Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

I was recently in Burgos, Spain and saw the splendid cathedral there. My first view of it came at night and I took the photo above. What a magnificent building; such proportion and symmetry! It reminds me of tall trees in a forest, majestically reaching up to the heavens. The flying buttresses supporting the soaring walls and towers showcase a great advance in building technique.

These were the skyscrapers of the Middle Ages. Such angular, geometric, and vertical beauty; a fair flower of the 13th century echoing God’s creation and pointing to Him in a great work of human praise.

Two medieval phrases come to mind in the beauty of this building:

      • Beauty is id quod visum placet – Beauty is that which pleases when seen.
      • Pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent – Things that give pleasure when seen are called beautiful.

A mere thirty yards from this beautiful cathedral in the town square is something that is not beautiful in any traditional sense. I took the photo of it that is on the left. It was not uplifting and seemed to correspond to nothing in creation (unless one were to imagine a dinosaur dropping or a huge stumbling block). Like most modern abstract art, it looks more to me like someone’s nightmare. It seems to have little to say other than “Try to figure me out, you ignoramus.” Indeed, that is what I am usually called by art critics when I express dismay at these sorts of ugly blobs that clutter too many of our public squares and “art” museums.

Some disparagingly refer to the Middle Ages as the “dark ages” while referring to the current age as “enlightened.” Certainly, no age is perfect, but compare and contrast the two items in the photos here: uplifting, soaring, and inspiring; the other is dark and brooding, and its meaning is opaque. One is an uplifting building from the 13th century, the other a dark “who knows what” from the 20th century. Based on representational art, which age seems more inspiring? Which seems more enlightened? Decide for yourself, but I’ll take the 13th century!

St. Thomas Aquinas (also from the 13th century) spoke of beauty as consisting of integritas, consonantia, and claritas.  He writes,

For beauty includes three conditions: “integrity” or “perfection,” since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due “proportion” or “harmony”; and lastly, “brightness” or “clarity,” whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color [Summa Theologica I, 38, art 8].

In applying these criteria to human art and architecture, we might consider the following:

Integritas (Integrity) – This speaks to the manner in which something echoes the beauty of what God has done. Thomas says that every created being is beautiful because God gives beauty to all created beings by a certain participation in the divine beauty. Therefore, human art and architecture are said to have integrity insofar as they participate in and point to the divine beauty of things. This need not mean an exact mimicry, but it does require at least a respectful glance to creation, holding forth some aspect of it so as to edify us with better and higher things. The cathedral pictured above points to a majestic forest as its form, its soaring stone to the mountains. Its colored glass allows the natural light to dazzle the eye and tell the stories of the Gospels. It is a sermon in glass and stone. As such, it has integrity, because it puts forth God’s glory. I’m not sure what the dark metal blob says. To what does it point? I have no idea. Because it is not integrated into the glory of creation (in any way that I can discern, at least) it does not have integrity. Rather, it seems to mock creation. If you think it is beautiful and has integrity, I invite you to explain why and how; I am at a loss to see any meaning at all in it.

Consonantia (Proportion) – This refers to the order and unity within a given thing. What God creates has a unity and purpose in its parts, which work together in an orderly fashion to direct something to its proper function or end. Thus, art and architecture intrinsically bespeak a unity and functionality, or they point to it extrinsically. They make sense of the world and respect what is given, reflecting the beauty of order, purpose, and design that God has set forth. The cathedral is beautiful because its parts act together in an orderly and harmonious way. There is balance, proportion, and symmetry. There is a recta ratio factibilium (something made according to right reason). As such, the building participates in God’s good order, and that is a beautiful thing. As for the dark metal “blob” (I don’t know what else to call it), it doesn’t seem to me to have any proportion. It is roundish, but not really. Does it have parts? Do they work together for some end? If so, what end? I cannot tell. Rather than pointing to order, it makes me think of chaos. I see no beauty echoed or pointed to.

Claritas (Clarity) – It is through clarity that we can answer the question “What is it?” with some degree of precision and understanding. Claritas also refers to the brightness or radiance of a thing. Something of God’s glory shines through; something about it gives light; something teaches us and reminds us of God—and God and light are beautiful. The gorgeous cathedral reflects the light shining on it, even at night. During the day it proclaims the glory of God by its soaring majesty, its sculptures, its windows, its order, its proportionality. It is a bright light showing forth the brightness of God and participating in it. As for the metal thing, it seems more to suck the light out of the room; it broods. I see no clarity, no brightness. I still cannot answer the question that clarity demands: “What is it?” There is no clear message. As such, it lacks beauty.

