Beauty is one of the most important concepts of Catholic theology and philosophy. It is in fact considered by most Thomists to be one of four transcendental properties of being (transcendentals are defined as notions or concepts which apply to all being simply as being). The other three transcendentals are unity, truth, and goodness. Every being, in other words, is in possession of its own unity; further, it is true, it is good, and it is beautiful (even spiders and cockroaches).
Beauty is possibly the most mysterious and complex of the transcendentals. Human experience of beauty ranges across a spectrum from the highest intellectual Vision of God to our physical perception of the simplest created thing. And, of course, it can be applied to the entire spectrum of human art - from the simplest drawing of a child to a Palestrina Mass.
Beauty, in other words, is that Catholic transcendental property which most clearly images the Incarnation - bridging the distance between the infinitude of God and the smallest of human things and experience, and penetrating into the deepest regions of human sensation and passion.
The two quotes offered above convey a great deal of this mysteriousness and complexity. Both refer to God - the one telling us of His incomparable beauty, the other of His total deprivation of beauty in our sight - “there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him.” It was precisely the latter - this apparent total deprivation of Christ’s beauty on the Cross - which was the cause of all His disciples abandoning Him: All you shall be scandalized in me this night (Mt. 26:31); Behold, the hour cometh, and it is now come, that you shall be scattered every man to his own, and shall leave me alone (John 16:32).
In similar fashion, many thousands are now leaving Christ’s Church because of her perceived ugliness. There is a wonderful and very mysterious line in the Canticle of Canticles (Song of Songs) in which Christ’s lover, the Church, declares to the daughters of Jerusalem, “I am black but beautiful….” My edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible offers the following footnote to explain this passage:
Nothing is more necessary for the Catholic faithful, therefore, than retention (or regaining) this vision of the beauty of the Church in the midst of Her current “blackness.” The word “vision” is singularly appropriate here. St. Thomas writes:
Since we live in what is arguably the “blackest” historical period of the Church, this vision of the Beauty of the Church is something which must be attained through intellectual vision, and not through perception of outward appearances.
Further, it must be maintained through constant efforts towards nourishing this vision and penetrating deeper into its meaning. We are in secure possession of nothing in this life. What we see now through a glass darkly can only be retained through constant efforts to see more deeply. And that which we possess, we must also continue to passionately desire. St. Thomas writes:
In times such as these, we must all become contemplatives.
To this end, I thought it might be of some value to offer a short version of my own conversion. It seems to me that it represents a mirror image of our times. It is a story of ascent from profound ugliness to a vision of the Beauty of God and His Truth. And, subsequently, it is a long journey of descent into the current “unsightliness” of the Church, and therefore a witness to the absolute imperative of retaining this vision in the midst of such darkness.
On the Road to Emmaus
In the midst and depths of this barren spiritual landscape, I received a “vision” which was an experience of the most profound beauty. As preparation, it is necessary to tell something of my life leading up to this experience. It is a long story, redolent with chaos and sin for forty years, but I shall try to keep it to the
My adopted parents were decent folks. They were Methodists. I have an image to this day of having been taken out of Hell, and deposited in a very shallow pool. There was kindness, but nothing of sufficient depth to quell the volcano which had already been formed within. I do not remember any happiness as a child.
The chaos erupted within me in High School, largely due to a Humanities course taught by an avowed agnostic. We read such things as Voltaire, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, Dostoevsky, and Camus. I told my adopted parents that I did not want to attend church anymore. I began drinking a great deal, became an agnostic, and then proceeded to go off to college in 1959 to major in English Lit and Humanities.
I was not a happy liberal. Except for a fondness for Russian literature, I felt contempt for most of what I read. I literally hated science, technology, and most of all the theory of evolution. All of these things were suffocative with the intellectual ambience of reductionism. It mattered little whether it was Physics and material reductionism, Freud and his sexual reductionism, Marx and economic reductionism, or Darwin with his evolutionary reductionism. I clearly saw that life, through such “scientific” perspectives, could only be seen as an entrapment wherein the human soul was savagely enmeshed in an endless and inescapable web of material causation and determination. And I had no way out.
I was, in other words, a true child of the decay of Christian civilization, a child of the sixties.
