Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

The Post-Modern Rebellion Against Beauty: Part 1

 Our insatiable longing for ever greater beauty and for union with it is itself evidence that we were made for something more, for something greater; it is an indicator that we are destined for a final end.  C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Our unsatisfied desire for beauty here on Earth is proof that we are made for Beauty that can only be found in another world. Beauty and our irresistible insatiable attraction to it are evidence of an objective final end, of Something that attracts us in a way that is beyond our control. To admit this transcendent end is to admit that it determines what we ought to do, because to accept a certain end automatically implies limiting oneself to the actions that lead towards it and denying oneself all those that lead away from it.

But this is unacceptable for the postmodern man who believes himself to be an ontologically autonomous “creator” of his own reality in which he is the sole determiner of the good and, ultimately, of the beautiful. The postmodern glorification of the self-determining individual allows room for nothing that challenges his absolute freedom, not even beauty. To admit that something is objectively beautiful regardless of his self-determining perception is to admit that there is an objective order that in some way conditions how he ought to think and act. Admission of beauty thus requires humility and deference. As Roger Scruton in his excellent book on the subject, “beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”

This claim of beauty challenges postmodern man’s absolute freedom and provokes him to reassert his autonomy by defying it. We find ourselves in a world that rebels against beauty and is rife with artistic ugliness. To quote Scruton again: “There is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its still small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration.”

In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the great precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”

In next week’s post, I will discuss how to respond to the postmodern claim that beauty is nothing more than an illusion.

Beauty that Draws Us to the Creator

The beauty of this world is evidence of a Great Intellect who orders all things to himself. An example taken from art can help us see this. We look at beautiful artwork in one of two ways: either in itself (horizontally), or in relation to its artist (vertically). To look horizontally at Nicolas Poussin’s Israelites Gathering Manna is to appreciate the balance of its composition, the harmony of its colors, the depth of its meaning, and the perfection of its mathematical proportions. However, we look at it vertically when we seek to understand what the work tells us about Poussin. Looking at the painting alone and knowing nothing else about the artist, we can nevertheless deduce that the creative intellect behind it was incredibly rational, methodical, and precise, which was indeed the case with that Baroque genius.

"Israelites Gathering Manna" - Nicolas Poussin
“Israelites Gathering Manna” – Nicolas Poussin

The same goes for the beauty of Earth, which is a complex and amazingly fine-tuned reality. As Eric Metaxas points out in his recent book Miracles, the very fact that our planet can support life is itself a sort of miracle given the incredible amount of necessary conditions and the infinitesimal margin of error allowed for each. 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. Metaxas mentions many more requirements and only just scratches the surface.

The Earth and all that it contains overflows with so much perfection, harmony, and splendor that a vast number of sciences are dedicated to studying it. Through geology, meteorology, ecology, zoology, and so many other disciplines, we grow in our knowledge of the Earth’s beauty and come to appreciate it horizontally. However, marveling at the amazingly precise calibration of this beautiful planet, it is almost impossible not to ask why and how it is so perfect; it is almost impossible not to consider it vertically. If Earth is so fine-tuned, there has to be a Fine-Tuner. Just as the perfection of Israelites Gathering Manna points to the creative genius of Poussin, so the super-abundant perfection of Earth points to the super-abundant creative genius of its Maker. To say that Earth came together randomly would be like saying that Poussin’s masterpiece came about from a random spilling of paint. The beauty of Earth points to the Great Artist who is behind it.

And through the beauty of his creation, this Great Artist draws us towards himself, who is Perfect Beauty. The natural beauty of this Earth and the artistic beauty of its human inhabitants, although truly wonderful, never seem to be enough. We all know that unsatisfied feeling when the curtain goes down and the lights go on; when the sun sets and it’s time to go home; when the movie finishes and the credits roll – we can never get enough of beauty, and the precious times when we have it leave us aching for more. C.S. Lewis describes well this universal yearning: “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…”

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.

