Tag Archives: Beauty

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.

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“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.

“Unbearable Beauty”: Your Upcoming Resurrection

20140417-161738.jpgHappy Easter, everyone! As we celebrate our Lord’s victory over Death, I would like to  share a post that I wrote and published a year ago during a difficult time: my mother was dying of cancer, and as I aided her in her final weeks, I was struggling to keep strong my own hope in the Resurrection in the face of her imminent death. 

The thoughts that I share below came to me in prayer as I asked God to strengthen me and prepare me for what was about to happen.  I found great consolation in knowing that my mother was about to experience her own resurrection, which our Lord granted her two weeks into the Easter Season.


In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis recounts a fictional visit to heaven. During his tour of paradise, he encounters numerous holy men and women, but one in particular leaves a deep impression. He meets a spectacularly clothed woman and is absolutely entranced by “the unbearable beauty of her face.” Impressed by her appearance and by the large entourage of angels and saints who accompany her, Lewis asks his guide if she had been a woman of particular importance on earth. It turns out that by worldly standards she was just a simple old lady named Sarah Smith. But the guide goes on to explain that “fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

Sarah Smith may not have been a celebrity, but she spent her life doing good for others – she spent her life loving: “Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.” Sarah was a mother to everyone, and in heaven she is accompanied by a procession of her spiritual children. She is even joined by the animals who benefitted from her generous heart: “Every beast and bird that came near her had a place in her love…Now the abundance of life that she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

20140417-161754.jpgRecently, we celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus, an event that is so huge that we do not limit our celebration to Easter Sunday. Throughout the Easter Season, which will continue until the Feast of Pentecost, we commemorate and celebrate Christ’s definitive victory over death.

How important it is to remember that in celebrating Our Lord’s Resurrection we are celebrating our own! As baptized Christians, we have a share in Christ’s new life and it is only a matter of time before we are in heaven with our own resurrected bodies. In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul reflects on the beauty of the resurrected body:

It [the natural body] is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible. It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; it is raised powerful. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

Our future resurrections give us a special dignity, on which C.S. Lewis offers an interesting reflection:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.

20140417-161728.jpgThe character of Sarah Smith is a symbol of “the risen body of maternal love.” If motherly love is so beautiful on earth, we can only imagine how it will be manifested in heaven! But not just mothers – anyone who truly loves during his time on earth will be rewarded with a risen body, the ultimate fruit of his love. The beauty of your love on earth will flow into your resurrected body, and since God is never outdone in generosity, don’t be surprised if your resurrected body is one of “unbearable beauty.”

Five Steps to Peace: Step 2 – Keep Your Eyes on Heaven

Boston MarathonA few years ago, I got it into my head that  I wanted to run a marathon. I started a training program and ran and ran for five months straight – long runs on the weekends and short runs during the week. When the big day came I was bursting with energy and practically biting at the bit to take on the 26.2-mile challenge. After so much training, I was in the best shape of my life.

I went to the starting line with the idea of sticking to a pace of 9 minutes per mile, but since I felt so great, I allowed my enthusiasm to get the better of me and I committed the most typical mistake of first-time marathoners: I started way too fast. I was knocking out 8-minute mile after 8-minute mile and things seemed just fine…until mile 18 when I hit the wall hard. My legs cramped, my vision blurred, and my head felt light. Eight-minute miles became 9 minutes and then 10 minutes and finally 11 minutes. I was hurting. The only thing that kept me going was thinking about the finish line. When I finally hobbled across and received my medal and a cold Gatorade, I felt like I was in Paradise.

Focusing on the Finish

If life is like a marathon, Heaven is the finish line. Life is tough and we will doubtlessly hit the wall numerous times during the course of our earthly existence, but if we keep our eyes on the goal, one day we will be able to say with St. Paul, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

To keep our eyes on Heaven, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are pilgrims on a journey, and we have to keep in mind that goodness of our life on Earth is just a preview of  what is to come.

This is me hobbling to finish in mile 26. All that matters is that we make it!
This is me hobbling to the finish in mile 26. At least I made it!