The criteria of beauty discussed here cannot be used for labeling things “beautiful” with absolute certainty, as if by applying a formula. They are more like guidelines to help us pin down some notion of beauty that is not purely subjective. Not all these criteria must be met for an object to be considered beautiful, and the presence of one does not guarantee beauty.

So again, you decide for yourself. Each of the two structures pictured above is representative of its age. Were the Dark Ages really so dark? Is ours really so enlightened? Compare and contrast!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

A Short Reflection on Beauty

It is common to link the good, the true, and the beautiful; this is proper because truth is beautiful and a very high good. But as with most insights, some distinctions are necessary, because while truth is always beautiful, not everyone or everything that appears to be beautiful is thereby true.

St. Augustine comments on this, saying,

Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses beauty even to the wicked (The City of God, XV, 22).

Essentially, St. Augustine is distinguishing physical beauty from spiritual beauty, teaching us that we can become too focused on lesser beauty and thereby neglect higher beauty and goods.

Physical beauty, though defined somewhat differently by different people, does exist and is a gift of God to behold. It is possible, however, to esteem it too much, failing to realize that spiritual beauty — truth, goodness, holiness, and God Himself — is a far greater gift. God signals the limits of physical beauty by sometimes bestowing it on those who seem undeserving, in order to teach us that it is a limited and often transitory good.

Scripture cautions, Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is praised (Proverbs 31:30). Both men and women are cautioned that charm and physical beauty, while pleasant, can easily deceive us into concluding too much. In our highly visual and noisy culture we are too easily influenced by the views of movie stars, singers, sports figures, and others among the cultural elite. Swayed by the fact that they are attractive, or sing beautifully, or act well, we too easily ascribe intellectual and moral authority to them which they have not merited.

St. Augustine continues,

And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good.

The problem is not with beauty but with us.

So, Augustine adds,

When the miser prefers gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing.

Enjoy the good things of God, but never in preference to the very God who made them. In our fallen condition, we are easily deceived by beauty. As St. Augustine notes, the problem is not in the beauty; the problem is in us. Stay sober, my friends!

What are Beauty and Peace? The Ancient Philosophers Had Simple, Objective Definitions

blog11-10Every now and then we all run across a description or definition of something that captures its truth, yet at the same time respects its mystery. For indeed mere words can ever really be, or take the place of, the thing or person they describe. The reality is always richer than the descriptions we attempt with the grunts and scrawls we call “words.”

Such were my thoughts when I was rummaging through some old philosophy notes and came across two classic definitions that are moving in their simplicity, yet mysteriously accurate. Here they are:

  1. Beauty is the splendor of order. Yes, order is magnificent. Sometimes we speak of symmetry (Greek for “same measure”). Sometimes we speak of proportion (from a Latin word meaning that something is properly divided or shared). Musically, we speak of harmony (from the Greek harmonia, meaning agreement of sound) or of “concerts” (from the Latin concertare, meaning “to bring into agreement”). Yes, order is a beautiful thing that points beyond itself to purpose and design. Things in creation are not just here on earth haphazardly. They are not chaotically strewn about. Rather, things are intricately interrelated in multiple ways and at every level: atomically, molecularly, organically, ecologically, and cosmically. Such order, such beauty! Beauty is truly the splendor of order.
  2. Peace is the rest of order. This definition is even more mysterious. We all know that order brings peace, but why? When our lives are in order we sleep well. When chaos wounds order we are in distress and seek to restore order. The perception of order bestows a kind of satisfaction and fulfillment. For a moment we can stop and say, “It is well; things are as they should be.” This sense of well-being ushers in peace and serenity. Yes, peace is the rest of order.

These are just two brief thoughts to savor.

To those who understand the “order” of a Bach fugue, there is nothing more splendid. In this video the organist announces the theme with her right hand. Her left hand eventually echoes the theme, then her feet. And all the while the theme is also divided mathematically. Yes, math set to music. Enjoy the splendor of order (beauty) in this fugue.

Some of the Most Beautiful Women I Know Hang Out At the Basilica


I went to the Basilica of the National Shrine of The Immaculate Conception here in Washington DC  last week to celebrate Mass the TV Mass. Afterward I went to the crypt church and took a series of pictures of the beautiful mosaics of the women of the Scriptures and early Church. Among them are Agatha, Agnes, Anastasia, Anne, Brigid, Catherine, Cecilia, Lucy, Margarita, Perpetua, Felicity, and Susanna.

At the right is a mosaic of St. Cecilia

The Mosaics date to 1927 and were designed and installed by Ravenna Mosaic Co, of St. Louis. They are  the backdrops for the 14 side altars that ring the apse and side galleries of the crypt. I could spend hours reading and studying them. Inspiring Latin inscriptions are integral to each mosaic. You can see the rest of the pictures I took here: Women of the Basilica. I recommend you use the slide show option when you get there.

