The search for true beauty Print
Bishop Morlino's Column
Thursday, Oct. 04, 2012 -- 12:00 AM
This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop

Dear Friends,

Next week, on October 11, we enter into a Year of Faith which was declared by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in order to invite the Church, once again, through the door of faith which God has opened for us. It is an outstanding opportunity to renew our faith and to reach out to those around us, to invite them back into a life of faith in the Church. Each of your parishes, as well as our diocesan offices, will be offering many and varied activities for the Year of Faith, and I’d urge you to take part, in a full and active way, in this year which in a particular way com50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism.

For my part, I’ve been encouraging parish leaders in our diocese to approach this Year of Faith with an extra emphasis on encouraging evangelization through beauty. Let me briefly explain why.

It is always a great joy for me to celebrate Mass surrounded by families and children. I know that some people find any noise from the “tinies” to be a distraction during Mass, but I actually enjoy the babbles and shouts of glee — it provides a reminder of the joy, the excitement, and the liveliness with which we should be approaching the Lord. It’s wonderful to see the tinies looking at the smoke from the incense. It’s great to look at them when they hear the bells. It’s great for me to see the wonder in their eyes as they look at my hat — they really think it’s a wondrous thing! Those tinies, uncorrupted by the world as they are, instinctively are enlivened by beauty. You can see the wonder in their eyes.

And that is our human nature — that is our “ecology” as human persons. Just as animals and rainforests need all sorts of things to be sustained (and we’re responsible for that to a certain extent), so too are there things needed to sustain human life and human nature (and we’re very responsible for that). One of the things that our nature most needs, to be true to itself, is beauty — experiences of the beautiful.

The truth of objective beauty

Our country and our culture are not terribly interested in providing experiences of the beautiful. Why is that? Because we’ve come to believe that every individual holds as beautiful whatever he or she thinks is beautiful. And so often we are caught up with seeking those things which individuals have decided are beautiful, given their desire to please lesser appetites and passions, such that to present something that is truly beautiful seems wasteful. Why aim for something truly beautiful, when that which someone might perceive to be beautiful is completely different and takes so much less effort? And why try to find something that is beautiful when most people think that beauty is something that originates within themselves — just like morality. So many people believe that what is right and wrong is what they think or feel is right and wrong, and in the same way they believe that what is beautiful is what they think or feel is beautiful . . . and “everything is beautiful in its own way” . . . and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” . . . and so on.

But those little tinies, the little children, don’t think for a minute that they make my hat beautiful. It is beautiful. And they wonder at it. And they don’t, in any way, take the responsibility for it. Because, you see, what happens is that once we get into the mode that everything is beautiful in its own way, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, real beauty disappears. It has to, because there is no real beauty. There is only the beauty that is in the eye of the beholder. And when real beauty disappears, and when beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then beauty very quickly becomes nothing more than the satisfaction of instinct of lower appetites and of passions.

I have asked groups of teenagers in different settings whether the music of Lady Gaga is beautiful?. Many of them respond that it is. I say, “What do you mean by that?” They say, “It’s cool.” What do they mean by that? They mean that it satisfies the lower passions — because that is what it’s all about. So much of music today is about sex, and drugs, and violence — or at the very least, enough “grooving” to make people numb to their existence. So much of music is about the satisfaction or the anesthetizing of the lower passions. And we’re taught to call that beautiful, to go against that natural drive toward beauty with which we are born.

The tinies that we encounter are born with that natural instinct for beauty that lifts them up higher, to wonder and amazement. Our society, especially through the abuse of technology, takes that beauty away and substitutes for it the satisfaction of instincts, always wanting more than I’m able to have, never being satisfied and never being happy in any real or lasting way.

Satisfying the instinct for beauty

St. James spoke of this in the readings one week ago. In the third chapter of James, he writes, “Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain.” We set up a war between our mind and our body, so that what our minds believe we should do, we don’t do. Instead we satisfy our instincts. We ask and we do not receive, because we ask wrongly. The person who lives a life wherein beauty is reduced to the satisfaction of instinct becomes overloaded with envy and ambition which, St. James says, is a desire that can never be satisfied! No matter what one gets, it’s not enough! There is no satisfaction and there is no joy, because only real beauty can fulfill the human person — real beauty which is also goodness and truth. Satisfaction of instincts is not beauty and it cannot satisfy the human person.

It was in the news in recent weeks that there are more Americans today dying from suicide than from automobile crashes. That is where the envy and the ambition and beauty-as-satisfied-instincts get us, because those instincts can never be satisfied. When more and more men and women believe that the satisfaction of base instincts and passions will bring fulfillment, they are left overloaded with envy and ambition for more, and they are never fulfilled, even to the point of despair.

Only real beauty, real truth, real goodness can satisfy. Beauty — real beauty — takes us outside ourselves. Beauty confronts us, and when we see something that is really beautiful, coming from without, we know that it is a limited beauty and we want to see something that is even more beautiful. We ultimately want to see complete beauty, in itself — which is another name for God, who wants to be seen by us. Real beauty confronts us from the outside, raises our mind to complete and infinite beauty, which is the name of God. That’s what real beauty is — the beauty that sustains the ecology of human nature and takes the human person someplace higher.

Reaching out with beauty

We can reach out to the world and introduce them to God, by way of His truth and His goodness, but we can also point them to God by way of beauty, and I think that evangelization of our culture through beauty should be a major emphasis for us during this Year of Faith. We must call brothers and sisters back to the recognition of true beauty as something outside them, as not simply in the eye of the beholder, as something that confronts them and raises them up to mystery, and raises them up to God.

The ecology of human nature cannot survive without beauty, goodness, and truth. And those who worry so much about the Spotted Owl or the Dehli Sands Fly don’t seem to worry too much at all about what is necessary for the ecology of human nature and that is what is sad, because anyone interested in ecology should be a great friend with and follower of Jesus Christ. We believe in taking care of the ecology of nature. But the only way that the ecology of nature will be properly taken care of is if the ecology of human nature is cared for first. Otherwise we are reduced to our lower instincts seeking satisfaction.

So let us all take the time — that’s what prayer time is, in part — to be aware of the beautiful, not to miss it and not to take it for granted. Taking beauty for granted leads to tolerance for its disappearance, which is where our culture and our society lead us. The flourishing of our human nature with its ecology depends on the availability of real beauty which lifts us higher. And during this Year of Faith, let us focus on the real beauty that we have to offer — the beauty who is God Himself, the beauty of our faith in Jesus Christ, the beauty of the liturgy, which should never be anything less than beautiful, and the beauty of our charity.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Let us pray for one another as we come upon this Year of Faith! Praised be Jesus Christ!