This is easier said than done since it is so easy to get entirely caught up and engrossed in the here and now. When I was in that last stretch of the marathon, it was very hard to stay focused on the finish line because I was caught up in the suffering of my rebelling body. My whole world seemed to be comprised of cramps and sore feet, so it was all that I could do to keep my mind focused on the goal, which seemed so far away no matter how much closer I got.

The water breaks were what helped me stay focused. Every mile or so a table would appear on the horizon with smiling volunteers handing out cups of cold Gatorade. I would walk through those water stops, enjoying the cool drink and re-motivating myself to make it to the finish. If I had tried to push through those stops, I certainly would have collapsed. Each water break was a little taste of the finish that provided me with the mental energy that I needed to keep going.

Staying Heaven-Oriented

In life, breaks are essential. If we allow ourselves to be engulfed in the more unpleasant aspects of our earthly existence (work for instance) and if we just try to soldier onward without resting, we will eventually collapse, physically or emotionally or both.

It is crucial that we allow ourselves times to taste and savor the goodness that awaits us; we must allow ourselves the leisure to detach from the mundane activities that consume us and do things that are more heavenly. We need to be free to contemplate what is to come.

To be Heaven-oriented is to be beauty-oriented, so it isfinish-line indispensable that we take time to contemplate beauty. Beautiful music, beautiful art, beautiful cinematography, beautiful nature: all of the finer things of life are essential for helping us remember the finest things that are yet to come. Contemplatively walking through the woods, visiting an art exhibit, or listening to a symphony are all examples of things we can do to contemplate beauty and orient ourselves towards Heaven.

It is also very important to remember that leisure is not just about regaining energy in order to go back to work: rather, leisure is about re-focusing on our final destination, on what we were really made for. We should dedicate at least part of our evenings, weekends, and vacations to remind ourselves of the beauty to come. We should use these times to remember that we are spiritual beings en route to something incredibly awesome.

“Eye Has not Seen”

We cannot imagine the beauty of Heaven, but the beauty of this world foreshadows it. When we encounter beauty, like that of a gorgeous sunrise or a moving symphony, we are touched and our hearts are tugged; a desire for something more is aroused. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.

The beauty of this world is but a faint reminder of what awaits us.

Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has in store for imagethose who love Him. (1 Cor 2:9)

When things get tough and stress accumulates, take a moment to disconnect and remember the beauty that is waiting for you. The more you take time to think of Heaven, the more you will find yourself at peace.

Fleeing Beauty

fliesSome years back, while doing an internship in New York City as a seminarian, I regularly went to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to teach a catechism class. It so happened that the family hosting the classes had an interesting contemporary art collection in their apartment. For weeks, as I went from the foyer to the living room, I would walk past a large black rectangular object hanging on the wall behind plexiglass. My curiosity was always piqued, but I never took the time to get a close look at it until the afternoon of my last class.

As I inspected the object, it took me a while to fully register what I was looking at: the artwork had a maximum depth of about five inches, the surface was uneven and lumpy, it was made of small pieces of something that I could not quite make out… As I leaned in to look closer, I realized what those pieces were: flies! I was looking at thousands of house flies that had been glued together and displayed as a work of art behind glass in the foyer of a private home.

Even though people will always marvel at beautiful things, this does not stop them from producing things which are not. I wrote previously in the Power of Beauty, that although we live in a relativistic world that rejects Truth, it can never fully reject Beauty: no sane person will call a truly beautiful image, like Michelangelo’s Pietà, “ugly” . However, we must nevertheless admit that the artistic world of today flies (no pun intended) from Beauty. A contemporary artist or an art collector may not deny the beauty of the Sistine Chapel, but he will likely deny that he is beholden to such standards of beauty.

beautyAs the English philosopher and aesthete, Roger Scruton, writes in his excellent book entitled Beauty, people flee Beauty because its acceptance implies a limitation of their freedom: to admit beauty is to admit that there is a deeper meaning to this world, one that is not compatible with narcissistic, arbitrary  liberty.

To admit that some things are objectively beautiful brings one very close to admitting that there is an absolute source of Beauty and, ultimately, of Truth, which is unacceptable to a relativistic world that wants truth to be submitted to the absolute freedom of each individual.

