On this Labor Day weekend, we remember all those who work for a living. As we continue to honor St. Joseph during his holy year, we remember that the Lord chose as His own father on earth a tekton (workman) or, by some traditions, a carpenter. We know that all honest work can help sanctify those who engage it and become an extension of the gift that God gave to us to be stewards of creation, from the beginning (Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over [every living thing].’”)
But there is certainly more than one kind of labor. We should never forget that, when He made us in His image and likeness, God built into us is the desire to seek out what philosophers call the “transcendentals” – the good, the true, and the beautiful. And not only to seek them out, but to share in God’s power of creation to bring them into the world.
The efforts of musicians, sacred artists, poets and more are not some kind of “add on” for mere ornamentation, but are necessary for us to help us to come to know the Lord, who is pure beauty, goodness and truth.
I have been thinking about this a lot recently in the context of the upcoming realignment of parishes throughout the Archdiocese called “The Beacons of Light.” Our diocese certainly has been blessed with many artistic and architectural treasures in our churches, often built at great personal sacrifice by our spiritual ancestors who were of limited economic means, yet still hired the best craftsmen and artists that money could buy to create fitting houses of worship where Jesus remains present in the Blessed Sacrament. If we have to decide in the future which church campuses and buildings to keep due to declining Mass attendance, we should certainly seek out the preservation of irreplaceable beauty as one of the criteria in deciding how to further our Catholic mission.
We Americans are heavily influenced by the anti-Christian philosophy of utilitarianism — the false notion that if something is not immediately “useful” or “practical” it is worthless. But unique among God’s creatures, we are given the capacity to care – deeply – about beauty, because we were made for it.
A while back, the music director at our local Seminary, Dr. Mary Catherine Levri, wrote an excellent piece on the topic of beauty for The Catholic Telegraph. It is posted on the parish blog and available at: thecatholictelegraph.com/the-final-word-dr-mary-catherinelevri/72480.
Here are some excerpts from that fine column (all emphasis mine).
During this time of pandemic, it has been very important to me to persevere in my work as a sacred musician. Not only do our liturgies still need music, but it seems to me that during this time, in which much of our focus has been on bodily survival, the faithful need the presence of beauty in their lives even more than they usually do. To some, beauty might seem to be superfluous; unessential to the business of our daily lives, and perhaps even unessential to the life of faith. But I maintain that if we lose beauty, then we will lose our spiritual sight. In other words, we will cease to have reverence for the presence of God.
Beauty is a Catholic thing, whether we want to claim it or not. Our faith in the incarnate Lord and His presence in the Eucharistic species has resulted in a remarkable feast of artistic beauty that has spanned the life of Christianity. Like many Catholic things, however, beauty is perceived more and more to be a thing of the past. It is, at best, a fairy tale, and has no pertinent meaning for the world today….. Beauty is a visitor – it happens upon you – … [but] beauty is also a mirror. … When we encounter [beauty], we see that we have fallen short of it – … And it may seem best to just break the mirror before even taking the chance to look…. Beauty may be the most effective tool of the Holy Spirit for capturing souls, even long after they have stopped listening to words …. Beauty can change a life in an instant, and that is the genius at the heart of the Catholic Mass. At its very center, Jesus Christ is lifted up for all to gaze upon Him in the Host and in the Chalice. All of the beauty in the music, the prayers and the sanctuary surrounding Him attend to the beauty of His presence. No other gaze in the world can change a life so swiftly.
Every gaze upon a beautiful object – or a beautiful person – prepares us to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. It would behoove us, then, to train ourselves in beauty. The worst thing of all would be indifference to beauty, to not recognize its visit because we have numbed ourselves through mindless, self-eradicating indulgence, whether it be through screens or some other means. This scares me a little: Are we too far gone? Are there enough of our eyes and ears left to welcome beauty when it arrives?
Each and every one of us is a beautiful creature, made in the image and likeness of God, with a heart that cries out to be filled with His presence. He draws us with beauty so that He can satisfy us with Himself. Let us “stay awake” and train our sight so that we can welcome this precious Guest. For when beauty calls, we can be sure that the Lord is very close at hand.