In addition, I have put a video together of the images. The Latin text of the music in the Video is from the Song of Sings 2:1-2  Ego flos campi, et lilium convallium.  Sicut lilium inter spinas, sic amica mea inter filias  (I am the flower of the field, and the lily of the valleys.  As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters). Composer is Frederico Guerrero.

If you are interested and may have missed an older post I did, I also took some photos of the Great Upper Church from the clerestory some months ago. Those photos are here: Basilica Clerestory 

On Beauty’s Relation to Truth – A Personal Testimony

When I was a freshmen in High School I had largely lost my faith. I was not an atheist, more of an agnostic. If God existed, I didn’t care. I was in a rather angry stage of my life. And frankly there were some things that I had every right to be angry about, things I need not discuss here.

I still went to Church, commanded there by my mother who did not care to discuss my many reasons for not going (thanks be to God that she did not cave in to my demands).

So there I sat in Church, bored out of my mind. I don’t remember that the priest had much to say and if he did I wasn’t in the mood to listen. But one Sunday, a small choir appeared. It was a choir of High School students. I don’t remember what they sang, I just remember that the girls in that choir were awfully pretty. Later that week in Religious Education (we called it CCD in those days), a man came into class and invited us to sign up for the new choir. “Is that the choir that sang last Sunday?”, I asked. “Indeed it was.”  he said. “Sign me up,”  I said. I remember that my mother laughed a bit because, of all the gifts I had manifested growing up, singing was not one of them.

But there it was. Beauty had hooked me. I will not promise you there was not lust admixed in my attraction. I will simply say that beauty drew me. And through that beauty the Lord would restore me to the truth. The Lord had my attention and my presence through that beauty and now the truth would gently permeate my unbelieving soul.

As luck would have it we sang a lot of traditional music in that choir. We weren’t the typical youth choir which sang a steady diet of folk music. I had never liked folk music, sacred or secular. It just didn’t impress me (just my personal opinion, I don’t say you have to agree). But the classical compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Marcello, and the like impressed me. Here too, (remember I was a teenager)  it was related to girls 🙂  You see, folk music, at least the Church stuff,  has very little of a bass line to sing. But classical music used a lot of counter-point and hence the basses were kept busy and we got to sing a lot of low notes! Are you getting the picture?  Young teenager me, wanted to impress the girls in the choir with my deep voice. Classical music gave me the opportunity to do that. Hence,  my preference for the classical, simple as that.

But here too beauty was on the way. It was not as quickly appreciated as the beauty of the young ladies. It was a slowly discovered beauty. At first the music was just fun to sing, but slowly its beauty infused my soul. And as it’s beauty attracted me, the message of faith contained in that sacred music also became attractive. We would study not just the notes but also the words. I remember once singing a section of a Beethoven Credo (by then I was in my first year of college and we were preparing for a concert). The choir director explained  that the steady beating of the bass notes was to represent the hammer blows of  Christ being nailed to the cross as we sang “crucifixus etiam pro nobis.” (and he was also crucified for us). It was powerful to sing those notes. So the message began to sink in.

I need not say much more. My point is that God used beauty to draw me:  the immediate beauty of the girls in the Choir,  and the discovered beauty of the music. But it was through these beauties that I discovered the beauty of Truth. I joined the choir to meet my bride. In the end I did meet my bride. For it was through my deepening involvement with the Church through music that I discovered my Bride was the Church herself. My bride is beautiful and she is true.

This video is an excerpt from the film The Mission. Fr. Gabriel has gone deep into the rain forest were an untrusting and often violent people fear his arrival and hide preparing to stalk and kill him. But he takes out his oboe and plays a beautiful song (my first girlfriend played the oboe). The beauty draws them out of hiding and helps them accept him into their village. Beauty opened the door for truth and Fr. Gabriel begins to preach Christ.

Who Told You You Weren’t Beautiful?

We live today with very high expectations of many things. Culturally we have very demanding standards for beauty, especially in regard to women. We expect them to have appealing “curves” but be slender etc. Even ordinary weight is considered by many as unattractive. All this obsession with perfection leads to low self esteem among women and men too. Further, these high expectations of zero body fat and perfect shape, hair color, skin tone etc. leads to hypercritical and hurtful remarks. There is an old saying that “expectations are premeditated resentments.”  Hence this attitude also may have to do with marriage difficulties as the near perfect bodies of youth give way to the more “settled”  bodies of middle age and beyond. (Gravity and age do have their effects and even if you weighed what you did in High School it doesn’t look the same!) Plastic surgery is a miracle for those with truly catastrophic injury or deformities but today it is too often the refuge of those who have become obsessed with how they look and how they think others regard them. Oh to be free of such obsessions! The picture to the right depicts a woman but men have the problem too.