I left school, and hitch-hiked and road freights for years. I worked the fruit orchards in British Columbia, a farm in northern New York State, for the Forest Service in the mountains of Montana, as a waiter in Aspen Colorado, on a green-chain in a lumber mill on the Columbia River in Oregon, and many dozens of other “temporary” jobs. It always had to be temporary.
While hitch-hiking or riding freights I might go for days without eating, or just live off of what someone might offer. I became heavily involved in Vedanta Hinduism (and its total negation of the reality of all creation), and spent time in Berkeley, California associated with a Vedanta Center.
I was finally drafted into the army at the beginning of the Vietnam War, and served as a paratrooper (although fortunately not overseas). I was in total contempt of the army and any notion of just war. After the army I tried school again, mostly missed classes and drank, and began bumming again.
There were times when I was so paralyzed by fear and chaos that I could not work, attend school, or even take to the road. I remember one time being in such a state of mental chaos that I just sat down on a highway leading out of Minneapolis, unable even to stick out my thumb. Ironically, the very teacher who taught my humanities class in High School stopped and took me home for an overnight stay until I could somehow collect what little there was left of myself.
During this time before my conversion, I violated all of the Ten Commandments. No more specifics are necessary or appropriate. I cannot even say that the enormity and extent of my sins was intentionally malicious. This, of course, did not excuse me, or make me any less of an enemy of God.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” The world sees not many anti-Christs, but it is witness to innumerable hosts of human souls who lack the vision to resist his bidding. Such is the nature of the chaos of our times. Such “banality” is also living proof of the Thomistic principle that evil has no positive existence, but is simply a negation or deprivation of good. Where God is not, evil is.
Something had softened, but the mental and emotional chaos continued. Always on the edge of total poverty, we moved to northern Minnesota, and I worked construction on a paper mill, and on the Taconite plants on the Iron Range. The drinking continued and became worse.
Finally, one night, in the depths of my own chaos, I managed to very embarrassingly close my eyes and say within myself: God, if you are there, please show yourself. I now know that this was the key to all that followed. It is not enough to “search," as I had done all my life. One must ask. The truth which the human soul needs in the depths of its poverty and sinfulness cannot be acquired except as Gift. This “asking” was a very small hole of humility through which God’s grace could enter and begin its work of transformation.
Eventually, I turned to the local priest for instruction in the Catholic Faith. He gave me a fairly orthodox catechism to read, and we began classes. Within a few weeks I came to the subject of the Eucharist. This catechism actually contained the Council of Trent’s definition of Transubstantiation. What is more, during the previous Sunday’s homily a visiting priest had held up the Host and interpolated somewhat by saying “This is Jesus, He is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the World.” At my next class I pointed all this out to my instructor-priest and asked him if he believed in this thing called transubstantiation. By the grace of God, he said, “I consider myself a Thomist, and, yes, I do believe in transubstantiation.” When he asked me if I believed, I was forced to answer in the negative, that I did not really disbelieve in it, but that I had no way of knowing. I added that I guessed that this prohibited me from becoming a Catholic, and he (fortunately) agreed.
Thus began my journey into the Church. It was founded upon hard honesty, both from the priest and myself. I became obsessed with the question of transubstantiation. Within a week or two, I was back to ask the priest for a key to the church - I wanted to sit, kneel, or lie prostrate before the tabernacle in order to ask God about this matter. The trustees objected, and Father overrode them. I remember being quite embarrassed about lying in front of the tabernacle, and ready to jump up if I heard someone at the door.
One evening, I was taking care of our first two children while my wife was at work. I had gotten into the habit of reading Bible stories to them, usually from the Old Testament, since they seemed to be more interesting and exciting. For some reason on this particular evening, I opened to the New Testament, and randomly turned to the 24th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, containing the story about Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
At these last words, and without the slightest sign of discursive thought, I was interiorly overwhelmed, and all intellectual barriers to belief in transubstantiation were shattered. I can only describe this experience as being intensely emotional, while at the same time coupled with absolute intellectual certainty. I simply saw that Jesus was there, without this in any way involving either physical or imaginative perception.
