Laboring for beauty


fbFirst published in February 2006.

Antonio Carlos Jobim, the celebrated Brazilian composer, complained in an interview given not long before his death in 1994: “We are building a desert.” He was referring to the general state of the world at the time. Looking at the results of many decades of increasingly secular culture I cannot agree more with Mr. Jobim. The stubborn insistence of the liberal political forces to erase God and religion from public life has produced bitter fruits throughout the years: Thousands of human lives are lost to abortion every day. Terrorism is rampant. Embittered youths roam the streets of European cities setting cars on fire and shouting “No law!”. (They could be the grandsons of other angry young men who declared “God is dead” about half a century ago.) Liberal capitalism and the forces of globalization wreak havoc in economies around the world. Millions have passed from living modest productive lives to the horrors of abject poverty in just a few years. The menace of pandemics, catastrophic climate changes and unstoppable social unrest are met with volumes of futile laws passed by weak and fractured political forces. As the concept of God is pushed further and further away from the center of culture and society, chaos ensues. Many believe we are living in prophetic times.

Is there a way out? I believe there is. Our hope resides in those very things that liberal secularists are trying to bury: God and Faith. Running away from God has gotten us into this mess. Bringing the love of God back into the lives of our societies may be the way to bring some peace, order and beauty into this world.

Where does beauty come from?

Many years ago, when I was an adolescent, while my family was still under the influence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses I would read our old family Bible. That was one of the few Catholic things in the house that had not met destruction by the ever-vigilant eye of the cult.

The Bible was illustrated with beautiful images of classic art. There were works by Rafael, Giotto, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and other famous painters of the past. The footnotes were abundant, illuminating the biblical text with historical information and also with the Catholic Church’s theological insights. I read that Bible almost secretly, since the Witnesses considered it to be tainted by “Babylonian religion”. My parents kept it only for reference purposes, mainly to quote certain portions of the deuterocanonical books in an effort to prove they were “spurious”.

My parent’s warnings had the effect of stirring the natural curiosity of my young mind and so I started to make frequent use of the book in my personal Bible study. In those days, contrary to the practice of most Jehovah’s Witnesses, my Scripture studies did not involve the use of the Watchtower Society’s publications. Instead I read the Bible directly. In time I realized that our library had a few biblical commentaries worth investigating. These books presented a believable sense of Scripture where the Watchtower gave only twisted and very unlikely interpretations.

I was fortunate to find in our library a Spanish translation of the commentaries by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown. I also read the footnotes our Catholic Bible by Fr. Straubinger, one of the most brilliant Spanish translators of Scripture of all times. [1] Those two were the only Bible-related books we had in the house that were not published by the Watchtower.

While perusing that old family Bible I was filled with awe at seeing the works of art of times past. The Jehovah’s Witnesses believed that “true Christianity” had been revealed around 1870 to Charles Taze Russell (a successful Pittsburgh haberdasher with a Masonic affiliation who started the Watchtower Society after dabbling in Spiritualism and Seventh-Day Adventism.) They claimed that all of Christendom had been under the control of Satan roughly since the end of the first century a. D. They also declared that after the death of the last Apostle around 99 a. D. the true faith had been thoroughly corrupted. The product of that alleged corruption was Christendom. Like many other fundamentalist groups, they associated the Catholic Church with the “Harlot of Babylon” of St. John’s Apocalypse.

So there I was at fifteen years of age, admiring the fruits of centuries of Catholic art while at the same time being told that all of it was produced by a culture perverted by the Devil himself.

Deep inside, I knew something was awfully wrong with that “corruption” doctrine. For instance, I could not look at Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks without comparing its obvious sense of the supernatural with the simplistic ideas of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, there was John the Baptist baptizing an infant Jesus. Sure, that was an apparent contradiction of the biblical record. We knew Jesus was baptized when He was about thirty years old and John was only six months older than Him. Fortunately, at that time, I had a pretty good idea of what the definition of art was.

Art, in my mind, was supposed to reveal hidden aspects of reality by expressing it through a mix of symbols and reason. In my mind art was not just a mere snapshot of nature but a way of directing the senses to nature’s underlying reality.

Using my own homemade definition of art, I could surmise that the apparent anachronism of that painting was pointing perhaps at Jesus’ ageless innocence. I remember my incipient interpretations being customarily dismissed by my father as dangerous nonsense. Soon I learned to keep them to myself.

Gradually I started to see how the Holy Spirit was working in History. Christian art did not appear by chance. It was the product of Christian culture. I could see this new Kingdom through history gradually transforming the realm of mankind, grafting the ancient societies.

