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Beauty

Last week, we chatted about motherhood and balancing it with building a career. Our guest, Nicole Scheidl, walked us through her busy path as a mother of seven who also earned multiple law degrees, practiced law, taught law and philosophy, started a business, and currently serves as executive director of Canadian Physicians for Life. Find the episode here!


Listening to Nicole discuss motherhood, its challenges and trials, and what she has learned along the way was really beautiful. Which makes me think about beauty itself.


It is apparent to anyone reasonable (and almost certainly apparent even to those who are unreasonable) that beauty is good. Opinions on what makes something beautiful may differ but we all agree it is positive. St. Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as "that which, upon being seen, pleases" (Latin: id quod visum placet).


And beauty points us to God. We easily associate beauty with God because beauty transcends ordinary experience and explanation. Fredric Heidemann notes:


"Beauty is universally experienced as transcendent and is therefore the gateway to religious experience."


C. S. Lewis once said when discussing music specifically:


"[F]or many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity."


Catholic convert and philosopher Peter Kreeft has said:


"The only reason I can imagine why someone would deny that some beautiful things are beautiful inherently and necessarily is that they would deny that beauty is objectively real, and say it’s all 'different strokes for different folks.' Yet we all know, I think, that someone who finds musical harmony ugly and violent attacks on harmony beautiful, the structure and design of the human body ugly and bodily mutilation beautiful, or Jesus and Mary ugly and Hitler and the Marquis de Sade beautiful, is profoundly wrong, twisted."


And Paul Senz writes:


"[E]ven many atheists are stopped in their tracks when they walk into St. Peter's Basilica, or see the western sky ablaze with a sunset or the aurora borealis dancing across the stars, or hear the music of Mozart, or gaze upon Notre-Dame in Paris."


Beauty was a contributing factor first in my conversion from materialism and agnosticism to Protestant Christianity and later in my conversion to Catholicism. And I was recently able to witness the impact of beauty on my mother during our holiday in Italy, where my wife and I spent 3 days with her in the town of San Gimignano, Tuscany.

Mom

We visited the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, also known as the Duomo di San Gimignano. This minor basilica contains important paintings (frescoes) by famous pre-Renaissance and Renaissance artists including Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benozzo Gozzoli, Taddeo di Bartolo, Lippo Memmi and Bartolo di Fredi. The Duomo is part of the town's UNESCO World Heritage Site and its frescoes are described by UNESCO as "works of outstanding beauty". Here are just a handful of the photos we took.

Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta
Duomo di San Gimignano
Crucifixion
The Last Supper

Some say a "picture is worth a thousand words" but these pictures don't begin to describe how beautiful this place is. Thus, I won't even bother trying to use words to do so.


My wife and I spent some time sitting with my mother and taking it all in. Awestruck, speechless and amazed are the words I'd use to describe how she felt. She was overwhelmed by beauty.


As a Catholic Christian, I believe Heidemann is right when he explains:


"Beauty is a universal human experience that is impossible to ignore. It often plays a crucial role in the conversion process for precisely that reason. The beauty of Catholicism captivated me long before I appreciated its theology. Beauty is the trump card of Catholic evangelization, and we should never be afraid to play it. Beauty is also natural and automatic for the Church when we embrace our rich traditions. It is the Church’s auto-evangelization. We can do it just by being ourselves."


This doesn't suggest my mother is on a path to Catholicism. I think that highly unlikely. But she felt something in that Catholic basilica, which was consecrated in 1148 AD and which has been in its present form since 1468 AD. Christians have been worshipping here for nearly 900 years, 369 of which were before the Protestant Reformation even started.


A stumbling block for many Protestants is the beautiful but opulent churches, such as this one, found within the Catholic Church. The common refrain (especially among evangelicals and fundamentalists) goes something like, "look at all that money they wasted on a church when they could have used it to help the poor!"


Well, firstly, reflect on what our Lord said as recorded in the Gospel of John (12:3-8):


"Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then Judas the Iscariot, one [of] his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, "Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?" He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions. So Jesus said, "Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."


Who do we want to emulate, Mary or Judas?


Secondly, as Christians we are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God. Doesn't it make sense then that where we worship Him ought to reflect His royal status? Some Protestants argue that God is not limited to a church building. They would have us believe a building is just a building. But we Catholic Christians believe the church building is literally the House of the Lord. We Catholic Christians believe that during the Mass the bread and wine truly become the physical flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. So in a Catholic church, He is physically present. Thus, for us Catholics, a building is not just a building. It is where we literally encounter our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


And thirdly, while many non-Catholics see money wasted on bricks and glass, we see devotion to and love of God. Churches do not carry the names of those who donated to their cause and they don't benefit a distant Pope who will never see them. Churches often took centuries to construct and the bishops who commissioned them rarely survived to see their completion (and the bishops knew they would never see them when they commissioned them). Therein lies the beauty of the dedication it took to build those churches. They are true monuments to God, the very best work human hands could offer. People poured their money, their hearts and their souls into constructing those wondrous buildings because they loved God. These churches weren't built for the glory of man, but of God.


I am so grateful to God for having had the opportunity to share a rare moment in speechless appreciation of beauty in a space built for His glory with my mother. And the moment, with my mother, was itself a thing of beauty.


And on that note, this week we're joined by our friend, former football player, finance aficionado and fellow man of faith Braden Ritchie to discuss something else beautiful: parenthood. We hope you will tune in!


God bless,


Travis

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