It then became a very perplexing mystery to me why, even after the above experience, I still didn’t feel like I could convert. And so, I persevered in prayer, trying to spend at least an hour every day in church before the tabernacle.
The second experience came during Mass - during that part of the New Mass where the people say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Again, and without any discursive thought, I was overwhelmed, to the point where it took great effort to keep from sobbing. There was so little thought involved that I really had no idea what had happened. And I still did not feel that I could join the Church.
The third experience again occurred during a Mass. At the priest’s words, “Through your goodness we have these gifts to offer...,” I was again overwhelmed in the same way as previously. But there was this immense difference - with tremendous excitement and delight, I now knew with absolute certainty that I could convert, and must convert. After Mass I went over to the priest’s house to tell him that I now believed and could join the Church. I especially remember his smile.
It took me some time to understand the dynamics of my “visions,” and why it had taken these three experiences to make a genuine conversion. It is not enough, I discovered, to come to believe that He is there - either that God is real and exists, or that He is truly present by means of transubstantiation. In addition to this, I had to come to an awareness of my own absolute poverty and sinfulness - “Lord I am not worthy,” and thus my own profound need for God.
But even these two ontological truths are not enough. The distance between an Infinite God and the poverty and sinfulness of man cannot be bridged except by the “extremity” of God’s Goodness, which is His Merciful Love - “Through your goodness…” I believe it was Pope Paul VI who said that the Catholic Faith causes an encounter with God Who bends over in order to draw good out of all the evil that is in the world. God stooped, offered me a vision of His truth, and I was home. I was possessed by Beauty.
I came to call it “the Divine Invasion.” God, in the Divine Person of Jesus Christ, has invaded the world and shattered all of man’s hubris. To understand the meaning of the doctrine of Transubstantiation is to possess a liberating vision which utterly destroys the death-grip which scientific reductionism holds upon the modern mind. This subject, of course, has been covered in a number of my articles in Christian Order.
This liberation was with me from the beginning, but all of its ramifications took much time to develop. After my conversion, it would take me another 20-30 years to come to a philosophical understanding of Thomas’ teaching concerning the nature of being and substance, and the profound liberation which this entails. It would also take me that long to understand that the primary reason for the Church’s present prostitution before the world is due to the abandonment of this teaching by the vast majority of both the hierarchy and the faithful - a betrayal which is pre-eminently a rejection of Beauty, and thus a betrayal of Christ.
Christ is Beauty
Eternity, according to Thomas, means “a being without principle,” and thus is appropriately applied to the Father, since the Father proceeds from no other Divine Person, but is rather Himself the source of all procession.
St. Thomas identifies Use with the wider sense of enjoyment. He writes: “So use, whereby the Father and the Son enjoy each other, agrees with the property of the Holy Ghost, as Love. And, the use by which we enjoy God, is likened to the property of the Holy Ghost as the Gift.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Love and Grace.
Thomas simply identifies Species with Beauty. In scholastic philosophy, species refers to a cognitive resemblance or image of an object. We remember that St. Thomas says that the Infinite Goodness and Beauty of God are identical, except that Beauty carries with it the cognitive aspect of being seen. Jesus says to Phillip, “He that seeth me, seeth the Father also.” Jesus is not only the Word generated from the Father, but He is also the Beauty of the Father seen and imaged.
St. Thomas teaches that Beauty includes three conditions: integrity or perfection; due proportion or harmony; and brightness or clarity.
The first (perfection) applies to the Son “inasmuch as He as Son has in Himself truly and perfectly the nature of the Father.”
The second (due proportion or harmony) agrees with the Son’s appropriation, “inasmuch as He is the express Image of the Father,”
The third (clarity or brightness) “agrees with the property of the Son, as the Word, which is the light and splendour of the intellect.” The Letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as “the brightness of his [the Father’s] glory, and the figure of his substance.” Speaking of Christ in the Prologue of his Gospel, John the Beloved Apostle writes, “That was the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.”
Christ is therefore Infinite Beauty. Infinite Beauty became incarnate, embraced the ugliness of the Cross and, in and through His loss of all apparent Beauty, took upon Himself all ugliness or sin, thus making the restoration of beauty possible for all men.