In the years to come I continued my search and reached the point where I could understand the marriage of the Ancient World with the Christian revelation, not as a corruption of Christianity but as the glorious conquering of the world by Christ. Finally it was the appreciation of beauty what opened my eyes fully to the consequences of Jesus’ mysterious words to Nicodemus “the Spirit goes where He pleases”. The process of my discovery was very interesting.

A frustrated poet gives me a hint

Young students of English are certain to be exposed to the work of William Butler Yeats. I came across one of his poems when I was learning that language. At first I loved the beautiful, almost musical flow of the words. Through the years I went over this poem many times, reading it and savoring its beauty. In time the meaning and structure of Yeats’ work became more apparent to me.

The poem sets the emotional tone “at summer’s end”. The fiery days of life’s summer are over. Passion has extinguished its force.

We sat together at one summer’s end,

That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’

The author has the company of two women, one is his beloved Maud, (we know she never agreed to marry him) the other is her lady friend. They are talking about poetry. It is hard work indeed, the hardest and less appreciated of them all, says the poet. Practical people do not value that kind of work. The artist is a martyr of sorts, unjustly despised as an idler by the world. Here Yeats uses the Christian meaning of “world”. The world considers the production of beauty to be an effeminate waste of time. Yeats calls the world a noisy set opposing noise to sweet sounds. It takes a poet to know the hard work that goes into making poetry sound right.

And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low

At this point Maud’s friend interrupts his musings. Yeats considers her beauty from an almost negative angle. Her voice is sweet and low, he tells us. In fact he places that beautiful young woman closer to the sweet sounds of his poetry than to the noise the world makes. But he will not rest on that. Soon he is wondering how many hearts will be broken trying to conquer her beauty. Before letting her speak he warns us that beauty and heartache are mysteriously sown together. Then she speaks:

…’To be born woman is to know-
Although they do not talk of it at school-
That we must labour to be beautiful.

The woman admits to the findings of the poet. Beauty is not effortlessly attached to the natural happiness and innocence of the inner savage, as it was fashionable to think in those days. Beauty is the result of hard work, says the woman. Beauty brings about heartache, adds the poet. In his response Yeats recalls the inevitable nexus between beauty and pain on this side of Eden’s walls. That seems to be a reflection of his frustration in trying to conquer Maud’s love.

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

The obvious conclusion may be that, while one can labor on beauty, love cannot come about as the result of work. In the same manner, merely reciting precedents from beautiful old books does not turn a lover into a poet. Yeats stops short of concluding that beauty may be an illusion. Some may classify him as a modern poet, but here he contemplates the utter unattainability of love like a true romantic.

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

Love is mentioned and the conversation ends. This sudden silence appears to be a symbol of Yeats’ giving up his pursuit of Maud. He was awakened to love by her beauty, he strove to gain her without success and now, sad and tired, he sees the vanity of the whole affair. The summer season of passion has been reduced to a cold husk in the absence of love and so the poem ends.

The imagery paints a senseless deserted universe. If love is only a one-way street then silence follows, leaving only the mechanisms of matter circling in a meaningless universe.

Yates has stumbled upon an eternal truth: a world without love is a desert. Unrequited love is hopeless. It is perhaps useful to note that, at the time of Yeats writing Adam’s Curse, our modern society was beginning to take shape. Mankind was then taking the final steps in the conquest of the world, in spite of Christ’s warning about the hefty price demanded for such trophy.

The poet makes liberal use of the Christian language still pervading the culture of his time. He refers to the curse God placed upon the earth, forcing Adam’s descendants into struggle and death. They will no longer contemplate plentiful perfection. Fulfillment of man’s desire will be elusive and hard to obtain. Thorns and thistles will grow on their own, but even the most meager measure of beauty will require sweat and tears.

Adam’s disobedience has sent the world spiraling down into a slow but certain decay. Far from God’s favor, mankind will know the despair of loneliness, just like our poet. God will be silent and apparently oblivious to the fate chosen by mankind. As time’s waters rise and fall that indifferent moon will preside over ages of darkness in which men will work trying to build a Paradise outside of Eden. Yeats futile love for Maud’s unmovable heart seems like a good analogy of God’s absence that makes human life seem like a pointless marvel.

That is the crux of the problem: love gives meaning to our passage through this life. In a superlative manner, God’s love gives meaning to the whole universe. The difference between hope and despair, Eden and desert is… love.

