Beauty Will Save the World
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y 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 Christ. She would not have been his work of art, his perfect beauty. To be full of grace, to be 'graceful' in the deepest sense, is to be beautiful, to be beauty in action. This is the way of beauty that we see in Christianity, and it passes through Our Lady.
The Virgin Mary, in the Catholic vision of things, is therefore the beginning and mother of the Church, and it is in her and in her children that the Church reveals herself to be more than a fallible - and indeed sometimes deeply corrupt - human institution. This mystical and adamantine Church stands on the broad back of Peter and subsists in the Catholic Church in the manner of a sacrament.
The Virgin Mary passed into heaven many years ago. We cannot now see her face to face. In what sense, then, can we still know her or be inspired by her beauty? Are all the images of her devised by the great artists merely fantasies inspired by wishful thinking, dreams of a perfection that cannot really exist in the world?
To answer this we will have to reflect on what is meant by the 'imagination'. Here the Christian tradition is ambiguous.
Many spiritual writers warn us against the power of imagination, especially its power to distract us in prayer. The impurity of heart which prevents us seeing God (according to the Sermon on the Mount) is related to the power of images, especially images charged with emotion or desire, to stick to the surface of our minds and block the deeper kind of vision.
The images known as icons, however, are filtered and purified by spiritual discipline. They are stylized in order to give visual form to our prayer, not to indulge our fantasies. They are 'symbols', in something of the way the Creed is called a symbol. They are dogmas made visible, focusing our attention on a mystery. Normally they portray persons, because Christian truth is personal and heaven is made up of persons in relationship.
The saints are therefore the authentic exegesis of Scripture, of Revelation. They are the true theology of the Church. They have become living light, and when we stand before their Icons we catch a glimmer of that light in paint, because each image establishes a relationship between ourselves and its archetype in heaven. The Icon is an act of the imagination in matter, revealing an aspect of the truth.
The human faculty of imagination employs images that are drawn from memory and from sensual experience. In the activity we call 'fantasy' this faculty spins idly, or is driven by passing desires. In our dreams the same faculty helps us to process the sights, thoughts and feelings of the day. But in the spiritual life, the life of faith, this faculty becomes a means of knowledge. In sacred images, the spiritual intelligence which is intimately acquainted with the Real is able to draw together images from the senses and from memory and fashion them into a vehicle of truth.
Private revelations, apparitions and prophetic or inspired visions and dreams are a more spontaneous and less reliable manifestation of the same process that gives us the Icon. They may be perfectly convincing to the one who receives them, but unless authenticated by the Church in some way they are not to be trusted by others. Of course, many are authenticated by the Church: one thinks of Fatima and Lourdes. But even here the human factor is evident, mixed in with revelation, which is presumably why the Church does not place them on the same level as Scripture or Creed. No Christian is obliged to believe in them.
The great artistic images of the saints and of the Virgin Mary are products of human imagination, but they are not 'fantasies' in the normal sense. They are in-formed or 'in-scaped' by the truths of our faith, so that they can function - to the person who has eyes to see, who is suitably prepared and receptive - as vessels of truth. They are fountains of living water, to those who know how to drink from them. They are flowers growing in the soil of heaven, their heads visible here below. If we learn how to 'read' these images we will know better how to read natural world also, which is an Icon written by God's own hand to show the mysteries of his eternal Wisdom.
Stratford Caldecott is a Catholic convert and lives in Oxford with his wife, the writer Leonie Caldecott, and their three children. He is the European Director of the Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture (incorporating the former Centre for Faith & Culture which he and his wife founded in 1994), and co-editor of the Institute's journal 'Second Spring'. He is the author of 'Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien' (DLT, 2003), 'Catholic Social Teaching: A Way In' (CTS, 2001) and editor of 'Beyond the Prosaic: Renewing the Liturgical Movement' (T&T Clark, 1998). He is also a contributing editor for 'The Chesterton Review' and the international Catholic review 'Communio'.
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Beauty, Mary. Moral, Goodness
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