Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Ugliness and the Christian Spirit

This morning as I was getting out of my car, having come from Mass and arrived at my office complex, I was taken in by a contradiction. On my iPod I was listening to Pavarotti's performance of "Nessun Dorma," from Puccini's Turandot. Under my feet was cold asphalt beginning to warm in under the fresh Spring sun. Asphalt has the perhaps unique property of being the only material that is more unpleasant warm than cold. Before my eyes lay my squat, squared, sprawling office building, one of a number of identical ones all next to each other, each made with a red brick facade and with broad, black-tinted windows replacing half the exterior surface. In short, my surroundings were uniform labyrinth of modern ugliness, my escape and relief was a postmodern presentation of a piece of what might be called romantic-revival opera. The beautiful, if saccharine, opera contrasted so sharply with with the blunted, if practical, buildings that I was literally startled.

We live in a world that God has made beautiful, good, and true. Remember, truth is the conformity of our mind to reality, but in this case, I am speaking of the world as an expression of God's Mind, and it conforms, or was made to conform, to Ultimate Reality, that is, to God himself. Goodness is the moral and appetitive manifestation of truth, the aspect of truth that appeals to our desires and our will. Beauty is the manifestation of goodness to our senses, the taking in of the world's harmony and diversity by our heart through our senses.

We live in a world that we have increasingly made ugly. Since we stopped respecting the truth that the world is an expression of God's Mind, we have stopped seeing its inherent goodness, its order, and desirability as a thing in and of itself. We have increasingly come to see the world around us, and all its parts, as mere stuff to have and manipulate for our advantage. We have grown cold and hard with respect to our surroundings. Nothing is seen as worthy in itself, but only for what it can do for us. As the spiritual disease has progressed, our contributions to the world have decayed. We have gone from building lofty and inspiring cathedrals in durable materials using means that don't pollute in the slightest to squat wood and plastic buildings using what is already deteriorating into tomorrow's landfills using means of production that doubtless have left a swath of filth in their wake. Our factories belch smog and we cover over every green field on God's good earth with asphalt.

Of course our war against truth (the war is called Relativism) is closely connected with our war against beauty (called by architects Functionalism). They are both two prongs of an assault against our Good Creator and good world He made. They are both attempts to subvert His order and replace it with our own way of doing things. I think we will find the trade a stupid and unprofitable one. In fact, I think the only thing that keeps most of us from coming to that conclusion is our lack of awareness that other things are possible.

Enough ranting. It is time to propose remedies to the spiritual malady. I have in mind three:

1) Take in beautiful things: look at photographs of beautiful mosques and mountains, take site-seeing trips of inspiring cathedrals and canyons, walk through charming villages and grottos. Train yourself to enjoy opera, sculpture, classical music, Giotto, and Gregorian chant, even if you don't understand a word of them, let your heart feel them. In doing so, perhaps we can free our hearts from the bonds of ugliness, and train them to yearn for something better than what we have bought.

2) Make beautiful things: a friend of mine told me last night that he thinks he will plant a garden. Maybe stencil vines around the ceiling of your livingroom and put lots of nice plants around it. Frame a nice print of something by Bouguereau and hang it on your wall. Paint your house brightly instead of blandly. Do arts and crafts with your children. Read the great poets and try your best to imitate them, but using your own words and themes. Take up photography. Do something to contribute to the net beauty of the world.

3) Pray for the gift of yearning for heaven. Remember that this world is not all there is. Remember that God wants to instill in us a joy that makes everything we've ever experienced seem trifling. He wants to radically remake everything, even better than how it was. Let the beautiful things in this world remind us of God and the glorious dwelling He is preparing for us, and the ugly things remind us that we aren't home yet.

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