: a real father doesn’t care about his son’s past because a real father doesn’t know how to stop loving his son. I picture the Prodigal Son making his journey back home after losing his father’s money and living gluttonously, selfishly, and sickly; he must have been terrified to face his father and tell him that he has lost everything, including his dignity. His stomach must have been in knots as his imagination probably raced with how his father would react once seeing what has become of him. And then I picture his father making eye contact while “still a long way off” in the distance after years of not knowing if he would ever see his son again, dropping whatever he was in the middle of and “running to him”. I picture the son embracing his father and not understanding how his father could be so happy with his return. I picture this being the beginning of the son’s much brighter future…all because he experienced the forgiveness and redemption of his father. Unfettered forgiveness, to me, is the most beautiful virtue a father can embrace because of its transformative power on their child’s life. True forgiveness changes lives. True redemption breathes new life into someone.

Just like our Father in heaven, fathers on earth are called to forgive and redeem. Without fathers (either heavenly or earthly), what hope do sons and daughters have in this world and beyond?

— — — — — — — — —

The Parable of the Prodigal Son


Luke 15:11-32

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild and dissolute living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”