Looking for Beauty

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Beauty, though desirable, is really unnecessary. It’s more like fluff on a solid substance: nice to behold, but not required. Beauty can be dismissed without any damage resulting, or any sense of loss or incompleteness. Life can be lived without an experience of the beautiful. There may be a sense of loss but no irreparable loss.

Beauty is more frequently thought of as a feminine asset than a masculine one. Strength is usually considered a masculine attribute rather than a feminine one. While the feminine form found frequent expression in ancient Greek sculpture, it was to exemplify beauty, while the masculine gained artistic expression for its display of strength. While beauty is appreciated, strength is irreplaceable.

What might be the downside of a loss of beauty? Can life go on without it?

Drabness might well express an experience lacking any beauty. Or might ugliness be the better way to express this? In either case, what would living a life described as ugly or drab be like? In either case, what would life be like if it provided nothing but the ugly and the drab? Could life go on in such circumstances?

Thinkers in the ancient world were not slow in recognizing it and assigning merit and significance to the beautiful. In fact, they frequently aligned it with such attributes as goodness and truthfulness and unity or oneness: the perfect is a combination of what is true, good, one or wholeness, and beauty. Despite this, beauty seldom gains the acclaim and the recognition that the others receive. Why is this?

The terms “ugly” and “drab” were used above to draw attention to the absence of beauty in life. To give body to these descriptions, we might think of them in terms of a prison cell. We readily acknowledge a jail cell as lacking any vestige of the beautiful. Is this because ugliness is the most suitable way of enhancing the punishment that we associate with imprisonment? Prison seems to be synonymous with the drab and the ugly.

The mass housing ventures erected in our urban centers, not too many decades ago, for the poor and impoverished often gave off strong indications of much the same thing: the ugly and the drab. That is why city governments in recent times have leveled them to the ground, replacing them with more livable arrangements.

There is an interplay between the lack of beauty and the absence of goodness (or the presence of evil).

Evil, once recognized for what it is, clearly emerges as something ugly and distorted. Perhaps that is why our prisons were designed to be ugly, because they housed those who were criminals, that is, those who engaged in evil. And that is undoubtedly why civic minded persons also agitated to level mass housing for the poor, because it gave off the message that poverty and evil were aligned.

And so we come to God. God is the epitome of both strength and beauty. We don’t differentiate between a God of Beauty and a God of Strength. They are aligned within the God we have come to know, love and worship. In fact, He is the summation of all that is true, good, beautiful and One (or unified), even while, in our Christian tradition, we profess Him as a Trinitarian God. We can say that of no one else, or nothing else.

But this recognition sends us on a search to discover what, other than God, might best encapsulate or house what we acknowledge as the epitome of beauty. Would it be something in mother nature: the sea, a mountain, a valley, a flower or garden? Would it be the heavens: a sunrise or sunset, a waning moon, a multitude of stars? Would it be a form of bird life, or a creature of the sea, or a land animal?

Or might it be a product of our human genius: something that we see, or something that we hear: a painting, a sculpture, a building? A symphony, a motet, a ballet? A play, a poem, a novel?

Whatever we call beautiful is something that enjoys symmetry, proportion, color, balance, shape. It borders on what emerged from the hand of God on the sixth day of creation: the garden of Eden, which we were able to enjoy for so short a period of time. Our hope is to enjoy it again—in the future.

 

el Seed

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Poetry read well or a symphony performed with soul moves me like no other form of art. One of my best friends finds the visual arts more meaningful. It took a long time in our relationship before I realized that while I liked visiting the art museums with him they didn’t seem to elicit the same awe and excitement for me as they did for him.

 

In this week’s TED Talk selection el Seed, describes what he calls visual poetry, visual poetry with a message. He writes in Arabic, a language I don’t understand, and mixes his calligraphy with graphiti and posts his work on ordinary every day architecture bringing it to life with meaning and message. It’s less than six minutes but I believe eye opening and thought provoking especially in the world of understanding learning to appreciate our common aspirations. Enjoy.

Where’s the Answer — Religion or Justice?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

A religious message has its limitations when it comes to young people, correct? In the first place, they don’t go to church anymore, at least the teens don’t, so what religious message are they going to hear? And, in the second place, those who deliver the religious message (priests, ministers, rabbis) don’t really know what is going on in their neighborhoods, do they? They live in or around their churches, synagogues or mosques, and are not out on the streets where the young people spend their time, but are in their rectories or homes. They don’t have a clue what life “on the streets” is all about, right?

Now there are exceptions, like Fr. Michael Pfleger in Chicago, who is out on the streets, but he is not the norm. And, granted his effectiveness, does it really flow from the religious tone of his sermons, or more from his street-wise comments on the neighborhood in which his church of St. Sabina is located?

