Stumbling on the Way of Beauty
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
- Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring
It was a signature grace for me to teach for the first time this summer a new elective course for the Institute; Theology of the Body and Art: The Way of Beauty. This was a five day head and heart immersion into the great transcendental that's synonymous for the God Who is Beauty. He, in His Trinitarian Splendor, first captivated me as a young man and drew me into this Way, through the sounds and scents of the pine woods and streams I'd walked in my youth, through the lives of the saints, the varied writings of authors like Thoreau, Plato, Chekov, Sheen, Lewis and Tolkien. He was singing to me in the music of Van Morrison, John Williams, Palestrina and Purcell. But above all He was drawing me in through the sacramental encounters with Christ in those sweet clouds of incense surrounding His Mystery in adoration.
I'd been longing to intentionally walk this Way of Beauty with others for decades, to shed light on its path and to reveal Beauty not as a decorative diversion but an essential need. Now, with the release of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I'd been given papal orders to do so.
Pope Francis wrote in Joy of the Gospel that "Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the 'way of beauty'... Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus..." (Evangelii Gaudium, 167). This way has been acknowledged and alluded to by every modern pope back to Blessed Paul VI, who said to artists at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart... unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands... Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world."
In teaching this course, however, in opening up this “school” of the contemplative gaze, of wonder and awe, of the listening heart before creation, I didn't quite realize that I’d be the one schooled the most. As it turns out, from the first pages of our meditations, pondering our own posture before Christ as either Martha or Mary, the overactive doer or the contemplative receiver, I discovered I was more the former. The whirlwind of work, the rollercoaster ride of family life, the splintered directions that social media (even when intentionally used) can take you on, all of these were taking a toll on my heart. Those first few days, those initial steps on the Way of Beauty course turned out to be a kind of detox.
So much more than gazing at beautiful paintings or sculpture, pondering poetry or story, this Way took us into the deep of our relationship with Beauty Himself. It asked the question "Is it enough for me to simply sit at His feet, or do I feel that incessant urge to be busy and anxious about 'many things'?" We moderns too often are distracted by the glitz and glam of gossip or the latest gadgetry, as our fingers nimbly flip through our newsfeeds on our smartphones like hands in a bowl of popcorn. Is there ever enough? With all that is happening in our present culture in the realm of faith and marriage and family life, there is so much work to be done! And yet, our good shepherd, St. John Paul II, was advising us (me) to stop.
“Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of ‘doing for the sake of doing’. We must resist this temptation by trying ‘to be’ before trying ‘to do’. In this regard we should recall how Jesus reproved Martha: ‘You are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.’” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 15).
Beauty, we learned, is arresting. It holds you still, draws you in, heart first, through the senses, and then Beauty wants to teach you something invaluable. Something essential, which is at the same time deeply disquieting; you are not necessary. You, and I, and this entire world in all of its varied intoxicating glory, is an extravagance, a superfluity. We don’t have to exist. We are gift.
The pure gratuitousness of the world can be a stumbling block for our pride. As we pondered in the course, it can even lead some (perhaps too full of a misdirected sense of their own importance) to despair. Sartre said in one of his works "If man is terrified at the bosom of Nature, it is because he feels trapped in a huge amorphous and gratuitous existence which penetrates him completely with its gratuitousness: he has no place anywhere, he is just put on earth, aimless, without any reason to be there, like a briarbush or a clump of grass." (Sartre, Jean-Paul, Baudelaire, Gallimard, Paris, 1947)
In our utilitarian age, where things only have worth if they have a use, beauty can not stand. The German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote “Man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy... what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” (Leisure, The Basis of Culture). But when one discovers that at the heart of the universe, of God's plan for creation is this paradigm of pure gift, then this truth is a liberation. The conclusion is, I don’t have to own, grasp, take, clutch at life, at goods, at others as if they are essentials who define me. I also don’t have to save the world, fix everything, establish my worth or my existence through something I have done or accomplished! There is only one thing necessary, one thing essential; our openness to Him. And He is Gift. And He has made me to be gift, and to see all as gift.
Since teaching (and taking) this course, I have stepped back into the Way of the Busy, the maelstrom of modern life. But honestly, something has changed. I’ve caught the fragrance of the Beautiful; I’ve literally stopped to smell the roses, and discovered that this seemingly wasteful act is in fact the entire point. The tyranny of the immediate has loosened its grip. The tentacles of technology have receded into the shadows, as I begin to take a bit more ownerhip of my time and leisure.
I still stumble, but I am learning to keep my head up and heart open. One of the lessons learned is that this Way of Beauty is above all an invitation. If one accepts, they are taken by the hand into a quiet place. It's a place where one sits still, allowing the senses to slowly engage the reality that surrounds the heart. If one refuses, they quickly fill their senses with the busyness of the day, or with experiences that might please the senses, though only at the level of the senses. The quiet place is the better part. The place where rich veins of inspiration are tapped, revealed, and pour into us with the water of His rejuvenating grace.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once wrote, “Entrances to holiness are everywhere. The possibility of ascent is all the time. Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.” (Mishkan T’filah, prayer book).
If we've stumbled on our way, allowed our gaze to fall into a nest of distractions, come, let us rise up. The Way is always present, this door is always open.
This reflection first appeared at TOBinstitute.org
BILL DONAGHY has been hounded by beauty since he first heard John Williams’ score for Star Wars in 1977. He works as an international speaker & curriculum specialist for the Theology of the Body Institute, where he has been hard at work developing the Institute's new elective course on Theology of the Body & Art: The Way of Beauty, beginning June 21, 2015. A husband, father, sinner & lover of bacon; Bill cannot pass by the glimmering glance of beauty without a gaze in wonder and awe. Consequently he is late for work. A lot.