Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Starving for Beauty

It wasn't the airplanes, it was Beauty killed the beast.

Do you recognize the movie quote? It is the last line in the 1933 black and white version of King Kong. On a recent cruise I identified it correctly to win a classic movies trivia competition. It's not a hard quote to guess for a movie lover. But it did get me to thinking. 

Beasts come in all sizes and shapes. Many of them are beasts that come out of our hearts, “for from the heart come evil thoughts …, lying, and slander (Matthew 15:19).” Our national landscape seems to be crawling with this type of beast since the recent presidential election. People of opposing politics have taken to social media, the airwaves, and the streets to advance their points of view. Nothing unusual about that. But this time, ugly words and ugly demeanor seem as common as dirt. I have been watching with unease, and I'm not the only one. The world seems to be tipping towards chaos with the weight of these beasts of the heart. Is it possible that Beauty is the force that can slay them?

In his book Jesus Shock, Peter Kreeft writes this about Beauty:
Beauty is one of the three foods of the soul, the three most vital human needs, along with Truth and Goodness. These are the three things we all want infinitely and absolutely. They are the three attributes of God that our very nature tells us about. They are the three ideals that raise us above the animals. They are also the three personality traits of Jesus in the Gospels that stunned everyone: His hard, practical wisdom; His warm, compassionate love; and His fascinating creativity and unpredictability. He was not only true and good, He was beautiful.[1]

Bignonia capreolata by Stan Shebs,
permission WikimediaCommons
I came across these words when I took up Kreeft's book during a Visit to the Lord in an adoration chapel in Farragut, Tennessee. And as often happens when I pray before the Blessed Sacrament, everyday words took on an aspect of illumination. I was flooded with warmth and stunned with sudden insight. 

Beauty. Could the Beast-slayer be right there in front of my eyes? Beauty. The contemplation of it moves human souls of every flavor. Its joys are universal to every seeking heart. It transcends politics, religion, nationality, gender and class in the pleasures it brings. What did my epiphany mean? Could it address a debate I had been having with myself since I was a teenager?

I first saw the movie Doctor Zhivago in 1966 when I was sixteen years old. It has haunted me over the years. I have wrestled internally with the values that the three men in Lara Antipova's life personified. Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) is the sensualist. Pasha (Tom Courtenay) is the political idealist. Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is the poet. As a Catholic, it has been easy for me to reject the sensualist's way of life. But over the years, I have found myself wondering which of the other two men is a better model for a disciple of Christ. Pasha was an activist for social change; he wanted to make society a better place for all to live. Zhivago wanted only to be left alone to create art out of language. But of what value is art to the poor who are starving?
'Black with goodness of orange' by Amannainani
"The picture describes the breakup of couples
and the bad feeling" writes the artist;
pain transformed to beauty.

Peter Kreeft suggests that in his earthly life, Jesus manifested aspects of both the poet and the activist. Indeed, his detractors even found him fleshly enough to call him a sensualist. But where do I fit in? In my lifetime, I have been both an activist and a wordsmith. Now I am a Pauline Cooperator. I am pledged to "become all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22)," for the sake of my True Love. And this Love of my life is also Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, and Lover of all the flawed and wonderful people who share this earth with me—friends and enemies, family and strangers.

Kreeft urges Christians to get serious about beauty. "Modern man is rejecting Christianity not because it looks stupid or wicked but because it looks boring: dull, hokey, embarrassing, 'square,' sissified, bland, repressive, platitudinous, preachy, dreary, 'weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.' "[2] I don't feel any of those things about "mere Christianity," and I am downright staggered by the supernatural actualities described by the Catholic Church. I am regularly reduced to tears by its resplendent beauty. But I recognize that my religion does look boring (or worse) to some of the very people I hold closest to my heart. What can I do to bridge the gap and address the contradiction? 
In that adoration chapel, I realized that I have a long-standing habit of intellectualizing beauty, a habit that has not served me as well as I have imagined. My heart contains all of the aspects personified by Lara's three lovers. But I have not been equally open in disclosing them--and the gift of one's authentic self is a vital part of evangelization. I am mostly Pasha when I am doing serious work--community activism, committee work, communication. I turn into Komarovsky at play time. But I mostly keep Zhivago out of sight and safe in my interior being, where I reveal him only to my closest friends. There he is not vulnerable, there he will never be laughed at. But is this enough? I don't think so--not for a disciple with a Pauline and Alberionian calling.

Beasts are abroad, prowling and seeking the destruction of souls. Beauty may be the Beast-slayer that crosses every division between human beings. I don't, as yet, know how to serve Beauty with as much fervor as I have consciously served Truth and Goodness. But I resolve to learn.  

[1] Kreeft, Peter. Jesus Shock. Beacon Publishing (2012), p.53

[2] Ibid, p.54


Rae Stabosz has been a member of the Association of Pauline Cooperators since 2003. She and Bill Stabosz, her husband of 46 years, have six sons, three daughters, ten grandsons and eight granddaughters. Rae retired in 2007 from the University of Delaware, where she was a technology and media specialist for 27 years. She is co-founder and past president of The Society of Catholic Scholars of Delaware and proprietor, since 2004, of the Pious Ladies Bookmobile.

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