It is really the community organizers, and the followers of the methods devised and employed by Saul Alinsky, that know the neighborhoods and the streets and alleys within them, who are truly effective. They are street-smart, and familiar with the very areas of neighborhoods where crime and violence prevail, and seem to enjoy a modicum of success in bringing some semblance of order and peace to these turbulent and troubled areas. President Obama was such a community organizer during his Chicago days.

What this comes down to seems to be a comparison between the effectiveness of religion, with its programs/methods, vis-à-vis the practical and experiential techniques that the application of justice can bring to bear upon such urban problems. Religion, with its focus on God, the bible, prayer (and the sacraments) and church attendance fails to speak street-language, shows little awareness of local issues and problems, and proposes solutions and answers to crime, drugs, and prostitution under the umbrella of “sin”, a “catch-all” category with no effective specifics to it. Its solution is “repent and convert”, but this is an individuated solvent that lacks a social dimension to it.

Whereas justice, broken down into its parts, musters up solutions that are pat to the problems at hand, focusing on guns, poverty, abandoned buildings, unemployment, poor housing, lack of education. Its solution is more police on the streets, shuttering abandoned housing, scattering drug dealers, government handouts (more money in the neighborhoods), jobs, better schools, etc.

But if these tools of justice are touted as the answer, why, after several decades of their deployment, has there been so little noticeable improvement in the quality of life in these troubled areas? The headlines in our newspapers and on the evening news seem to differ little today, from those that appeared years ago. And the amount of federal, state, county and urban monies that have been poured out on these tortured areas is huge.

So the effectiveness of the tools of justice seems just as unimpressive as that of the rituals of religion. Perhaps an amalgam of the two approaches, but with an emphasis on the religion factor, might show more promise. Why? Consider many of the churches in large, urban areas, both Catholic and Protestant. They now stand in crime-ridden areas. This refers, of course, to the “old” churches, built when the neighborhoods surrounding them were densely populated with parishioners who filled them on Sundays, and supported them generously. Out of this combination of devotion and commitment grew cathedral-like edifices that seated hundreds of parishioners. And many of them were, and are, architectural jewels in terms of size, structure, stained-glass windows, statuary, organ music wafting down from the balcony, and church bells ringing from lofty towers . In short, they were and still are beautiful.

Preserving these gems, not allowing them to disintegrate even th0ugh the earlier population has died out or moved on, can be a major step in rehabilitating the neighborhoods. If they are given some exposure, in an open, clearly visible venue, surrounded by nature’s contributions of trees, bushes, flowers and lawns, they can be oases of the awesome, the majestic, the transcendent, into the neighborhoods now besmirched with liquor stores, shuttered houses, debris-littered alleys, vacant lots, and graffiti inscribed walls, that, in short, spell ugliness. Confront them with beauty as some of the recent street art has already attempted to do. When placed side by side with ugliness, the contrast of the beautiful is striking, and potent.

So, should the urban municipality and religion combine to save these marvelous temples with their steeples stretching into the heavens above, a new factor enters into the plight of urban blight. It is the unsung and overlooked power of beauty, already available in these soon-to-be-abandoned temples of God, that can prove salvific, that is, life-giving and life-saving. Beauty has gone unappreciated for its potency. It operates in a different key from the urban music of a Saul Alinsky. It emanates from religion.

 

Music

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

It’s music to my ears! A welcoming response to something we have heard about: MUSIC. The very word denotes something pleasant, even delightful. Or, is that always the case?

After all, there is good music, tastefully, even artistically, done (or produced), and then there’s bad music: raucous, intrusive, belligerent, maddening. Some would call it noise.

We live in a musical era, but is it of the caliber of the classical musical produced in the 16th-19th centuries, or is it the music of “the common (wo)man”? With our mobile electronic conveyors of all sorts of sound, we can, if we so wish (and it seems many of us do so wish), be awash in music of our choice on a 24/7 basis.

Some have envisioned heaven as nothing but a vast music hall where those of us who have “made it” there are incessantly immersed in celestial sound waves: an angelic experience. Do not artists often depict angels strumming on harps 24/7 (except that time is no longer a factor in heavenly bliss). Indeed, when we reflect on the history of the so-called classical period, we note how beauty (along with the good, the true and oneness) takes its place in the ranks of what was perennially cherished. Today, however, beauty receives less attention from us, among the elements contributing to what ancient peoples considered the building block of culture and civilization. But is it true that beauty is a “light weight” when it comes to the elements comprising a pleasant and desirable way of life?

How does beauty rank among the elements making for a desirable way of life? And, within beauty, what most significantly contributes to it: the arts, architecture, poetry, drama, dance, music? It seems music has sometimes been downplayed for its contribution to a life worth living.

Music admits of various kinds: it can be divided according to the era in which it was produced, or to the geographical place where it originated, or to the kinds of instruments available for producing sounds, such as strings, horns, percussions. Then, there is the organ.

