Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Late have I loved you! And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you.
St. Augustine has a lot to say about beauty. Scholars have studied what St. Augustine had to write and say about not only the beauty of the sea, mountains, and the soul, but Beauty as an Attribute of God.
In the good fairy tales, beauty defines goodness. A perfection of physical beauty indicates a beauty of the soul. Modern Disney interpretations and new stories have ruined this ancient analogy of beauty and made ugliness good. Since the fall of the most beautiful angel in the universe, who became the ugliness monster of all time and eternal damnation, we Catholics know instinctively that beauty is a good, and ugliness a sign of evil. This ideal of Beauty as one of God’s Attributes means that God is more than just beautiful. He IS Beauty, a perfection we can hardly understand.
Some Catholics understand beauty through the life and true apparitions of Our Lady. Some find beauty in the words of Scripture, especially the Psalms and the Wisdom Literature.
Years ago, perhaps 35 or so, I began to see the glorification of ugliness. I was teaching at the University of Bristol and some of my students were into “Goth.” The young men and women wore black, skull designed jewellery and other ancient signs of death. One day, I said to them, “You are at the age when you are most beautiful, and now, you want to make yourselves look ugly. You look like you have just been resurrected from the dead, but not quite.” Some laughed and some said, “Oh, Miss Miller.” However, a few did lessened the “look.” But, my point fit into the theology course I was teaching, as we were tracing theological themes in T. S. Eliot and David Jones, the painter and poet, as well as other authors.
Beauty is an ancient theme for artists and poets. St. Augustine growing up at the end of the Roman Empire witnessed the destruction of much beauty, the classical beauty of the Greek and Roman empires. However, beauty was not only found in the temples or government buildings, the statues or parks, but in the words of some of the greatest authors ever to live—the Greek and Latin poets. The beauty of words resonated across the centuries and were re-discovered by the monks and great saints like Anselm, who re-introduced Classical Education in the seminaries. The liberal arts focus on beauty-astronomy, the beauty of the stars and planets; rhetoric, the beauty of words; music and dance, the beauty of sound and movement; geometry, the beauty of form , and so on. I taught the book to other university students by Martianus Minneus Felix Capella, a contemporary of St. Augustine. Capella wrote a rather amazing book titled, De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (“On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury”). This book is a study of the seven liberal arts of classical education. For at least seven centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, this book formed the basis of education of the liberal arts—grammar, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, dialectic and rhetoric. The book is written in allegorical style, but the message is one of the principles of creating beauty and freedom, (the meaning of liberal in “liberal arts”), among men and women. The Church picked up classical education and it became, until the middle of the 19th century, the main way to educate and make civilised human beings, teaching them to think and to act in virtue as well as good sense.
Beauty resounds in all the liberal arts. And, this type of curriculum allowed for the teaching of theology and philosophy—leading the student to think and reflect on God and His Beauty.
However, now, we live in the Age of Ugliness. I wrote about this years ago on my blog and the ugliness has become more widespread.
Ugliness is brought about by sin. Those who decide not to worship God lose sight of His Beauty.
What makes me most grieved is the ugliness of the soul seen in women, as women were created to bring beauty into the domestic setting and, indeed, the world.
Many of the Medieval women saints were given classical education. We see this in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, our newest Doctor of the Church. Her understanding of music as worship and even meditation is only example of her facility of language and the liberal art, music.
This consciousness of bringing beauty into the world is being lost quickly. Sin, as noted, is one reason, but the philosophy of utilitarianism is another reason. Only the useful is important now, not the beautiful. And art has too often become propaganda, not an expression of truth, of beauty.
Indeed, ugliness and utilitarianism are lies, twisted markers of decadence. The most obvious sign of both “u” words is architecture—there is nothing beautiful about a Walmart store of most malls.
Utilitarianism is destroying souls. The lack of liberal arts education means that people do not know how to think, to reflect, to pray.
A false type of simplicity, sometimes called minimalism, grows out of the impoverishment of the soul. Now, I do not mind some minimalist design, but the reality of the minimalist is not merely that less means more, with which I agree to a point, but that less and less are goods. The emptiness of much design is a stark reminder of the poverty of the soul.
When the colour grey became popular several years ago, (and it still is), I saw the triumph of minimalism. Every thing from furniture to carpets to clothes bore the colour of concrete. Again, one can use this colour and I do but not have an entire room or even house in drab.