A Time to Re-Focus on Heaven

2013-02-17 CES_Paseo_Greccio_164A couple of years ago, I accompanied a priest on a sick call. Since it was my first time visiting someone with a terminal illness, I was not quite sure what to expect or what to say. We entered the room and saw a thin old man lying in his hospital bed. After being greeted, he looked at us sadly, and with a raspy, gasping voice said, “Well…it’s all over!” I will never forget the priest’s reply: with a big smile, he looked at him and responded, “No. It’s all about to begin!”

As we tried to converse with the patient, I was having trouble thinking of what to say. The TV was on and a coach was being interviewed about the World Series, so I considered chatting about the championship, but it occurred to me how pointless that would be. This man was about to pass on to something greater: he was on the threshold of eternity – everything else was just fading background noise.

En route to Eternity

I really enjoy traveling, which is good because as a missionary I do it a lot. It has always struck me as interesting how life takes on a very different tone right before a big trip. As the departure approaches, everything else becomes less and less important; all thoughts and energy go towards preparing for the journey, and it becomes hard to focus on anything else. The life of a Christian is likewise an ongoing preparation for the final voyage – as we get closer and closer to embarking, everything else fades away in light of the ultimate destination.

The sun shining on an Umbrian valley.
The sun shining on an Umbrian valley.

Lent is about preparing for Heaven. It is not about making ourselves suffer with fasting and abstinence. Our Lenten sacrifices are motivated by something very profound: the expectation of eternal happiness. Through personal asceticism, we distance ourselves from certain goods because we want to be more centered on The Ultimate Good for which we are striving.

The Lenten exercise of self-denial is necessary for staying focused. If we do not periodically abstain from earthly pleasures, we run the risk of forgetting the heavenly ones for which we were made.  In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

…earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [our longing for Heaven], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.

I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.

A morning view from my dorm.
A morning view from my dorm.

Expectation of Heaven does not mean that we should go through life withholding from ourselves all that it has to offer. On the contrary, we should enjoy life, but we must do so realizing that each good thing is but a small foretaste of what is yet to come. Paradoxically, when we live this way, life becomes all the more enjoyable and fulfilling. Conversely, if we refuse to seek what is above and neglect to live for the joy of Heaven, we confine ourselves to the misery of shallow pleasures. As C.S. Lewis puts it elsewhere, when we limit ourselves to earthly happiness, “we are half-hearted creatures…like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.”

An Eternal Weight of Glory

I love this quote from St. Paul:

Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17

This verse resonates so much with me because not long ago I accompanied my mother on the final stretch of her earthly journey. Anyone who has accompanied a family member through a terminal illness knows that there are few sufferings as emotionally acute as watching a loved one physically “wasting away.” However, for Christians, this gradual debilitation is offset by what is at the other end. The illness and death, as painful as they are, are only “momentary light affliction” in comparison with the glory to come.

What can make terminal sickness seem like a “momentary light affliction”? Heaven.

We cannot imagine the beauty of Heaven, but the beauty of this620-667-I-G36 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. Again, C.S. Lewis says it perfectly:

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.

This is what Lent is all about: it is a time for reawakening in our souls the yearning that we have for the boundless joy that awaits us. It is a time to embrace a simpler lifestyle in order to enjoy the peace that comes with simplicity. It is a time for preparing to put on the “greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch”; for receiving the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”; it is a time to prepare for Heaven.

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 his 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 celebrated novel, “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.

cropped-image12.jpg

When I consecrated myself to God, I consecrated myself to Beauty Itself. 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.

As I definitively launch this humble journal, I would like to invite you to join me on my journey to the priesthood and beyond. Let’s marvel at Beauty together!


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“Unbearable Beauty”: Your Upcoming Resurrection

20140417-161738.jpgIn 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.jpgOn Sunday, 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,  your resurrected body will be one of “unbearable beauty.”