We live in a culture that is willing to sacrifice Beauty and Truth for the sake of a false idea of personal freedom. We must counter this by living lives that are charged with Beauty and oriented towards the Truth. We must show that true freedom can only be achieved by living lives in accord with the True and the Beautiful, which is to live in accord with God Himself.


This small reflection was inspired by a superb essay which can be found at the blog Journey towards Easter:  Roger Scruton: the Flight from Beauty.

The Power of Beauty

imageOver the years, I have lived in and near many different cities, but none of them can boast of the artistic beauty that fills Rome. After living here three years, I finally had the chance to join a bus tour of the city, which allowed to me appreciate even more its density of history and artwork. Most of the time, I get around Rome on foot or in bus, so, until yesterday, my trips limited me to one part of the city at a time.

The bus started in the south, near St. Paul Outside the Walls, and then worked its way around the city in a roughly counter-clockwise fashion passing Circus Maximus, the Palatine Hill,  Campidoglio,  the Colosseum, Piazza della Repubblica, Villa Borghese, the Milvian Bridge, Castel Sant’Angelo, and finally St. Peter’s Basilica. Throughout the entire trip, it was impossible to look out the window without seeing something of historic or artistic significance. We passed churches that are homes to Caravaggios and Berninis, and palazzos packed with art collections that are the envy of many a museum.

During our circumnavigation of the Eternal City, I began thinkingmichelangelo_-_creation_of_adam-29p8ptc about something that has frequently been on my mind of late: the power of Beauty. The other day, a good friend of mine who works at the Vatican Museums said something that sparked this reflection: “No one argues with the Church in the Sistine Chapel.” It’s so true! I give lots of tours of the Sistine Chapel to all sorts of people, and I have noticed that surrounded by the grandeur Michelangelo’s frescos, even the most hardened atheist is disarmed. You can’t argue with Beauty.

We live in a highly secular world that has paradoxically come to an all-time low of irrationality, despite our amazing scientific progress. What I mean is that while we have certainly advanced in science, we have lost a lot of ground in true wisdom. A good number of us are extremely knowledgeable in science and other areas, but fewer and fewer of us are open to the Truth that transcends all knowledge: the supernatural Truth of God.

imageIn our world, all truth (except for what can be proven through scientific experiments) has become relative, a matter of personal choice. As a result, lacking a true framework upon which to base our decisions, our emotions have become the driving force behind what we decide to do and believe. For example, there are people with whom I could sit down and walk through Thomas Aquinas’s five extremely logical proofs of the existence of God, and yet at the end they would still tell me, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” There is not much more that you can say to such people who are so blinded to the truth by their emotions. As Thomas Paine put it, “To argue with someone who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.” Unfortunately, much of our world is tainted to one degree or another by emotional irrationality.

However, there is still hope. As Dostoevsky wrote in a one of his novels, “Beauty will save the world”: in the post-modern world, this is truer than ever. People may obstinately argue against Truth, but no one can argue with Beauty. Presented with the truth of rational proofs of God’s existence, someone may be able to say “That is false”, but presented with the beauty of the Sistine Chapel or a symphony by Beethoven, no sane human being will say “That’s ugly.” Our recognition of Truth can be confused, but our appreciation of Beauty is so deeply ingrained in human nature that it is inseparable.

The good news is that Beauty and Truth are intimately connected, so once you touch someone with the former, it is just a matter of time before you can bring him to accept the latter, and I attest to that personally.

Beauty touches our hearts and awakens in us our inborn desire for God, who is Beauty Itself. As C.S. Lewis once wrote:

We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…

This longing will only be fully satisfied when we finally behold God in all of His Beauty and Truth.

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I strive to lead a beauty-oriented life, recognizing and appreciating the beauty of the world that I live in and the men and women who fill it. I have dedicated myself to bring as many people as possible to experience the Beauty of God and at the same time recognize their own supernatural beauty. My goal with this blog is to share with you how Beauty has touched and continues to touch my life, with the hope that it may resonate with and touch you as well.

Let’s marvel at Beauty together!