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Beauty Will Save the World

12/4/2003 - 8:22 AM PST

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by Stratford Caldecott

The Christian religion is all about a beauty that 'saves' us. For beauty is that quality in a thing which attracts us towards itself, that calls to us. It calls us out of ourselves, towards something other. The aesthetic experience is thus one of self-transcendence. If ugliness is imprisonment, beauty is a kind of liberation.

Goodness - moral goodness - is also beautiful, perhaps the best kind of beauty. For if being beautiful means being admirable or desirable, being good means being worthy of being desired or admired. To judge something 'good' or worthy of admiration is to think it right to admire this thing. To assent in this way to a thing as beautiful is to welcome it into myself, and not to reject it. It is to give the thing some kind of a home within myself, to receive it into my soul. For all things are naturally treated by the soul as 'gifts', since they come from outside; and beautiful things are recognizable as good gifts.

As well as being beautiful and good, things also have a meaning. Whereas beauty refers to desirability, and goodness to worthiness, truth seems to be the quality of a thing which refers to its meaningfulness. The precise degree of meaning in a thing depends on the kind of gift that it is. For example, something which 'just happens' has no meaning; but if it is a present from the person I love, the giver is in some way present in the gift and the giver's love is the meaning of the gift. A gift in this sense does not merely exist; it has a purpose, a reason; it makes sense, it has a 'why'. And we notice that in a loving gift, its truth, its goodness and its beauty are one. Love -in which one person expends itself for another (in courage or charity) - is generally acknowledged to be the most meaningful, the most desirable and the most worthy to be desired of all human experiences.

We can make sense of the world only by regarding the whole of existence as analogous to such a gift of love. Human experiences of truth, goodness and beauty point us towards the ultimate giver of all gifts, the absolute Principle and Origin of all. That reading of the world in the light of love is confirmed by the Christian revelation, which is nothing less than the revelation of an absolute love at the very heart of the world.

The Blessed Virgin Mary

The eye of faith sees the invisible in the visible, and sees the visible world emerging from invisible depths. The Christian sees beauty, truth and goodness embodied in the man Jesus Christ. In him the invisible becomes visible; the visible is a 'sacrament' of the invisible. But it is through the Woman, through a Virgin called Mary, that this saving gift is given to the world. Mary is the world made beautiful by the gift of grace. She is the most beautiful of created persons, because she is the one who is fashioned by God to receive most worthily the gift of himself.

She is the heart of creation remade, rewoven, rebuilt as a Temple and a Palace, as the shining and unbreakable core and foundation of a Church that is destined to become the home for all that is true, good and beautiful in the world. It is in this Church that 'the grass grows and the flowers blossom, for the Church is nothing less than the cosmos Christianized' (Nicholas Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, Geoffrey Bles, p. 331).

'Beauty [Berdyaev also wrote] is the Christianized cosmos in which chaos is overcome; that is why the Church may be defined as the true beauty of existence. Every achievement of beauty in the world is in the deepest sense a process of Christianization. Beauty is the goal of all life; it is the deification of the world. Beauty, as Dostoievsky has said, will save the world. An integral conception of the Church is one in which it is envisaged as the Christianized cosmos, as beauty' (ibid., p. 332).

He continues (p. 336): 'The cosmic terrestrial foundations of the Church must be purity, innocence, and chastity achieved in cosmic life and in the world.' He sees this 'cosmic foundation' for the Church as having been achieved by nature in the Virgin Mary, not, as in Catholic belief, conceived immaculately, which for him would represent a kind of compulsion from outside, but by her own virtue: 'the world must itself welcome God'. Here he misunderstands the Catholic doctrine. The Virgin is blessed with perfect, unflawed freedom in the moment of her conception precisely to ensure that her assent to the Incarnation is entirely her own act and no mere submission to an external force. Unless a new beginning is made in her, she remains a member of the mystical body of Adam and is implicated in his archetypal sin, unable fully to welcome the Word of God.

Unless Mary had been free from sin from the very beginning of her existence she would not have been the perfect receiver, the perfect flower and fruit, of the saving sacrifice of ...

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