Love is real, real is love

Returning to my days as a young Bible student, I remember those beautiful samples of European art as a sort of a Garden of Eden where everything was pleasing to the eye and desirable. I never quite grasped the concept until many years later, when I read  The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis. There I was presented with Lewis’ artistic rendering of Heaven and Hell. To show the difference between those two places Lewis assigns them certain properties. Heaven is hard, while Hell is soft, almost ethereal. Beings descending through Hell seem to thin away into non-existence. Souls ascending higher into Heaven acquire hard, real, infinitely abundant life. When I read that description of Heaven something clicked in my mind and I had a sudden epiphany. Here was what I needed to understand the origin of that abundance of beauty in the art of Christendom.

By that time I was already a Catholic convert. I have always understood the idea of Christ rescuing mankind from the mistakes of Adam. I perfectly grasped the basics of Christ being the seed of the Kingdom of God and the figure of the tree that grew majestically from that tiny fallen seed. But Lewis’ analogy helped me bring a new image into focus: the idea that the Kingdom of God is a supernatural reality entering into a soft, degrading world. If this had to be presented as a summer science-fiction movie I would have called it “The Return of the Archetypes”.

In one big sweep, I saw the Kingdom of God, starting with the most humble materials: a young Jewish girl, her Carpenter Son and His twelve woefully inadequate helpers. Yet, from that modest start, the disciples of the Carpenter spread all over the Ancient World only in a few centuries. We see them conquer the capital of the Roman Empire without an army. We see them set the center of their Church right on the venerable hills of Rome. Since those days the title of Pontifex and the Imperial Purple rested no more on the shoulders of noble Roman warriors but on the shoulders of old Bishops. The language of the proud Empire was lost to the world but survived as the language of the Carpenter’s Church. The Empire itself crumbled and dark ages followed but the Church emerged invincible from all kinds of disasters: barbarian invasions, universal plagues, advancing Islam. And what marveled me the most: the Church survived even the evil residing in her own sons and daughters. One golden age went, only to see the next climb to new heights.

What is the secret of the Church’s resilience? How did she manage to emerge from ages much darker than our own and conquer anarchy, pestilence, and barbarism? What makes this faith invincible? What prevents the extinction of the Christian hope?

I dare to advance that the force behind it is God’s love. Love, in this case, is not Yeats’ eros but Christ’s agape as in St. Paul’s First Corinthians 13,13: “And now there remain hope, faith, charity, these three. But the greatest of these is charity.” So, Scripturally speaking, faith, hope and charity are permanent elements. These are hard realities that can penetrate this world like sharp sword cuts through rotten flesh.

In the beginning, Christ promised to make the Church invincible. “I have prayed that your faith will not falter,” he told Peter in Luke 22,32. Later, in Luke 12,32 He gave us hope saying “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Moreover, what is even more surprising in Matthew 16,18: “I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.”

It is true that the Church is sometimes called a little flock. The aggressive secularists would certainly like us to behave like a fearful little flock. Sometimes we do not fully realize that the Church is also the Kingdom. And there is the secret of her invincibility: She is not of this world. She is made of material hardened in Heaven. Her structural core is God’s love.

When Jesus says “and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her,” most of us miss the primary flow of the phrase. No one considers a gate an attack weapon. Doors are not weapons. Doors are things used to stop the enemy from bursting in and plundering the city. The gates of Hell are there to prevent a stolen world from being repossessed. Therefore Hell is NOT the attacking force, the CHURCH is. This undeniable truth coming directly from the mouth of Jesus should definitely help us put things in perspective.

When the concept of the Church-Kingdom started to take shape in my mind during the first months of my conversion, I came to understand more clearly the forces at play in the battle for the world. I began to see the reasons for the decrease in beauty as the secularist society moves away from God. Beauty, dignity, and truth are absolutes because they come from God. Those who propose the world without God are ultimately proposing an ugly, humiliatingly oppressive and sterile model of society. Tom Jobim called it a desert. We are now closer to the final product than he was then and can call it by its real name: Hell.

If we must fight the good fight, if we must work unceasingly while we live in this world; let us remember what we are fighting and laboring for: the steel-like hardness of our hope, the beauty of our faith and the invincible reality of God’s love. We are not cowering in the dark. We are hammering steadily at the gates of Hell until they fall defeated. Our weapon is God’s love. Only God’s love can bring back meaning and beauty to our world. We are the ones charged with delivering it.


[1] fbThis study Bible is a classic work of literature of all times. Its author, Fr. Johann Straubinger, was a Ph. D. of Sacred Scripture by the University of Münster, Germany and a missionary to Argentina. The work simultaneously reflects the highest theological conceptions of Germanic Christian spirituality and the purest and highest literary uses of the Spanish language. The Straubinger’s translation of biblical texts is as highly literary, and also faithful to the original texts, and very especially to Hebrew and Aramaic. The Spanish Bible of the Americas, published half a century later, reproduces almost textually Fr. Straubinger’s version.

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