Music is distinct from the other arts because of its appeal to the ear, rather than to the eye or the sensitivity of the body to its rhythm. Am I a person of the eye, or of the ear? If I had to choose between losing eyesight or hearing, which would I prefer? Which brings me more fulfillment, satisfaction, contentment: what I see or what I hear?   The voice of a friend, or the sight of a loved one?

When I need inspiration, energy, contentment, satisfaction, peace, excitement: what best meets my need: music or the other arts (mostly visual)? Is the human voice more significant to me than the sight of another person? If I were to encounter Christ, would I prefer to see or to hear Him? Do we not call Him the Word of God? On the other hand, did He not come down into our midst and mingle with us, to be seen? We have access to His word in the bible. Yet we also see His presence to us in the sacramental liturgy in which we share, or in the statuary and the paintings that artists of old have produced?

Music: is it the melody, the lyrics, or the rhythm, that captivates me? Is dance more reflective of melody or of rhythm?

We are a culture of music. Music is important to us. We can judge a person by the music he or she prefers. There Is music favored by the young, and that preferred by the old. Music is valued primarily for its melody, or its lyrics, or its rhythm. Loud music is often preferred over quiet/soft music (elevator music). There is music that relaxes and music that rouses and excites. There is fast and slow music, music by strings or by horn, music for dancing or music for reflecting.

Music is an important part of life. It’s obviously a God-instilled component of human experience. The prayer-life of the church centers around the psalms, the main composer of which was King David, himself a musician.   It is likely the psalms were set to music. Can we make our way to God without music?

 

 

Remember Man…

clay

by James Paulin

An artistic approach is desired in all forms of creative expression. One of the lesser known professions in these pursuits is that of the automotive design sculptor. Many are unaware that since very early in the history of automobile development, scale and full size models were, and still are made in clay for the various products to experiment with during the inventive process. Traditionally this work has been done by talented professionals, usually with some background or ability in art. Any sculpture should have appeal as a statement and even though designs vary wildly, aesthetics are all important. Automobiles are frequently described as objects of beauty or sometimes as ugly as sin. Great design looks appealing and exciting, a marriage of form and function in the case of a product. Automotive designers and sculptors work together to breath life into their artwork, many times succeeding in implying powerful motion even when the design is motionless. Visual messages are intrinsic to any sculpture, from Michelangelos’ Pieta to the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

Surprisingly, the first clay sculpture was executed by God himself as mentioned in the book of Genesis, 2:7. “And then the Lord God formed man from the clay of the earth, and he breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” God created us in a divine design that was physical, intellectual and spiritual and did so that His creation would have the ability to know him and serve him but not out of control like robots, but out of love which is freely given, received and returned. The artistry of Gods design is rendered with impeccable aesthetics as history played out the act of redemptive forgiveness that raises everyone to the state of purity needed to be in His presence, the sacrificial gift of the Lamb of God, Jesus, sent to be the Way, the Truth and the Life. Unlike product design, even timeless classics, God created a beautiful work of His own hand meant for eternal union with the source of all love.

May You Stay Forever Young

 

by Penny Jaworski

On January 27th the world lost a great songwriter and musician, Pete Seeger.  His music has touched the hearts of people around the world.  I have been singing his songs like “Where have all the flowers gone” and “If I had a hammer” for years.  His music spoke of the plight of the oppressed and or the struggle to find peace in the world.  In this video, we hear how we can “Stay Forever Young” and forever connected to our fellow human beings. Pete would have made a great Passionist Partner

St. Paul of the Cross

Saint Paul of the Cross
Saint Paul of the Cross

by James Paulin 11,2013

St. Paul of the cross is often pictured cradling the crucifix almost as one would show an infant. In more than one depiction he is seen as rising up to Jesus on the cross with Jesus reaching down to welcome him up to share in His passion. At first glance, this idea of passing along suffering seems macabre, irrational and repulsive. Would Jesus really want any person to endure any part of His sufferings?

Empathy is one of the most desirable and respected human emotions. Responding to others in their time of need makes us not just an animal high up on the food chain, rather a form of life that acts with kindness and understanding. Taking this attitude to a higher level has been the motivation behind many selfless lives given without regard for personal gain or recognition. Sometimes the heart must be served first and foremost.

Compassion is connection. When someone we love is sick or hurting emotionally, our heart goes out to them. This “pulling at the heartstrings” can be powerful or faint depending upon how it is nurtured. When St. Paul of the Cross went on his forty day retreat, he immersed his whole being into the gift of Gods’ love through the passion, so much so that sharing in it would be pure ecstasy beyond any other pleasure possible. Jesus surrendered to the Father’s will in the most important act of sacrifice ever. Embracing the sufferings of Jesus Christ is to accept all that He offers just as we would welcome a newborn child.