Several years ago, I took a group of high school juniors to New York City. Or, rather, Mike Verlander took them and I went along as a putative adult. It was a remarkable group of kids, the kind who thought nothing of asking me, “Do you know your vocation?” as we were walking down some Manhattan street. When you combine that kind of kids with the majesty of a well-planned trip to the Big Apple, magical things happen.
One of the highlights of the trip for me came when we met up at the Met. I had just extricated myself from a very edifying subway conversation about purgatory1 and was feeling rather glum about not having been able to finish my catechesis when Saeedah came up to me and said, “I’m going around with you. I want you to tell me everything.”
Now, I’m no art expert. But put me in a gallery of Renaissance paintings, and I’m amazing. The majority are scenes from the Bible or paintings of Saints and I’m a beast at that stuff. It’s actually one of my favorite ways to evangelize: take someone to a museum and then just tell them all the stories of the paintings. So I was in. We looked at Medieval reliquaries and liturgical vessels (a special exhibit) before we got to the Renaissance. I talked and talked and talked. I stared in wonder at the beauty of these pieces, took notes about which to look up later, and marveled at the emotion still brimming in eyes painted centuries before. After two hours, I was tired. There was only one thing I wanted.
“Do you mind if we find impressionism?”
Off we went in search of Monet and Degas and Renoir. When we found them, I collapsed on a bench and just breathed.
Impressionism is home to me. I grew up surrounded by impressionist paintings. My favorite coloring book was an impressionist coloring book. My favorite book was about a little girl going to Giverny. I’ve been there myself–twice. I don’t much like the Louvre because it has no impressionists. I honestly think my healthy (ish) body image is partly due to Christ and partly due to the paintings of healthy, curved nudes that were all around me when I was a child. Put me in front of water lilies or pink-cheeked ballerinas and the tension will drain right out of me. So yes, I am partial.
My point, though, is not that impressionism gives rest to the soul but that beauty does. Truth inspires passion in us, fills us with zeal, and sends us joyful back to fight the good fight. Goodness reminds us of our better nature, encourages us to be made new, and sends us out to be the change. But beauty? Beauty wraps her arms around us and says, “Do not go. Just be. It is good that we are here. Just be.”
That’s how it feels to me. Perhaps because I can’t create physical beauty. I can speak truth and I can do good2 but I can only love beauty.
I’m in Arizona right now and I am surrounded by beauty. There aren’t many impressionist paintings3 but I can’t stop looking at the sky and the mountains and the flowers and just slowing down for a moment to revel. I’ve learned that I have to allot time to stop and take pictures when I’m out this way because the beauty of it all is too much for me. And thank God for that.
I’ve caught myself too many times this summer thinking “What an ugly world this is.” With ISIS and Gaza and the border and Ferguson and suicide and poverty, I’m just overwhelmed. And life is uncertain and loneliness rampant and failure a constant and maybe it’s just all too much.
And God says, “Breathe, love.”
Yes, my love, there is ugliness in this world. There is falsehood and evil and you must fight. But not today. Today, be still. Rest in my love. Rest in knowing that I have made this world and made it good. Rest and trust that you are good and beautiful and loved. I have painted you a picture. Your job is not to fix it or share it or analyze it. Your job is to love it. And to love me. Breathe. Just be.
This is why our Church has always sought beauty: because beauty draws our heart towards Beauty. This is why the asymmetrical brown brick monstrosities that dominated liturgical architecture for decades are worse than just ugly. This is why our music has to be more than catchy. Beauty doesn’t just remind us of God. God is Beauty. And beauty is a sharing in divinity.
So pray and preach and serve. Sacrifice for persecuted minorities in Iraq and all over the world. Evangelize. Love well. But sometime this week, take half an hour to love beauty. Find your favorite section at an art museum or climb a mountain or read some Hopkins or bring up a Rachmaninov station on Pandora or Youtube Swan Lake or find a lovely board on Pinterest if you must. Let yourself steep in beauty. Breathe. And remember the goodness of God.
- People near me on the subway were talking about what Catholics think about purgatory. It was clear that they both knew that they didn’t know much, so I introduced myself. “Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m a Catholic theology teacher. Could I help?” They were very appreciative and it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Until two stops later when I had to get off and go be responsible. [↩]
- No, I don’t mean well. [↩]
- Though there are a few. I’m staying with The Evangelista, after all. [↩]