Lately, I have had to spend some time in an acquaintance’s flat. She has no sense of beauty. Unlike two of my best friends who are artists, this woman has no sense of the beautiful and here living room looks like an office. Her kitchen looks like something out of a store room with no personal items of warmth or love. I cannot understand a woman not decorating, or wanting to make something look beautiful. I wonder at the soul which demands that a place has no paintings or prints. And, there are no flowers. I know another woman like this who thinks it is more spiritual and holy to have a totally utilitarian flat—she has one item of decoration, but it is not beautiful—dead sticks with straw ornaments. I have brought flowers into that flat, hoping to brighten up the stifling atmosphere of death. Even convents and monasteries in simplicity have art work and flowers. Expression of beauty is a gift God gives women. The lack of the desire or ability to use this gift puzzles me. But, then, look at th world of ugliness around us. Perhaps these women have been infected with a false sense of holiness, which is more like Calvinism than Catholicism . The Catholic spirit created English Perpendicular and the Baroque. Our spirit is one of excessive beauty with balance and discipline. Order and beauty joint hands in some of the most gorgeous cathedrals in the world. A home should reflect some of the joy of grace, and the Beauty of God. If it does not, the atmosphere, like so many offices, stifles the spirit.
St. Augustine understood Beauty and beauty—he marvelled that men and women could walk through the mountains or by a stream and not marvel. I wonder at this as well. Souls are dying for the lack of beauty. Souls are starved for the spiritual beauty we can help bring into our small worlds. I shall do so by bringing my acquaintances flowers.
I learned this lesson of women bringing beauty into a home from my mother, who is now 91. She made our home beautiful and with three brothers and a very manly husband, this was a feat of will and grace. Mother could create beauty everywhere. She sewed beautiful things, Studied cake decorating. She re-upholstered old furniture and learned professional flower arranging. Her love of beauty passed down to me and my brothers, one who is a painter and photographer, and one who creates marvels of woodwork.
In all of this, a harmony of life, in simple things, like a perfectly set table for formal dinners, or even the ultimate picnic barbecue, The useful was marked by beauty. I brought this into my little family as well. It was a heritage of the women of my mother’s side. I believe it is the heritage of all women, who, even if they are professionals and busy in the workplace, as I was, take time to bring an attribute of God into the domestic daily life.
The Protestant Revolt created utilitarianism—the statues and stained glass windows were destroyed in the craziness of iconoclasm. Abbey churches the world envied were reduced to ruins, and great altars were desecrated. Such ugliness of unbridled hatred and passion against the Church stopped the honouring of Mary, the most beautiful woman ever created. This lack of Marian devotion is a sign of interior ugliness, a lack of beauty. Mary’s beauty enriches the Church and for women, she is the ultimate model.
Let us not think that beauty is a luxury—it is a necessity.
One more memory. When I was a child, I was allowed into the convent of the nuns who taught me. Likewise, I would visit my aunt who was a nun at the Mother House. In each case, I was stuck by the beauty of the living spaces. My grandmother and I at the Mother House would be led into a beautiful parlour, with lovely furniture and rugs. We would be served tea on expensive bone china. The large grandfather clock was polished as were the marble floors. Silence and beauty spoke to the heart.
There is a discipline about beauty—a balance. As a painter, I know when to stop painting a picture, as “over-painting” ruins art. Beauty is not clutter or mess, but ordered art.
Let us pray that beauty never disappears from the places where we work or live. If this happens, we souls shall be impoverished.
If one does not understand God as Beauty, pray. Look at the constellations at night. Take a walk in the woods and look at the trees, plants, flowers. Listen to the birds in the hedgerows. Watch the sunset over the Thames. Look at the eyes of a child who is making something with paper and pencils. The spiritual person must stop and look at the butterfly in the garden. Even the vegetables on the table just in from the farm are beautiful.
Let us not lose wonder, the gift of innocence. Wonder allows for the perceptive of beauty. All children have this ability. Some lose it through bad education and deep suffering or alienation from the good. Let us bring back beauty into our lives if it has been lost.
I cannot live in a purely utilitarian world, and I am sure St. Augustine would have something to say about our lack of beauty in our living spaces.
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,