How to Find Beauty When Life is Ugly

The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb,_and_a_detail,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerHans Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb shows the results of Christ’s suffering with startling realism. It depicts an emaciated and lacerated cadaver in the early stages of putrefaction. His eyes are slightly open and his skeletal hand is reaching out, giving the body a disturbing semblance of life and making it seem as if Christ is still suffering. The body is shown without the onlookers typical in similar artistic renditions, thus intensifying the isolation of death. We are the only ones who have been placed in disconcerting intimacy with the dead body of Our Lord.

Holbein radically departs from the tradition of showing the suffering Christ with at least some physical beauty. He does not shy from showing his suffering and death with all of its ugliness and horror. With unflinching realism, he puts us up close and personal with the agony of Christ so as to shock us out of indifference or complacency regarding what Our Savior did for us.

Making Sense of Ugliness

In “Charged with Grandeur”: the Universe and You I wrote aboutroad-flower-sm600 the amazing beauty of God’s Creation. The world is indeed charged with God’s grandeur, but we are all well aware that ugliness exists in our world as well, and plenty of it, unfortunately. How do we make sense of it, especially when we are forced to bear it ourselves?

The answer is found in the suffering Face of him who was “crushed for our sins.”

Our postmodern world tells us that beauty is just an illusion; it tells us that reality is fundamentally ugly and cruel. We can either hide from the ugliness and absurdity of life, or we can defiantly rebel against it, asserting our freedom even as we accept the very meaninglessness of doing so. It tells us to stop seeking hope and truth, because there is none.

Is beauty really just an illusion? Our answer as Christians is a resounding “No!” Thanks to the suffering of Jesus Christ, the ugliness of suffering has been made subject to the deeper beauty of love.

The Face of Beauty

No one puts is better than Pope Benedict:

“Precisely in the Face [of Christ] that is so disfigured there appears the genuine, the ultimate beauty: the beauty of love that goes ‘to the very end’ and thus proves to be mightier than falsehood and violence.” This is “the Love that can risk setting aside his external beauty in order to proclaim, in this very way, the truth of beauty.”

imageIt’s true that we live in a world that is replete with ugliness, but it is also true that precisely because of this ugliness, an even greater beauty is present, a beauty that would not exist if it were not for the ugliness that it conquers.

All of us have to deal with ugliness in one form or another. It may be the ugliness of physical or mental suffering in our own lives or in the lives of loved ones. It may be the ugliness of injustice or human spite. It may be the ugliness of greed or lust or sloth. It may be the ugliness of addiction. Whatever the form that it takes, we need to keep it very clear in our minds that it will not have the final say, nor does it have the power to eclipse beauty in your life.

Your Final Beauty

Taking the Twelve aside again, Jesus began to tell them what was going to happen to him. “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise. – Mark 10:32-34

Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing that he would have to face a lot of
ugliness, but he also knew what awaited him at the end of it all: the beauty of his Resurrection. Thanks to his love until “the very end,” he carried out the most beautiful act of human history: his Passion.

When life presents you with ugliness, remember that God20140418-112248.jpg is allowing it only so that a greater beauty may come about. Every time you suffer out of love for him and for others, you make yourself more and more the beautiful person whom God made you to be.


Explosion of Love: the Holy Spirit in Your Life

Back-of-Chair-of-St-PeterOne of my favorite works of art here in Rome is Bernini’s Chair of Peter. This masterpiece employs a variety of media in typically Baroque fashion: the chair and the Fathers of the Church are made of bronze, the Holy Spirit is alabaster, and the angels surrounding the Holy Spirit are gold stucco.

In an equally Baroque manner, it portrays dramatic motion that breaks through the barrier between art and reality and comes into our space. The Holy Spirit appears to be exploding  into the Basilica with amazing power: the angelic figures surrounding it are blown back from the dove, even as some try to go towards it.

A Gentle Wave

a-surfer-rides-a-powerful-wave-off-the-north-shore-of-maui-island-1Although the Third Person of the Holy Trinity is often referred to as “Gentle Guest of the Soul”, his gentleness in no way diminishes his power, and I can say that from personal experience. Although he never forces himself upon us and always awaits our consent, as soon as we give it, he does indeed feel like an explosion as all of his divine energy is manifested in our lives.

I like to think of life in the Spirit as surfing, but with one big difference: as powerful as this “wave” is, it protects and cares for us, never letting us fall or topple. The Holy Spirit is mighty, yet gentle. While he can amaze and disconcert, perhaps making us a little nervous, he never harms us and he always looks out for our personal well-being.

Explosion into my Life

The first time that the Holy Spirit exploded into my life was not long after I received the sacrament of confirmation at the age of 14. Although at the time I barely knew what I was doing, looking back there is no doubt that confirmation marked a major turning point in my life.

