Monday, February 07, 2011

"When Drab is a Favorite Color"

This is not strictly speaking a liturgical matter, but I think it plays into the bigger question of how radical a revival of Catholicism's historic fostering of beauty could be in transforming the rather colorless values of today's world. Anthony Esolen, a Dante scholar and an occasional contributor to the wonderful little monthly lay missalette-style publication Magnificat, recently crafted a great essay posted over at Inside Catholic which addresses what might be called "Beige Christianity," and perhaps, even more generally "Beige Civilization." I would highly recommend you read through the whole thing, but extracts follow below:

If the sudden irruption of beauty threatens to pull heaven down about us, then one good way to ensure that a human soul will be armored against the divine is to cultivate the drab, the slipshod, and the ugly. Eventually the people subjected to such an anti-culture will be unable to appreciate beauty at all, or will sneer at it as mere ornament. And this is one of the fine strategies of the Evil One. In Lewis's Screwtape Letters, the diabolical "Uncle" confesses that not all the research of the demons below has sufficed to produce a single genuine pleasure. The trick is to lure people into sin by giving them pleasure gotten in an illicit way, and then to give them less and less of it, as they become more and more inescapably bound to having it. The trick with beauty is similar. The devils lure us with beauty mingled with the tang of sin, with beauty preyed upon by that parasite, until we grow weary of it, and turn either to the perverse and the hideous, or, in the bind of spiritual torpor, the simply drab. We will become the sorts of people who are embarrassed by beauty, even contemptuous of it, just as cynics cannot abide the presence of innocence and joy.
And farther on:
I mean to assert that while those people [our ancestors] often failed to live up to some genuinely beautiful ideals, at least they had those ideals to which to aspire, while we have next to none. A friend of mine, a convert who is fascinated by the unraveling of social groups, notes that the word "professional" has largely replaced the word "honorable," and he has the linguistic graphs to prove it. Our words manhood and womanhood have been eviscerated. Our popular art, which is nine-tenths mass-marketed junk, is snide, sleazy, crude, coarse, not terribly artistic, and not genuinely of the people. Anyone who supposes that such crudity is but what the common people have always lived with does not know the difference between the merry, the earthy -- even the bawdy -- and the heartless and joyless sneering peddled to all classes by what is tellingly called the entertainment industry. If the testimony of the old Canadian author Louis Hemon is to be trusted, and even if he forgave the faults of his beloved countrymen, there was more courtliness, more beauty of language and gesture, more hospitality and celebration in a peasant home of old Quebec than in our neighborhoods now with all their material wealth and spiritual isolation.

What the Church must do for such a people is not to meet them in the mud, or in the glass and steel cubicles of the modern bureaucratic state, but to invite them to climb up out of that mud, or take an elevator ride back down to a world of grass and trees and dogs and children. [...]

When a lost soul wanders into the silence of one of our churches, it should not feel to him as if he had walked into a doctor's waiting room, or the department of motor vehicles, but into a new world, mysterious and true. And, sinners though we are, something of the glory of Jesus should shine through our persons, as light through the colors of a stained glass window, so that those who meet us on our pilgrimage may say to themselves, "I want to go on that journey, too." Let us pray that Jesus will conform us to His beauty, so that in all we do we may be a decorous testimony to Him.
Beauty, like tradition, is not optional.