Friday, April 6, 2018

The Whole Beauty Business

Since I will readily admit to being a contrarian (which I am), people sometimes accuse me of contrarianism when I'm entirely innocent of the charge. Or perhaps I should say: sometimes I'm accused of contrarianism when I'm entirely unconscious of any contrarianism on my part. If it's there at all, it's at a subconscious or pre-conscious level.

For instance, I dislike silence, and I become rather impatient at all the "puffing" of silence so prevalent in our society. I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm in the wrong here, and that everybody else is in the right. I'm sure silence is a good thing. I'm sure the modern world, more than ever, needs silence.

But I just don't like it. To say "plenty of silence in a graveyard" is a glib reduction ab absurdum, and yet this represents my instinctive response.

Give me life! My favourite noise in the whole world is the hum of voices on the air. I would choose that over silence any old day (to use an expression I love).

Perhaps this comes from growing up in a cramped apartment which was always full of people. Of course, I could just as well have reacted against that environment, so I'm not sure if that really does explain it.

Another explanation I might give is that I'm intensely contemplative by nature. I might be flattering myself, of course, but I'm inclined to think this is true. I don't really understand what people mean when they talk about needing silence or "alone time" to "think". They nearly always mean "think" in a specific sense; reflect, contemplate, meditate, etc. This seems to be the "setting" I'm on permanently, though. At least, deliberate contemplation never seems to help me "think" in this way. I've often referred to my purple notebook of memories and thoughts, which are of enduring significance to me. The "inspirations" in this purple notebook always come out of the blue-- indeed, I usually only "pick up on them" in retrospect. For instance, I realize that a particular memory or image keeps coming into my mind, and that it carries a strong emotional charge with it.

So much for silence. Another thing I don't really "get" is all the beauty that is associated with the Catholic tradition. It doesn't really mean anything to me.

This does nothing for me.
Whenever I tell people I don't like cathedrals, they seem to think I am being a contrarian. But I'm really not. Cathedrals leave me cold, for the most part. In fact, they seem so overwrought and fussy and heavy that even looking at them makes me feel tired. (When it comes to architecture, my ideal of beauty is a simple garden shed.)

There are some exceptions to this. I have fond memories of Westminster Cathedral in London, the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia, and the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. But in every case, this is due to happy memories associated with them.

The same is true of the liturgy. Beautiful liturgies don't really move me very much. I like the liturgy to be simple and dignified. I would always rather have no choir than the best choir in the world.

The most moving Mass I ever attended was during my pre-marriage course, and took place in a hotel conference room at seven a.m. I loved the simplicity and austerity of the thing. My wife-to-be sang at it, so there was music, but the most simple music there could have been.

My favourite churches are the sort of simple, box-like, brick structures one is likely to come across in Dublin suburbs.

This does it for me!
Saying that beauty leaves me cold in matters of worship is actually understating the case. For me-- and I'm only talking about my own response here-- beauty can actually get in the way of worship. I realize that, for many other people, beauty leads them to God. Perhaps their disposition is healthier than mine.

All I can say is that part of the pleasure I take in a humble little suburban church is that it is humble, that nobody would ever linger in it for purely aesthetic reasons.

I have considerable sympathy with the following passage from C.S. Lewis, which appears in an essay entitled "Christianity and Culture". Lewis has just been discussing some Christian literary critics who seemed to consider bad literary taste as a spiritual fault:

…I felt that some readers might easily get the notion that ‘sensitivity’ or good taste were among the notes of the true Church, or that coarse, unimaginative people were less likely to be saved than refined and poetic people. In the heat of the moment I rushed to the opposite extreme. I felt, with some spiritual pride, that I had been saved in the nick of time from being ‘sensitive’. The ‘sentimentality and cheapness’ of much Christian hymnody had been a strong point in my own resistance to conversion. Now I felt almost thankful for the bad hymns. It was good that we should have to lay down our precious refinement at the very doorstep of the church; good that we should be cured at the outset of our inveterate confusion between psyche and pneuma, nature and supernature.

"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2).

I suppose it could be the case that I simply have very poor architectural, artistic, musical, and liturgical taste. After all, when it comes to poetry, I find that a poem such as Robert Southwell's "Burning Babe", which I consider to be an excellent poem in its own right, kindles my feelings of devotion and my awe towards the sacred.

And yet, I'm just as capable of enjoying "humble" hymns. The TaizĂ© hymn "Jesus Remember Me", which is simply the words: "Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom" repeated over and over again,  is utterly haunting in my opinion. Or there is the folksy hymn "Walk in the Light of God", which was sung in my parish this Easter: 

Let's all join together in Communion sweet,
Walk, walk, in the light.
And love one another 'til the Saviour we meet,
Walk, walk, in the light.

Walk in the light, walk in the light,
Walk in the light, walk in the light of the Lord.

Not great poetry by any means. But I find its simplicity and even clumsiness very endearing.

In this blog post, I've been talking about Beauty with a capital "b", the sort of beauty appreciated by connoisseurs (or self-proclaimed connoisseurs). But in a more fundamental sense, I suppose we all inevitably seek out beauty in one form or other. When I talk about my love of garden sheds or Taizé hymns or simple liturgy, that too is an aesthetic response. However, it's a very subjective response, whereas the beauty of a cathedral or Mozart's Requiem is obviously more objective.

There is a sense in which beauty is extremely important to my faith-- that is, on the plane of ideas, of doctrine, of Christianity's "atmosphere". For instance, the first sentence of the gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". Those words fill me with a sort of ecstasy.

Another example is this famous passage from Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, which I'll use to finish the post. (This might be my favourite passage of prose, bar none.) However, I would argue that the beauty of this passage is not so much in Chesterton's lyricism itself, as it is in the fact that he is making explicit the inchoate poetry of every Christmas crib ("the pathos of small objects and the blind pieties of the poor"):

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man.... It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over some-thing more human than humanity.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "something more human than humanity" is a startling ending!