BBDiacOrdin2010575-NAC-Magazines-conflicted-copy-2012-01-29With my confirmation began an amazing series of events (material for a whole other blog!) that led me to make a radical, life-changing decision, one that I attribute to Holy Spirit: I decided to leave home to enter a minor seminary.

It was a huge decision, and people have asked me whether I was ready to take such a step. All that I can say is that, despite my age, I was entirely convinced – I simply knew it.  Beyond any doubt, I was certain that God was calling me to the priesthood, and this conviction has remained undiminished for the past 15 years.

My journey since then has been an amazing one: it has been one long explosion of the Holy Spirit. He has taken me to places I never dreamed I would live and had me do things that I never dreamed I would be able to do, all along purifying me and drawing me closer to himself. I have been pushed out of my comfort zone, learned new languages, and met amazing people.

Exploding through the Centuries

On Sunday, we celebrate the Solemnity of Pentecost, the day that the Holy Spirit burst into the lives of the Apostles and poured himself upon the infant Church. It was the beginning of one big explosion that has lasted for almost two millennia. From Pentecost onward, each of the Apostles was caught up in the Holy Spirit and led to do incredible things, everything that Christ had promised them before his Ascension in Heaven:

These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up deadly serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.  They will lay hands on the sick and they will recover.  – Mark 16:17-18

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. – John 14:12

pentecost-canadaWe have to realize that as members of the Body of Christ, we are a part of this same explosion of the Holy Spirit into the world and into history. Even though we are human beings constricted by time and space, the Holy Spirit transcends these limitations and does amazing things through us. When we open ourselves to his action, we should not be surprised when amazing things start happening.

“Charged with Grandeur”: the Universe and You

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. – Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

The Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo
The Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo

Shortly after arriving in Rome four years ago, I went to the Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, to attend the weekly address of Pope Benedict. I was just getting over my jet lag and feeling a little overwhelmed by the newness of living in a foreign country, so it was a welcome surprise to find myself waiting for the Pope next to a friendly American Jesuit. He introduced himself as Fr. David Brown and we began chatting; since it turned out that we knew people in common (it’s a small Catholic world) and had similar interests, we hit it off right away.

Visiting the Vatican Observatory 

Since then, Fr. Brown has come to be a great friend and mentor who is always more than willing to host me at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, where he is a resident astronomer. Like the fictional Chesterton character with whom he shares a name, Fr. Brown’s unassuming and kind demeanor hides an incredible intellect: not only is he a brilliant astrophysicist with a doctorate from Oxford, but he also speaks Spanish, Italian, and French fluently. I love visiting with him and benefiting not only from his vast intellectual knowledge, but also from his spiritual wisdom, which is no less extensive.

I have taken advantage of his invitations to visit the VaticanThe bright light of a solar flare on the left side of the sun is seen in this NASA handout image Observatory on a couple of occasions and I always leave very impressed. On one occasion, he took me up to one of their massive telescopes to look at the sun. After putting on the sun glass and focusing, he let me take a peak, and I was mesmerized by why I saw: despite the 93,000,000 miles of distance, I could see the surface of the sun, make out sun spots, and distinguish solar flares. It was incredibly beautiful.

Looking at the sun that day was more than a cool experience: for me, it was an epiphany. If the sun is so mesmerizingly beautiful, how much more must be the God who created it!

An Amazingly Calibrated Planet

We live in an incredibly fine-tuned universe. Everyday, we see the sun rise and we see it set, but seldom do we take the time to consider that if the sun were even slightly closer to us, or if it were even slightly larger, the Earth would be incapable of supporting life, and we wouldn’t exist.

In his book, Miracles, Eric Metaxas spends an entire chapter marveling at the very fact that our life-supporting planet even exists; when you think about it, it truly is a miracle! As he puts it,

Our existence is a statistical and scientific virtual impossibility. That may sound far-fetched, but it’s what the most advanced science now leads us to conclude: that the odds are stacked so dramatically against even a single planet in the universe possessing the proper environment to support life that the existence of this planet and life is an anomaly of an impossibly high order. 

downloadThe Earth is a complex and amazingly delicate reality. For our planet to be capable of life, there is a huge amount of conditions that have to be met, and each condition allows for only the most infinitesimal margin of error. If Earth were just slightly larger and had just slightly more gravity, toxic gases such as methane and ammonia would remain too close to the surface for life to be possible. If Earth were just slightly smaller, water vapor would dissipate leaving a virtually waterless planet. If it rotated just slightly slower, our nights would be too cold and our days would be too hot. If it rotated just a little more quickly, winds would reach insupportable velocities.

A Fine-Tuned Solar System

Additionally, there are a number of conditions that need to be met in our solar system for our fragile planet to be able to exist. For example, if it weren’t for massive Jupiter, Earth would be hit a thousand times more frequently by comets and comet debris. Thanks to the fact that our humongous neighbor has 318 times the mass of Earth and thus 318 times the gravity, many comets that come anywhere near us are absorbed into its gaseous depths; but in most cases, it simply deflects incoming debris away from our solar system.

