April 23, 2022 Essay: God’s Better Beauty
At the end of Mark Helprin’s long and troubling book called “A Soldier of the Great War,” there is a discussion among the main characters about the meaning of sacrifice in the face of the insanity they had experienced during the First World War. Reacting to feeble attempts to make sense of beauty that appears even in the midst of terrible loss, this is what the protagonist says:
“Really everything they said seemed to be in contradiction to the truth of what I’d seen. And if you ask me what it was, I can’t tell you. I can only tell you it overwhelmed me, that all the hard and wonderful things of the world are nothing more than a frame for the spirit, like fire and light, that is the endless roiling of love and grace.
I can tell you only that beauty cannot be expressed or explained in a theory or an idea, that it moves by its own law, that it is God’s way of comforting his broken children….”
“Beauty cannot be expressed or explained in a theory or an idea; it moves by its own laws.”
These are the laws of hope and courage, which are, finally, the law of the spirit.
The ancients understood this: The Beautiful is one of the three so-called “transcendentals,” with her complicated sisters, The Good and The True. Beauty is the imaging forth of the divine, the trace in matter of the God who must share his beauty, who images forth his likeness in us and through us in our creations.
We see it in the beauty of creation, in the splendor and terror of nature, mysterium fascinans et tremendum; we see it most clearly in the dawn of the First Day of the Week.
We saw it in the face of him who sat on the cold stone, waiting for his cross. We saw it in the radiance of Magdalene’s smile when she recognizes the Gardener as her risen lord. We see it in the light that poured through the wounded hands of Jesus and healed Thomas’s doubts.
“All the hard and wonderful things of the world are nothing more than a frame for the spirit, like fire and light, that is the endless roiling of love and grace.”
That, after all, is what St. Ignatius told us to pray for at the end of the Spiritual Exercises: “only your love and your grace.” That’s what Ignatius saw as he wept beneath the stars, as he gazed at the terrible beauty of the cross, and when he saw grace descend like light from the sun, like water from the spring. He saw hope, hope that God’s will can be done, hope that God’s love and grace really are enough, hope in God’s better beauty, grace. And that too is why he encouraged his brothers and their companions to build beautiful churches, and use the arts and human craft to be tools of persuasion and hope.
The poignant beauty of the dying and rising of Jesus that we contemplate on these Easter days draws us deeper and deeper into the mystery of God’s design for us and for our world.
Such beauty encourages us, literally in-courages us to live lives of compassion and mercy. It turned Peter from his timidity to compassion and mercy, turned Ignatius and his friends to lives of service and praise.
“It is God’s way of comforting his broken children….”
Let all of us, broken children, poor banished children of Eve, open our hearts to that beauty, ever ancient, ever new.
– Fr. Thomas Lucas, S.J., Pastor, Saint Ignatius Loyola Parish, Sacramento