“God speaks to man through the visible creation. The material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read there traces of its Creator.”
-Catechism of the Catholic Church #1147
It all started when I was about to doze off in the chapel. One cup of coffee proved to be an insufficient dose to sustain me during my 6:00 A.M. Holy Hour this morning. I must have looked super holy with my head bowed and eyes closed, but in reality I was striving to use the little strength left in me just to stay awake. It was then that I remembered a specific task I had assigned to myself for the day: “Find at least one beautiful thing and allow it to move your heart to God.”
A little background here might be helpful. I’ve recently been struck by the claims made in the “Catholic world” (more specifically the ideas of Hans Urs von Balthasar as advocated and explained by the hosts of the podcast, “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” and by Bishop Robert Barron) regarding the importance of acknowledging and promoting beauty in theology. The basic idea is that in every created reality there exists, to certain degrees, a sense of truth, goodness, and beauty about it (referred to as the three transcendentals). God himself contains the fullness of these three transcendantals in its purest form, so everything we can observe in creation that exudes one or more of these qualities is a kind of reflection of God. Thus when we recall a time when our heart was moved by the goodness exhibited by St. Mother Teresa, we should recognize in that moment of captivation an invitation towards exploring the fullness of pure Goodness: God. The same goes for truth and beauty as well.
The problem is that true beauty is often misunderstood and thus underappreciated in our society and in our Church. Beauty tends to be associated with adjectives like “pretty” or “visually appealing,” which leads to an abuse of the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For instance, if beauty were merely “pretty” or “visually appealing,” then I would not call an old, wrinkled, hunched-over Albanian woman named Mother Teresa “beautiful.” Yet there is something about her that radiates something I can’t adequately put into words.
So, what do we mean when we call something “beautiful”?
That’s what I’ve decided to explore. For at least the next two months, I’m going to try to open myself up to the beauty that surrounds me on a daily basis. I want to discover the different doorways God places in my daily life to have an encounter with him. I’ve been keeping a Beauty Journal to keep track of these encounters in order to train myself to take notice of the beauty present in what would have otherwise been simply looked over as ordinary or mundane.
That was where I found myself in the chapel this morning. When I slightly lifted my head up, striving to be open to the ways in which God could speak to me through beauty, my eyes landed on the back of the pew in front of me. I’m in the chapel at least once a day every day so I’ve seen the back of a pew before. Yet I never observed it with such intentionality as I did in that moment. I found myself struck by the patterns of the growth rings.
It wasn’t really visually appealing or “pretty,” yet there was something about it that really captivated me. In one sense the pattern of the growth rings was ordered, in another sense it wasn’t. There was a sense of order in so far as the whole pattern did not seem chaotic, yet it wasn’t a perfectly symmetrical, aligned, equally distributed order. It retained a sense of “natural-ness,” so to speak. The wooden structure itself had been sanded down, glossed over, and shaped into this structure by man, yet the pattern present in the wood was something that had not been forged by man. There was something that remained from its time as a tree in some distant forest despite the many changes it had undergone. The more I thought about that, the more fascinated I became.
It reminded me of a fingerprint.
Our fingerprints also have a sense of order about them, yet they’re not cookie-cutter perfectly ordered. There’s a uniqueness to every set of fingerprints such that no two fingerprints in the world are exactly the same. The pattern of a fingerprint, like the pattern of the growth rings on a piece of wood, is not shaped, altered, or even designed by man. It is one of the intrinsic things about me that remains the same despite other changes I may undergo over the span of my lifetime.
There was something about the patterns of the growth rings in the wood and the complexity of my fingerprints that truly captivated me today. Neither of these two things are all that visually-pleasing or pretty, yet I encountered something truly beautiful the more I reflected on it. I suppose you could say I was able to sense God’s fingerprints in creation.
Then, as I looked up from the pew in front of me, reflecting on what I had just realized, I all of a sudden was struck by how much wood there was in our chapel. In addition to the wooden floors below my feet and the wooden pews,
there was also a wooden altar, wooden choir stalls, and a wooden backdrop to the sanctuary in front of me.
When I left the chapel and went upstairs to my room, I noticed that we had wooden stair railings.
I got to my room and set my books on my wooden desk,
grabbed a sweatshirt from my wooden dresser,
closed my wooden closet,
grabbed some vitamins out of my wooden sink cupboards,
draped my rosary over my wooden bed frame,
grabbed a pen off of my wooden bed stand,
grabbed a textbook off of my wooden bookshelf,
closed my wooden door,
walked down the hallway and passed numerous wooden windowsills
and wooden walls,
sat down in class at my wooden desk, and began listening to my professor teach from a wooden podium.
I never realized how much wood surrounds me on a daily basis because I wasn’t “looking” for it. Until I purposely sought to look for all the different ways wood surrounds me in the seminary, it was simply taken for granted. This is why I’m excited to spend the next two months (at least) trying to daily keep myself attentively open to encountering beauty. I have no idea what I’m going to learn along the way. I still can’t even fully describe what “beauty” is so I don’t know how I’ll be able to stumble across it. But I have the intuition that this is something I need to work on. Something the world needs to work on. Because as the renowned 19th-century author Dostoevsky put it, “Beauty will save the world.” Beauty cannot be merely associated with so-called “beauty pageants” any longer, nor can it be limited to merely visually-pleasing or pretty pictures on Instagram of sunsets and waterfalls and mountain ranges. For if we cannot see beauty in the face of our neighbors and/or the poor that we encounter each day because they are not “pretty,” if we cannot see beauty in the image of the crucifix because it is not “visually-appealing,” then we do not really know what beauty is.
Von Balthasar reminds us of the urgency of this need to rediscover true beauty when he writes, “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it…[Yet] we can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
Will you join me on this journey of rediscovering beauty? Consider keeping a Beauty Journal, try to make an entry at least once a day, and reflect on whether that encounter with beauty somehow led you to encounter God.