AESTHETICS IS NOT an historically accidental phenomenon in the Church. Aesthetics, the principle of beauty, is a necessary element to a healthy Christian experience. Without the beautiful, the Christian faith would simply become untenable, unapproachable, undivine. Classically, three absolute principles called transcendentals, which are attributed to God, run as an undercurrent in the great schema of the Christian faith. They are: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Christian Philosopher Peter Kreeft qualifies a true thing as being connected in the following manner: “Truth is good and beautiful; goodness is true and beautiful; beauty is true and good.” Inasmuch as the Church proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ through her sacred texts (Scriptures) and her Apostolic Tradition, she is proclaiming a triad of interdependent realities, wherein if one were missing, the other two would cease to hold weight. It can then be similarly said that a thing is not true if it isn’t also good or beautiful; a thing isn’t good if it isn’t truthful and beautiful; a thing isn’t beautiful if it isn’t truthful and good. When the Good Shepherd says that his sheep hear his voice and they follow him, I suppose he meant it esoterically – that is, his voice is recognizable only by those who have spent time getting to know it. Recognition only comes through relationship, and it produces a type of reaction like that burning heart, which the two disciples felt after their encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
“From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator…for the author of beauty created them” (Wis. 13:3,5).
In short, beauty is not an arbitrary brush stroke in the sacred history of our Catholic faith, and it is this very theme that I wish to write about in my first monthly column, which Fr. Tim has so graciously asked me to participate in. (Thanks for the confidence, Fr. Tim!)
The beauty of family, friendship, and belief is the first thing on my mind these days – perhaps because these very things seem to be the most fragile of systems in our current affair with the post-modern world, and I am utterly convinced that half of our political, emotional, familial, and religious issues all directly point towards a slow, albeit unintended, fading away of what is authentically beautiful. Note here, I am not speaking about the vain cosmetic repertoire of runways, or models, or movie stars. Our over-sexualized, over-stimulated, culture of utility knows very little about true beauty. Its standards seem professional, but there is often never anything honest about it in advertisement, and goodness is hardly its strongest quality. Cosmetic beauty is not what the Church means by beauty. Cosmetic beauty is an opium for a truer beauty beneath the human surface – a beauty far more dangerous and capable of expressing goodness and truth in every human person. And my mind is boggled as to why this is such a threat to our modern culture.
My favorite Irish poet, John O’Donohue once wrote:
“It has become the habit of our times to mistake glamour for beauty. Beauty is not glamour. Most of what the media, the fashion world, Hollywood, the art world has to offer is glamour. Glamour, like the art world itself, is a highly fickle and commercially driven enterprise that contributes to…the ‘humdrum.’ It appears and disappears, no one ever catches up to glamour…Glamour has but a single flicker. In contrast, the Beautiful offers us an invitation to order, coherence and unity. When these needs are met, the soul feels at home in the world.” Hence, when one is not glamorous, he/she is considered ugly. For example, when I walk around in my black clericals, when I shop in the mall with a collar on, I would, by the standard of glamour, be considered ‘ugly.’ Time and again, I am certain we all have felt the shame of doing the sign of the cross before a meal in a public restaurant. It simply is ugly to be a Christian today.
But a great and influential thinker of the 20th c. named Dietrich von Hildebrand once said that the opposite of what is beautiful is not what is ugly. The opposite of what is beautiful, he said, is what is boring. In his book, he claimed that whatever attractive thing lacks truth and goodness, whether in prose, or argument, or art or morals, is also equally boring. And I would agree with him. In a society where the truly beautiful is missing, we are filled with a people who are extremely bored. Is it any real wonder that we have a constant need for entertainment? Silence has no place in a world of boredom, that is, in a world where beauty is not permitted to be itself.
I am thinking, of course, about those stories we constantly hear about the girl who thinks her freckles are ugly, and so she covers them with a type of make-up that fits the standard of another person’s facial quality – or even vice versa. I am thinking also about the family, which wishes to be the perfect image of a family, and so neglects their true problems in exchange for an artificial image of perfection, all for the sake of fitting a standard that wants us to lie about ourselves. I’m thinking about the new mantra in society, the new call to express one’s own unique identity through bodily mutilation, surgery, and the enactment of laws that force the compliance of rational beings to become irrational, all the while creating a whole group of “unique” individuals who are now starting to look…well…the same.
And all of this is getting so boring.
The grand adventure, which is God, is the least bit boring, but it looks as though the general attitude towards religion is the reverse. Religious affiliation in America and especially in Europe is steadily declining. The current young adult population, the Millenials, is less inclined to associate with any religious system. Check-box: none. The pews are less and less filled, and consequently, vocations to religious life and the priesthood also seem to be declining. But here’s the thing: they’re not, at least not in a manner that is important. Recent polls (within the last 3 years) have suggested that out of the 3000 plus young men currently enrolled in major theological seminaries in the U.S. studying to be priests have a strange statistic of its own: From 2000-2014, a rise in younger priestly vocations has risen 75%, the largest age group trending between the ages of 25 – 29 (see Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate – CARA). I entered the seminary when I was 25. I took this poll 8 years ago. I’m in that percentage. In 2016, the number of ordinations for diocesan and religious order seminarians was at its highest since 1990 (~548 men).
What these fancy stats tell us is that despite the overall mistrust in organized religion; despite the clergy child-abuse scandals of the earlier part of this millennium; despite the decline in societal moral norms, the higher rates in divorce, or the overall declining number of priests in America; despite the overarching threat of secularism and an appeal for the new atheism, God is still faithful to his promise: “I will send you shepherds after my own heart” (Jer. 3:15).
Here is the beauty that I observe as a young, 33-year old priest: parishioners who are challenged to be more faithful than ever, and they are. I am blessed to witness a people who yearn to hear God’s voice and many who really do, because of the learned longing in their hearts for something more – something substantial – something that cuts to the heart. I am privileged to witness young men in the seminary and young women entering religious vocations today who have been filtered from the world as those who have a longing for truth, goodness, and beauty – who still hunger perhaps even for such strange things as poverty, chastity, and obedience. I am honored to have and continue to live with priests, who have deeply impacted my spirituality in ways I can only spend an eternity to fully realize and be thankful for. I am deeply humbled to be trusted by a pastor whom I look up to and a parish who so willingly enables me to celebrate Mass, to preach, to hear confessions, to counsel, and to fundraise for a new statue of Mary – all for the sake of expressing what remnant of truth, goodness, and beauty God has made me custodian over for the sake of the people he brought into my life through St. Theresa. And with the recent loss of Fr. Ron, I am ever more aware of the appeal for love of neighbor, and even more so for love of friend, for love of family, for love even of enemy – that is, wanting what is good for them, not what is good for me.
Still, I wax and wane at this stringent thing called beauty, which has the power to bring an entire civilization to something great. With the lack of clarity in recent years over personal identity and dignity, or say even the lackluster behavior of world leaders and the diminishing quality of fatherhood and motherhood, I cannot help but think that beauty is somewhat replaced by what is artificial. So I am beginning these columns with an appeal to an open mind – to let go of some ideas that are convenient or even careful, and to explore with me the true beauty that the Church wishes to unleash. After all, by “beauty,” I do actually mean Jesus Christ.
-Fr. Matt Jamesson