Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Beauty in the Spiritual Life, Part 1 - Beauty as a Principle of Choice

This is the first of three postings on beauty as a principle of choice. We are used to the idea that the conscience can act in a prohibitive sense as an inner voice that warns us against sinful acts, what we might term the moral conscience. But there is another principle of choice that is more positive and affirmative, a creative impulse in our lives that works in harmony with the order that underlies the beauty of all things. This might be called an impulse for beauty or perhaps a ‘conscience of creativity’ in us, which operates rather like the moral conscience in that it guides choice. In the properly ordered person, it acts in harmony with the moral conscience to take us on the via pulchritudinis, which is the path of greatest joy and holiness to God.

In Part 1, I develop the idea of the impulse for beauty; next week in Part 2, I will suggest ways in which the creative impulse for beauty can be stimulated and formed in our own lives. In Part 3, as a meditation on the themes outlined, I will focus on a single painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which is embedded with design principles that conform to the pattern of beauty that can permeate our lives.

The greatest work of art that any artist can create is himself. In this sense, we are all artists who make something of our lives and of ourselves as human persons, and to the degree that we do so in accordance with God’s will and in cooperation with grace, we are beautiful in our humanity.

Even for one who is an artist in the usual sense of the word - who creates paintings for a living - the beautiful person he can be is of far more value than Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, which sold at auction 3½ years for over $450 million!
The art is important, of course, but just as important is the impact that the making of it has on the artist himself. The virtuous artist creates beautiful art both in order that he might be perfected in Christ by doing so, and so that the art he creates might in turn inspire those who see it to the virtuous life. A life of virtue is a life of love, and because beauty is the radiance of love, the life of love is also a beautiful life.
The Artist Morot in His Studio, by Gustave Caillebotte, ca. 1874 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)
Choosing the Way of Beauty
When we are faced with different possible courses of action in which there is no clear moral judgment to be made, we imagine the result of taking each option and then, comparing them to each other, choose the one that seems to be the best. That judgment is made by that part of us that apprehends beauty and anticipates what might be beautiful in the future by engaging our imaginations. For the artist, this relates directly to the decisions he makes in creating art. For the patron of art, it governs the choices of those who appreciate and choose art. But for all of us, it is employed in many other, less obviously art-related situations, and has an impact on our lives in a wider and perhaps unexpected sense.

In the course of a day, we make perhaps thousands of decisions about what action to take at any particular moment. Many of these might appear to be morally neutral, in the sense that they do not contravene moral law as we understand it, but that doesn’t mean they are all equally good for us. For the most part, in the ordinary activities of day-to-day life, we decide intuitively or impulsively what we believe will make us happiest, which is the most beautiful choice. It is the “conscience of creativity” that guides us on these occasions. When we choose well, we are traveling on the Way of Beauty, which is the most joyful and attractive path any of us can take to God.

The interplay between the impulse for beauty and the moral conscience
It is an axiomatic principle that we aim to do good and avoid evil. Most of us will be used to the idea that morality is about avoiding evil. The Ten Commandments, which are the foundation of Christian moral conduct, are prohibitive. As such, they are a collection of Thou-shalt-nots that, in effect, tell us what not to do. But once the no-go areas of our personal conduct are defined then we are faced with the additional task of doing good. We look at the situation ahead of us and aim to do the best of which we are capable. This last choice requires judgment and is the right exercise of freedom. We must assess at any given moment what is best for ourselves and our neighbors. In this case, we need some positive principles to govern our actions that tell us, very broadly what to do.

The impulse for beauty will, in the ideal, act in harmony with the moral conscience, each complementing the other. It is possible, of course, for one to be more developed than the other in a particular person. There are, for example, artists who create beautiful art but whose personal lives are immoral and unhappy. This is the stereotypical Bohemian self-indulgent artist. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was about this contrast between the beauty of a man’s outward appearance and his inner life; the portrait of a beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, was hidden from view, and over time, mysteriously became more and more ugly, reflecting the increasingly sinful distortion of the inner life of the real person it portrays. Dorian Gray himself became steadily more evil in his actions, but in contrast, remained outwardly youthful and beautiful. Anyone who was able to see the whole person would have seen a Dorian Gray who resembled a portrait by Francis-Bacon.
Three studies for a Portrait, by Francis Bacon, 1963, British
At the other extreme, some might rarely contravene moral law, but have the prohibitive mindset so deeply ingrained in them that they are at times paralyzed by indecision and unable to choose the best from an array of morally neutral choices for fear of getting it “wrong.” Those of us who wish to be pious Catholics might have been in this situation ourselves. Even if we are otherwise observant Christians, if our principle of choice is dominating unduly by the desire to avoid evil, we are not living the lives to which Christ calls us. This life-fearful analysis-paralysis can make us as miserable as a life of self-indulgence.

We are each called to travel a unique and personal path to God, and to be on that path is the source of greatest joy for us in this life. This is the path that we follow when both our moral consciences and impulses for beauty are engaged. The path can be discerned and chosen deliberately, to some extent, but it can also be discovered. To the degree that we allow the impulse for beauty to order our lives to choose the practicable best, the most loving, the most gracious, and the most beautiful actions in day-to-day living, we will discover that path, one small step at a time.

So our motto might be modified to become: avoid evil, do good, and do what is the most beautiful...as best we can!

A moment of indecision? The Artist in His Studio by John Singer Sargent
To escape the trap of an overly narrow focus on the prohibitive mindset of avoiding evil, it can be helpful to widen and soften, so to speak, our understanding of sin. Sin can be, of course, what it is commonly held to be: the breaking of the rules of morality. But sin can also be understood as a partial rupture of our relationship with God in which there is no clear breaking of rules, but in which our lives are not as ordered as they could be. Our relationship with God might still be good, but if not fully ordered to him, it is not as good as it could be. That being the case, we are not as happy as we could be. The cause of ruptures and lack of order is our self-centeredness (just as with transgressions of the moral law) and these can be both voluntary and involuntary. Of course, we will never be fully happy until the next life, but we can, with God’s grace, reorder our lives by degrees in this life so as to be happier and more fulfilled; the well-developed impulse for beauty will help us to do so.
St Augustine summed up this dialectic between the moral conscience and the conscience of creativity by saying (in his commentary on 1 John 4, 12): “Love, and do what you want.” This is not to be taken as license. Those who love well love God first, and do not want to do anything contrary to His will. After all, we are also told, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14, 15). To the degree that our lives are rooted in a love for God first, then what we want will be loving, graceful, and ordered to Him; and then we are on that Way of Beauty and we draw others to the source of that beauty, Jesus Christ.

The Need to Develop the Impulse for Beauty
It sounds simple. Avoid evil, do good, choose the most beautiful path ahead, and all will be well! The only difficulty is that we each have different abilities to apprehend beauty, and therefore, cannot always be sure that we can trust our own judgments. Just as our fallen natures and cultural influences can distort our perceptions of what is good and true, they can diminish our abilities to apprehend beauty too. We need to find a way, therefore, to develop our capacity to recognize what is truly beautiful in order to be able to follow the Way of Beauty. The answer lies, I believe in the traditional formation of Catholic artists and a traditional Catholic education that transmits the essentials of the practice of our faith.

More on that in Part 2.
If Ye Love Me, by Thomas Tallis - A meditation on the source of beauty, set to beautiful music, and sung beautifully: beauty begets beauty!

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