Help me Lord to be little more comfortable in my own skin. Help me to accept that you like both tall and short people because you made them both. Both the blond and the brunette are from your hand, wavy hair, straight hair wirey hair are all from you and apparently to your liking. Thin and hefty, black, white and all between are from your artistic hand. Help me to love me as you made me. If I should lose weight for health’s sake help me, but if its only about what others might think of me, free me.

Watch this video and see how a very lovely young woman is not lovely enough. She has to be altered, “perfected.”  And when simple natural enhancements are not enough her image must be furthered altered on a computer. Message: the perfect beauty does not exist for the world of media. She must be invented. Then everyone can pine after and spend large amounts of money and time trying look like someone who doesn’t even exist.

Modesty is Reverence for Mystery

There has been a lot of very good discussion on yesterday’s blog post on the banishment of “dirty dancing” at many school dances. Much of the discussion has centered on modesty. Modesty is a beautiful, essential and often diminished virtue in today’s “tell-all,”  “show-all” world. There are many good definitions of modesty. Websters dictionary defines modesty first as freedom from conceit or vanity and secondly as propriety in dress, speech or conduct. It is the second definition that concerns us.

While the Websters definition of modesty is surely accurate I would like to say that the most beautiful and thought-provoking definition I have heard is that modesty is “reverence for mystery.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some very fine reflections along this line. Here are some excerpts:

Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love….Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness…. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet. (CCC 2521-2522)

There are just some things that are private and personal. In an age where gossip and prying into personal matters has become a 24 hour news cycle we do well to recover the notion that discretion is not the same as secrecy and cover-up. Modesty and discretion recognize that the disclosure of certain things requires a proper relationship and context. Some things should be shared and seen only in very specific settings and relationships. Some things SHOULD remain hidden out of respect for the human person. This is poorly appreciated by too many today.

Some thoughts on modesty to perhaps provoke further thought and comment:

  1. Modesty is wide ranging – A lot of our discussion on modesty has focused on questions of clothing. This is due to the many modern problems associated with this aspect of modesty. But modesty also includes things such as: discretion in conversations, bodily posture, movements,  and knowing  what, when and with whom to disclose certain things.
  2. Modesty as discretion – The inappropriate of revelation of personal matters is rampant in today’s talk show culture. People openly discuss what they should not before audiences of millions of people. This indiscretion percolates down to ordinary daily interactions wherein people often share too much and are also too curious about matters which should not pertain to them. The expression “Too much information (TMI)” has crept into our conversations as a recognition that many people too easily share their personal information with other often un-willing recipients.
  3. Modesty respects Context– It is clear that the criteria for modesty and discretion are affected by the individual(s) with whom we interact. Mixed company is a limiting factor that is often neglected today. It may be appropriate for women to speak act and dress a certain way in the exclusive company of other women which is wholly inappropriate in mixed company. The same is true for men. Certain topics of conversation that are appropriate in single sex company may be inappropriate in mixed company. Age is another factor. When children are present certain topics and behaviors are are wholly inappropriate. Sadly our immodest culture exposes children to all sorts of things that they are not ready for. We have grievously offended our children by easy exposure to things like pornography, immodest conversations, and adult topics. Even worse we have often sexualized children by dressing them (especially girls) either immodestly or in a way that pertains to adults. When I was a child it was rare for little girls to have ears pierced, wear lots of make-up perfume, high heels etc. Too often today we doll up little girls to look “sexy” as though they were grown women. Finally, locale is something of a factor. Being at the fitness center,  beach or the pool may allow for some adaption in clothing. However it is clear in this culture that we have often gone too far and some beach apparel is downright sinful.
  4. Modesty has Cultural Variants– There are some cultural variances – In some cultures it is common for people to cover up head to toe. In many Middle Eastern cultures it is considered disgraceful for men or woman  to wear shorts in public. Even the feet in some cultures of the far east are kept covered. Some in the West consider the veiling of the middle eastern cultures oppressive but such cultures often consider us sinfully exposed. In certain indigenous tribal settings it is not unheard of for women to go about topless, though this is rare. The Catechism says, The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. …Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person (CCC 2524) Thus the catechism, while admitting that there are variants in modesty, teaches clearly that the existence of some varying standards does not mean that modesty has NO standards. Modesty is a basic intuition proper to every person and culture. Despite some variation modesty does exist as a discernible truth that must be respected.
  5. Modesty is respect for others – The word modesty is rooted in the word “mode” which refers to a manner in which something is done, or to an arranged norm. Moderation also comes from this word since we adjust our behavior to a norm or reasonable “criteria.”  Hence modesty also displays reverence for others by respecting reasonable and agreed upon norms. Tweaking or shocking  others by immodest behavior, dress or conversation is a form of disrespect both to individuals and communities.
  6. Modesty is Charity– Immodesty can and often is seductive. It lures others to unchaste thoughts or to immoderate curiosity. To intentionally dress, act or speak in a way that deliberately causes others to sin can be a grave sin. Sometimes the effect is less intentional and rooted merely in an insensitive or unknowing manner of dress or speech. But to the degree that we come to understand that we are dressing, acting or speaking in a way that is reasonably tempting to others we ought to stop. This is charity for others who may be weaker than we are in the matter of chastity and self-control. A standard of reasonableness is also operative here. We cannot protect everyone from every possible attraction. Women for example should not have to hide every curve of their body in a way that would severely limit them just because some men struggle. But in all matters a charity should prevail and reason norms be employed that protect others from undue temptation. Humorously, some years ago a young woman in a VERY short skirt came to my Church Office and requested to meet with the pastor. I happened to be passing by in the hall and invited her to have a seat in the meeting room. Shortly after we were seated my secretary came in holding a blanket which she proceed to place over the woman’s legs. She apparently knew the woman and she said, “Don’t you EVER come in here dressed like that again and tempting my pastor!”  I must say I had been enjoying the brief view but was grateful to my secretary for her intervention. It was an act of charity  🙂
  7. Modesty is reverence for mystery– The human person has many deeper dimensions that cannot and should not be causally exposed. This is a characteristic of our soul that is also expressed in our body. As relationships deepen more is shared. Close friends share more than mere acquaintances, or so it should be. As regards sexuality, this is meant for the deepest and most personal relationship which we call marriage. Only a man and a woman who have committed themselves to a lifelong relationship should unveil this portion of their soul and body. To fully disclose oneself requires a oneness only God can effect. In marriage God makes two one. And only this absolute oneness should permit the sacred unveiling of one’s whole self to another. Sexual intercourse is a kind of sign or sacrament of the deep union of marriage which only God can give. This mystery of the other person should be reverenced prior to marriage by modesty and after marriage by a modest reverence for the privacy and personal quality of that mystery which is sexual intercourse.
  8. Modesty is beautiful and attracts – Most men, in their better moments, admit that they find modesty beautiful. Lust is base but modesty is beautiful. Lust excites only a physical urge but modesty draws forth an attraction to the whole person. I have not heard many women comment on how they experience modesty in men, but it is a sure fact that modesty is beautiful because mystery attracts. A woman’s mystique, her mystery, is deeply appealing to most men. Even in marriage, many husbands have told me how attracted they are by their wife’s modesty. In marriage there is surely a place and time for full disclosure, but in between modesty still seems attractive to most of the married men I’ve talked to. The following video does a pretty good job in showing forth the intersection of modesty, beauty, and admiration.

Food’s Beauty

corn-on-the-cob-lgThis weekend I attended Peter Kreeft’s talk in Alexandria, VA entitled “The Power of Beauty in the Sacred Arts”, sponsored by the Foundation for Sacred Arts. Dr. Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and the King’s College and is a prolific writer. The talk was brilliant, and while I’m sure I could blog about more profound things, today I choose food in the hopes that we might think more profoundly about food.

One of the questions asked during the Q&A session had to do with whether or not there was beauty in “fast food”. Dr. Kreeft’s answer was that, it being fast food, it is likely that even if beauty were present we would not stop to contemplate it. (typical Kreeft witticism)

For me, it’s not so much that the food is “fast” but that it’s so processed. One could say we process the hell out of our foods, but I would actually say that we process the Heaven out of our foods. There is something spectacular about the plants, animals, and grains that God has placed on earth to nourish our bodies.

Today (shortly before lunch) I was contemplating the beauty of food. What came to mind as particularly beauitful foods were corn on the cob, a fresh raspberry, and the avocado: the straight plump rows of yellow kernels; the fuzzy red seed pockets; and the bumpy black skin protecting the creamy green fruit. With such beauty, I wonder why our society adulterates it so often and to such a degree.

Now I can’t say all of this without acknowledging that there are people in the world who are not blessed with access to fresh food, or food at all. So my prayer today is that we who have access to fresh food take the time to contemplate its beauty, thank God for the gift our food, and continue to share our food and argicultural technology with the poor and the hungry.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. Matthew 25:35