We also owe a lot to the moon. Since it has just the right size and is409950main_image_1538_946-710_Moon_NASA just the right distance from the Earth, it stabilizes the Earth’s rotational axis at its current optimal angle, without which we would not have our seasons nor our relatively stable temperatures.

If the moon were just a little bigger, we would be dealing with hundred-foot tides, which would make coastal cities and maritime travel impossible. If it were slightly smaller, the tides would not be strong enough to cleanse coastal seawater and replenish its nutrients.

Marveling at the extremely fine calibration of our universe, we cannot help but be moved to worship its Creator.

Deum Creatorem venite adoremus! 

The Creator of the Universe and Your Father

hands-440But here’s an awesome thing to think about: all the attention that God put into creating the universe is no less than the attention that He put into creating you! Just as He perfectly planned every detail of the solar system and set it up just right, so has He planned out your life and guides you towards eternal happiness.

The reflections on our fine-tuned universe were taken from Eric Metaxas’ book Miracles, which I highly recommend as a faith-inspiring and wonderfully entertaining read.

Why You Need Leisure

Breaking from the Rat Race

Rat-raceEvery social system has its pros and cons, and meritocracy is no exception. While it allows equal opportunity, it also tends to favor overwork; it rewards power to the successful, thus encouraging the fallacy of identifying self-worth with personal success. When one identifies self-worth with success, he is inclined to work himself excessively since there will always be someone bigger and better to beat, and there will always be something newer and faster to get.

Living in an achievement-oriented society that rewards overwork can be degrading and even dehumanizing. To limit our existence to personal material achievement is to deprive ourselves of our infinite spiritual capacities. We are not animals who find their fulfillment in the repetition of daily survival; we are human beings who are capax universi – open to the infinite. We are capable of knowledge and contemplation, and it is not only good but vital that we allow ourselves time for both.

And this is the reason for leisure: it is a break from our workaday activities for the sake of contemplating and enjoying God’s creation. Leisure is not laziness, nor is it simply inactivity; it is being free from the tension of work in order to focus on higher things.

“We are unleisurely in order to have leisure.” – Aristotle

meadowWe all too often subordinate our vacations and weekends to our work: that is, even if we take breaks, we take them only in function of our work, and we break from labor simply because recovery of energy is necessary to continue laboring. But this is an inhuman way of living because it is actually a subtle form of enslavement to our jobs: even when we think we are free from work, we are actually still chained to it.

Leisure is not simply resting so as to get back to work. Rest is a result of leisure, but it is not its primary reason. Leisure, like divine worship, is one of those things that is done for its own sake.

Leisure is the contemplation of the beauty of God and His creation, something that can only be done when we free ourselves from quotidian stresses and tensions. In his essay Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper states that “leisure implies…an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’ but letting things happen.”

To be at leisure is to consent to and fully accept your human nature; as one who is capax universi, you are capable of knowing anything you put your mind to and for this reason are said to be in “the image and likeness of God.” Obviously, only God actually knows all things, but you, as a human being, have the capacity of knowing anything. Although that capacity will not be fully realized until you reach Heaven, you are called to begin its realization here on Earth by taking time for “God-like” activity, that is, by taking time for leisurely contemplation.

Be still, and know that I am God.     – Psalm 46:10

When you are at leisure, you imitate God:

God looked at everything He had made, and found it very good…On the seventh day God completed the work He had been doing; He rested on the seventh day from all the work He had undertaken. – Genesis 1:31; 2:2

imagesThe ways of being at leisure are numerous, but they all share in common this imitation of God on the seventh day: cessation of work and contemplation of creation. You can be at leisure hiking in the mountains, walking in the park, or simply sitting in your backyard marveling at the beauty of nature. Leisure can take the form of being with friends and family, enjoying the beauty of the beloved people God has put in your life.

Leisure can be sitting down with a cup of tea and a well-written book. It can be watching or participating in an athletic event and enjoying the beauty of human athletic talent. It can be attending a musical performance and relishing the beauty of human musical creation. It can be watching a good movie or documentary, going to an art exhibit, or going to a museum. It can be the enjoyment of the finer things of life like good food or vintage wine.

Opening Ourselves to Beauty 

Whatever form our leisure takes, the important thing is the attitude that is behind it, which should be one of humility. When we are at leisure, we acknowledge that the world does not revolve around us and that it does not depend upon our work. Leisure implies that there is Someone greater than us, Someone who deserves the sacrifice of our time to marvel at His creation.

When we are at leisure, we free ourselves from the stress of work and open ourselves to the infinite beauty of God. As Josef Pieper puts it:

…the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to the superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work. Only in genuine leisure does a  “gate to freedom” open. 

freeman3In summary, in leisure, you are free to open yourself to God and thus be fully human. This is why you need it.