The Forsakenness of the Church
Sometimes, I think, God has to place blinders on persons in order to bring them to conversion, In order to perceive the interior Beauty, the ugliness which encapsulates it must not at first be seen. Such, at least, seems to have been the case in my own conversion.
It would be superfluous to detail all that I began to see after my conversion. Possibly one example will suffice.
When I encountered a priest who offered Mass in a manner which I deemed irreverent, I several times approached them and engaged them in casual conversation (my intent, however, was anything but casual). At some point I would tell them that I had studied a catechism which spoke of transubstantiation, and then ask them why we never hear the concept of transubstantiation explained from the pulpit. The answer from such priests was invariably the same - something like: “Oh, well, transubstantiation involves medieval concepts of substance and accidents which no longer accord with our scientific knowledge.”
A new priest came to our small town. I posed the question concerning transubstantiation to him, and received the characteristic answer. And because he was now our resident pastor, I would not let the subject drop. One night I received a call from the bishop (Bishop Robert Brom, now of San Diego fame) who told me that the pastor was deeply upset with me. I simply told him that this priest did not believe in transubstantiation. Bishop Brom’s reply was that “you don’t have to believe in transubstantiation in order to believe in The Real Presence.” After a long conversation, in which I quoted rather extensively from Mysterium Fidei and the Council of Trent, the bishop ended the discussion by simply hollering over the phone, “You’re not the bishop, I’m the bishop!” Needless to say, I was intimidated.
In my journey down the mountain from my conversion, the disillusioning discoveries concerning the state of the Church deepened at an alarming rate. It moved from a few dissident theologians, sisters, brothers, and priests to large numbers of the same. It ascended from priests up to bishops, from horrendously bad catechisms to the New Mass, and, finally, from bishops even on up to the Pope.
In the midst of all this disillusionment, I had to secure a vision of the Church which would explain how this was possible, while at the same time maintaining my perception of Beauty.
I found it in the image of the Church as another crucified Christ. I reasoned that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Is it not true, therefore, that just as His own physical Body was scourged, mocked and crucified for our sins, so also might not Christ’s Mystical Body be called upon to suffer this same loss of Beauty? And, if all of his disciples deserted Christ, then is it not perfectly plausible that their modern descendents might also desert His Church?
We now gaze upon a crucifix and perceive it as beautiful. It was in no way beautiful to any of Christ’s disciples who were present. We read the beautiful life of someone like St. Athanasius who was driven from his episcopal see, hunted down, persecuted, and maligned in every conceivable way, but it was not perceived as a thing of beauty then. The beauty lies hidden, in seed form, and barely perceptible even to the most prophetic of visionaries. What the disciples of Jesus saw was not beauty or glory, but rather spittle, blood, torn flesh, humiliation, pain, and death. We, fortunately, are now in possession of a deeper vision.
But there is an additional consideration which bears heavily on what we are now experiencing. All of Christ’s “unsightliness,” - all of his apparent deprivation of beauty - came from without. Through the entirety of His Passion and death He was in complete possession of the Beatific Vision. Nor was there anything ugly or sinful in His flesh which was of His own substance.
The Church of course can be, and often has been, scourged and crucified from without. We would love to possess a vision of the Church in which this is always the case. But this is not possible. It is not reality. The current “unsightliness” of the Church is a very different matter.
The wounds of Christ were clean. There was nothing there of the filth which constitutes the nature of those wounds currently destroying the beauty of the Church. The Church possesses certain prerogatives from Christ. It is holy in its magisterial teaching on faith and morals. It is in possession of sacramental powers which truly impart God’s graces. But the extent and depth to which she can lose her beauty and become ugly surpasses in kind any appearance of ugliness in the Passion of Christ. Conceivably, every member of the Church could lose his or her faith, every priest become a child-molester, every bishop a heretic. Even the Pope can become a fornicator, teach falsely when not exercising his charism of infallibility, embrace philosophical and theological error, and shield child-abusers. All these things have, in fact, been done by Popes.
