Tuesday, May 08, 2018

How to Be A Living Sign of Beauty in the Desert of Secular Culture

Prof. David Fagerberg on Beauty and Asceticism

Beauty is the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues; it is the flower on a stalk of living habits, habits which you cannot see, but which are necessary for beauty to exist.

I recently had the great pleasure of attending the annual conference of the Institute for Religious Life. There were many highlights; all the speakers were excellent, but one in particular stood out for me. Dr David Fagerberg’s lecture entitled Beauty and Asceticism was perhaps the best talk at an event of this type I have ever heard. It was inspiring and enlightening, theoretical and practical, and for all the weightiness of the subject matter, light and entertaining to listen to.

Drawing on the wisdom of the collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th century called The Philokalia, a Greek word which means “love of beauty”, he spoke of how the beautiful life is one that is transformed supernaturally in Christ. Through the Christian life, we partake of the divine nature, we are reborn and walk the Way of Beauty, a path of virtue and Christian asceticism.

The audience was largely religious, and so he had that in mind when he gave this talk. As he points out, all of us are called to live an ascetic life to some degree. We might not be called to a life as a hermit in the desert or on a mountain top, but rather to a life where we are in the world, but not of it - an urban anchorite praying to the family icon corner in his suburban skete (an apartment block or cul-de-sac maybe). What Dr. Fagerberg does is point out the special role of the religious in the Church in cultivating this “ascetic aesthetic.”

He gives us an image of the beautiful life as a flower on a stalk of virtue. This is flower power, but not an imaginary one borne of self-indulgence of the 1960s, but one rooted in the Christian life which has the force of the divine.

It is the liturgy and the culture that cultivate such a transformation and by which we are deified. That is how we become people whose lives and work speak beautifully of Christ and how we become creative artists of the New Evangelization.

Dr. Fagerberg, who is a professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame was kind enough to send to me the text of his talk, which I give to you here. He writes:

In the 18th century, two Greek Orthodox scholars named Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth compiled a collection of writings they found in the libraries of monasteries on Mount Athos. They selected from among texts written between the 4th and 15th century for the guidance and instruction of monks in the contemplative life, and they titled their collection The Philokalia. Probably even our rudimentary Greek recognizes the first half of the word: philia is one of the Greek words for love, alongside eros and agape. The second half of the word is probably less familiar to us: kallos basically means “beauty,” so they were calling this collection The Love of Beauty. What might it be about? What might five volumes on the “love of beauty” contain? What topics would you include? Would a convenient search on Amazon books for “beauty” give us a hint? I find a literature book that explains the lyrical vision of tragic beauty; I find a cookbook by ‘the beauty chef,’ who can tell us about food for radiant well-being; I find a pop psychology book on radical beauty whereby you transform yourself from the inside out; and I find a philosophy book treating beauty in art, nature, and the human form.

But when we crack open the Philokalia we find some unexpected sentences. Although this is a book about beauty, the first sentence of the first book of the first volume reads “There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.” The next book is by Evagrius of Pontus, who sketches his topic by saying,

“Of the demons opposing us in the practice of the ascetic life, there are three groups who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men. (You might recognize the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, given in sequence 1, 3, 2.) All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups.”

He offers these bits of advice: “Do you desire, then, to embrace this life of solitude, and to seek out the blessings of stillness? If so, abandon the cares of the world… .” “With regard to clothes, be content with what is sufficient for the needs of the body.” “Keep a sparse and plain diet, not seeking a variety of tempting dishes.”

Flipping back to the table of contents, we see this is not an ordinary book on beauty. John Cassian writes about the eight vices, Mark the Ascetic offers 200 texts on the spiritual law, Hesychios the priest speaks of watchfulness and holiness. Maximus the Confessor takes up the most space in the five volumes, and he begins by saying “Dispassion engenders love, hope in God engenders dispassion, and patience and forbearance engender hope in God; these are the product of complete self-control, which itself springs from fear of God. Fear of God is the result of faith in God.”

I hope I have startled you into appreciating the juxtaposition in my title: asceticism and beauty. (We might call it an ascetic aesthetic.) The spiritual and monastic tradition of both east and west have united the two, and so Makarios and Nicodemus title their five volumes dealing with fasting, vigils, self-discipline, constant prayer, contemplation, and the struggle between vices and virtues “a love of kallos.” Perhaps that word has a thicker meaning than our simplistic understanding of beauty. A Greek concordance reveals additional dimensions of the word, and, sure enough, kallos can be defined as
  • beautiful to look at, shapely, magnificent
  • good, excellent in nature, well adapted to its ends, pure
  • praiseworthy, morally good, noble, becoming
  • honorable, or conferring honor
  • affecting the mind agreeably, comforting and confirming
  • valuable, virtuous, fair
Philo-kalia is a love of these goods. And a quick online search shows the appearance of the word in the following Scripture verses, and I think you would agree with the translator’s choice to render kallos as “good”:
  • Matthew 3,10 : that which does not bear good [kalon] fruit is cut down.
  • Matthew 5, 16 : that they may see your good [kala] works and give glory to your Father
  • Mark 9, 5 : Rabbi, it is good [kalon] for us to be here
  • John 2, 10 : everyone serves the good [kalon] wine first, and then the cheaper wine
  • and, indeed, John 10, 11 : I am the good [kalos] shepherd
My purpose in calling out these examples from Scripture is to make us conscious of an additional meaning resonating in those verses. For example, that which does not bear beautiful fruit is cut down
  • that they may see your beautiful works and glorify your heavenly Father
  • Rabbi, this is a beautiful place to be
  • and Jesus is the Beautiful Shepherd
Beauty, goodness, morality, nobility, honor, and virtue are inseparable from asceticism. Why would that be? I take this opportunity to try and think that through with you.

Let’s invite Chesterton to provide us with an opening metaphor...

To read the article or download a pdf full click this link.

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