11 June 2012

On being beautiful

St. Barnabas
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Every year, dozens of American magazines publish something like a top ten or twenty list of the world's most beautiful people. Sometimes this list is titled, “World's 10 Sexiest Men,” or “World's 20 Most Beautiful Women.” Regardless of the title, the purpose of these lists is to lift out of the general ugliness of the human herd a group of especially attractive individuals and hold them up as exemplars of human beauty. What counts as “human beauty” is always defined in terms of physical features—body type, hair color, shape of the eyes, facial proportions. If asked to defend this rather narrow definition of beauty, editors will concede that a person's personality or achievements can be beautiful too but they aren't qualified to judge that sort of thing. Making that judgment is too subjective, too. . .messy. If these editors would think for a moment, they would realize that beauty is beauty—physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. The source of beauty is Beauty Himself and the pursuit of our perfection in Beauty is the encoded desire of every human heart. Blessed are they who seek holiness, for they shall be made beautiful as God Himself is Beauty. 

The philosophical study of beauty is carried out in an academic discipline called “aesthetics.” Yes, you can go to university and get a doctoral degree in philosophy with a specialty in the study of beauty. Sometimes this discipline is called the “philosophy of art,” but art is short for “artifice,” a human-made object, the root of our word “artificial” and not all beautiful things are human-made. Take, for example, well, all of creation: galaxies, stars, space-time, quanta, mountains, trees, squirrels, bacteria. These beautiful objects of the universe are most certainly not human-made. Take, for example, mercy, consolation, forgiveness, righteousness, and charity. These beautiful qualities of the human soul aren't human-made either. What the objects of the universe and the qualities of the human soul share is an origin, a Creator, Beauty Himself. What makes them different, fundamentally different, is that the things of the universe cannot be make themselves ugly by refusing to participate in the divine life of Beauty. We can. However, when we choose to participate in Beauty, we are blessed by Beauty and made beautiful. 

How do we actively participate in divine beatitude? According to Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, we are blessed when we pour ourselves out in service to be filled with his Spirit; we are blessed when we mourn; blessed when we are meek; blessed when we hunger and thirst for His righteousness; blessed when we show mercy, clean out our hearts, and make His peace. When we find ourselves hated and persecuted for loving Christ and following along his Way, we are blessed. To be blessed is to be pulled into Beatitude, to be set apart from ugliness and despair and seated along side the perfect goodness of our Creator. Sure, like the natural objects of the universe, our very existence is beautiful. We exist and that in itself is beautiful. But we are given an additional option: to be beautiful as the Father is beautiful. This option requires us to pursue, to chase after the blessedness that comes with being merciful, peace-making, being poor in spirit. Do these and be blessed. And what do we do when we are blessed? Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad.” Show joy. Demonstrate gladness. Give thanks. And praise the source and summit of your truest beauty! 

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