The current wounds of the Church are not clean, but rather filthy. Metaphorically, the spittle is now sodomy and child-abuse, the blood is prostitution before the values of the world, the ripped and pierced flesh infidelity and heresy. It is my belief that the message of Fatima has never really been understood: that the suffering prophesied for the Holy Father is not primarily from without, but from within; that the reductive materialism and scientism of Atheistic Communism have violated the spiritual life of the Church to an extent even more damaging than its obvious damage in the face of the world; that the martyrdom of innocents involved in the withholding of the Faith from hundreds of millions of children over the past four decades makes all other forms of martyrdom to pale in comparison; and that the greatest persecution is viral - growing and proceeding from within.
Christ is the light of the world, and the Church is the vehicle of that light. If the light is dimmed, the vision is lost; and chaos, evil, and a virtual total deprivation of beauty are its fruits. The Antichrist will rise out of such ugliness. Very likely it will not happen this time around, but the present foreshadowing is very possibly the most acute in history.
In the midst of this horror story, we tend to lose sight of one fundamental truth: Christ is the Head of this wounded Church. And just as the disciples would not have been scattered “each to his own” if they had possessed the vision of the Divine Person of Jesus Christ hidden beneath all the blood and spittle, so we shall not be scandalized and scattered if we maintain our vision of the hidden Jesus as the Head of his suffering Mystical Body.
It is a Eucharistic Vision. God has invaded the world and made us his own: For he hath hidden me in his tabernacle; in the days of evils he hath protected me in the secret place of his tabernacle (Ps. 26:5).
It is, at the same time, a Marian Vision. At Fatima, Our Lady told the children that Her Immaculate Heart would be their refuge, and the way that would lead them to God. Her Heart is that secret place - the tabernacle of the living God.
The Strength of Christ Perfected
I finally told my wife and children that I thought we should try praying the rosary as a family. I was quite apprehensive about overtaxing my children by praying an entire set of mysteries in one night, so I suggested that we pray the beginning prayers and two decades one night, and the last three decades the next. In a very short time, one of my children said, “Dad, why don’t we pray the whole thing every night?”
One evening, as I was putting my daughter to bed, she said to me, “You know Dad, I used to have very bad nightmares, and I do not have them anymore since we started praying the rosary.”
The nightmare of our lives was gone. But I have nightmares - very small next to the one that once was my life - but yet real. I have recurring dreams of being desperately homeless - of being lost, broke, and pursued through the caverns and cells of heartless cities. My little girl did not need nightmares, but I think that I do. They keep me on my toes, and aflame with the desire to gaze on the Beauty of God. Without them, I might just lie down in one of those little hidden cells within the City of Man, and fall asleep. And sleep, for me, in the mind-numbing cold of this world, is the greatest threat of all.
We each, I think, have a maxima culpa - the point of our greatest fault, weakness, and liability to sin. Despite the fact that the real nightmare of our lives, through God’s grace, may be vanquished, this major fault does not entirely disappear. We tend to view such faults only as an exasperating threat and source of humiliation, but they are also the locus of the greatest potential for grace in Christ: “My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” It is in the thralls of such temptation that we turn to God in groaning prayer. It is also in the depths of such weaknesses and temptations that we often can discern the most profound truths.
What I must consider to be my maxima culpa is a rather strange one, reflecting I think my rather non-typical life. It consists in an almost overwhelming temptation of desire for non-existence - to never have been created, to fall asleep in death and to have everything simply be no more. It comes not that often, but only in moments of near-despair. St. Thomas, of course, teaches that no being can desire its own non-existence or directly desire evil. Even though this must be true, my experience would tell otherwise.
Such a desire, if acquiesced to by the will, is probably the greatest act of ingratitude towards God of which man is capable. It is a direct denial and refusal of what many consider the greatest act of God’s mercy - the calling of a spiritual being out of non-being - a denial of the goodness of all creation. It is War against Being. I believe it to be the penultimate sin of our time - of which such things as the modern holocausts of war, communism, secularism, atheism, abortion, and suicide are powerful expressions. It is the reason I write - in order to give form to the Beauty that has drawn me out of such darkness. Christ’s strength, in other words, is made perfect in my maxima culpa.
I cannot end this without mentioning my wife and children. Without them, I would long ago have curled up in my dreams of nothingness. I must give first credit to God, but grace is wasted if it does not take on flesh. I am a cripple, and virtually impotent to give expression to what I here need to say. But it is really quite simple. I would never have known Beauty or God without them.