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Beauty for Ashes
Reflecting on Notre Dame and the Virtue of Aesthetics
Two years ago, Notre-Dame de Paris—“Our Lady of Paris”—was stripped and ravaged by a merciless fire. The work of centuries was consumed in moments. The lifelong labors of successive generations reduced to dust and ash and soot-stained rubble. For nearly a millennium, this site played host to everyone from regular Sunday worshippers, to devout pilgrims, to puffed-up emperors unaware of their diminutive stature, to revolutionary usurpers, to the multiplied millions of casual tourists who have been awestruck by her grandeur. At least, until that Easter night when the world looked on with shared sadness as she watched the old cathedral burn.
For many, if not most, the sense of sadness and loss was unfeigned, visceral, true. For my own part, it was a sudden, inexplicable discomfiture that soon gave way to physical unease. Something akin to queasiness. It was eerily similar to a sensation I had on a balmy September morning 18 years prior. Understand, this was not because I thought that this too was a terrorist attack or anything like it. I wondered about that later of course, but for the moment—in the moment—I had no time to think of anything at all. That is, beyond the realization that the Cathedral of Notre Dame was being destroyed before my eyes. And that knowledge was nothing less than a sword piercing through my spirit.
Perhaps you would describe your own reaction in similar terms. One wonders how that is possible? Why would persons thousands of miles away—separated by nationality, language, and even religious convictions—be so deeply affected by the news of a single church on fire? And why would such a reaction be perceived as healthy? Yet, that is exactly the point for which I would argue. Not only healthy, but natural.
It is natural because it is normal to feel pain in the face of tragic loss. To be clear, this was our loss; humanity’s bereavement. Not because of her considerable historical significance, or even her inestimable monetary value as one of the most visited destinations on the planet. No, we mourned the loss of her immaculate face. We wept honest tears at the loss of her virtue. We were grievously stricken by the sight of stolen beauty.
Ours appears to be a world of sin-cursed ugliness. The original consecrated “goodness” has been twisted, perverted, and distorted. But that part of us that is most human still yearns for the lovely. That deepest faculty—the soul of humanity—longs for the transcendent and beautiful. There is always that nagging suspicion, irritating our subconscious like a metaphysical itch we can’t scratch. Echoes of Eden assault our collective memory. We were made for more. Created to be the gift to crown and beatify all the rest.
This fugacious age may not appreciate aesthetic virtues, but the burning of Notre Dame was a wound upon the world. We all suffer when true beauty is taken from us. It leaves a hole in the soul of humanity because we were fashioned for beauty. Our grief is not accounted for simply because a great piece of history has gone up in smoke. We grieve because one more piece of our tattered humanity has been singed by the vandal flame.
Beauty is the dazzling reflection of the Radiant One who ultimately inspires it. But those who have been most successful at suppressing the natural impulse to see and to touch the face of God have little patience with the vestiges of His indelible image imprinted upon our world. And they have less patience for the vestigia trinitatis which has left the handprint of the Divine upon their own mortal frames. So they labor to desecrate every holy place. And the easiest way for them to do that is to profane every human place; stripping them of their creaturely glory, robbing them of anything that reminds us that we are children once-and-forever kissed by God.
Infidels are the true iconoclasts—effacing and defacing every image in creation that dares to cast a true likeness. They do this by relativizing every absolute and subjectifying every objective reality. They are modernists simply because they seek to outrun their storied past. And some, having become disenchanted even with that disenchantment, have even left modernity behind for less structured climes. “Postmodernists” aim to tear the ground from beneath their feet until there is nothing of the former order which remains to threaten their fugitive consciences. If they can rid the world of objectivity altogether—leaving no place for the true, the good, or the beautiful—then there will be no sacred specters left to haunt them. So they attempt to dismantle the very nature of reality, these deconstructionists of the spirit. What they do not seem to understand (fortunately for them) is that when they have reduced everything to nothing they have simply provided the Almighty with His favorite building materials.
But those struggling creatures who, thanks to grace, are not so far gone, are instinctively drawn to the beautiful, the good, and the true as an infant to its mother’s breast. There they are nurtured at the fount of glory. There they receive the nourishment and strength to be faithfully human. By some strange sort of spiritual alchemy, we become by beholding. “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (I Cor. 3:18).
Beauty may seem wonderfully non-utilitarian; serving no functional purpose, having no immediate use. Appearing—like the very world in which we live— unnecessary, extravagant, gratuitous. But beauty is not “cosmetic,” if by that one means merely decorative. Beauty is cosmetic in the sense that it pertains to cosmos—the proper order of things. Beauty is that which illumines the grand designs hidden in the shameless excesses of our Prodigal God. As such, the pursuit of the beautiful is an ironic crusade against the tyranny of nihilism.
Beauty also has an eschatological dimension. By faith we understand that everything we now behold we see through a glass darkly. That which is lovely shall be made lovelier still. All the beauty of the earth is but glory in the bud, and one day it shall blossom in ineffable splendor. And all that is now gnarled and thorny and grotesque? Well, that is already being transformed from the inside out.
On this same week, a few thousand years ago, a Man set about the task of transfiguring tragedy. By turning an instrument of torture into a symbol of victory, by consecrating a sanctuary at the mouth of a sepulcher, by receiving a curse and offering it back as a gift, Jesus Christ turned ugliness inside out. And what was there on the refashioned image, do you suppose, but the very fingerprints of God?
Indeed, He makes “everything beautiful in its time.” Even now, He is in the process of issuing garments of praise to those encumbered with cloaks of heaviness, turning mourning into dancing, and giving beauty for ashes.
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