At the top of Mount Purgatory, Dante is reunited with his paramour Beatrice, only the reunion is anything but romantic. She acknowledges that Dante’s desire for her “was directing [him] to love the Good/ beyond which there’s no thing to draw our longing” (2.31.23-24). God was drawing Dante to himself through Beatrice’s beauty, and he drew Dante up the mountain by inspiring the pilgrim with the memory of Beatrice’s eyes. Yet, she demands to know why Dante turned away from God after her death. After her beauty returned to ashes, did Dante not realize the fleeting beauty of mortal things? The beauty found on earth is meant to draw us towards its source and completion in him.
We must protect beauty where it is found, cultivate beauty in this world with a higher purpose than our own pleasure. Our aesthetics—just like our morals—must be trained. You can think something is beautiful and be wrong; beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. In The Beauty of the Infinite, CLJ contributor David Bentley Hart reminds us that beauty is objective. He writes, “In the beautiful God’s glory is revealed as something communicable and intrinsically delightful, as including the creature in its ends, and as completely worthy of love; what God’s glory necessitates and commands, beauty shows also to be gracious and inviting.” The beautiful must be “worthy of love,” “gracious,” and “inviting.” We cannot look at a urinal with a name sharpie-marked and call it beautiful, for the object does not invite us to recognize God’s loving grace. Yet, we can walk into Notre Dame cathedral and feel his invitation to be loved. We can sit atop a cliff and look out over the sea and know that all creation is a gift. From this perch, we can call the scene before us, “beautiful.” Just as we should not possess those persons that we find beautiful, nor should we consume the beauty around us. …
We miss the mark when we cultivate ugliness, devalue beauty, or use beauty for our own satisfaction. …
There is no reason for the world to be beautiful. It is God’s gratuitous showering of grace that beauty exists. As Joshua Gibbs points out, “As far as ‘use in the real world’ is concerned, the things we love tend to be useless. God Himself is useless.” To say God is useless is not to say that God does not matter, but the opposite. God matters most: He is the end and thus cannot be used for anything. Beauty turns us away from the sin of prioritizing use and reminds us to enjoy.
Isn’t that perfect? “God was drawing Dante to himself through Beatrice’s beauty…”
We’re not drawn to the beautiful for utilitarian reasons. We cannot “do” anything with the beauty we encounter in the Pieta, or the Mona Lisa, or the smile of our brother or sister. But we can enjoy them, and in the enjoyment we have to wonder:
What does this enjoyment suggest? What does it point toward? What is its source?
And it’s the same for the creation of the beautiful itself, where the heart naturally asks at a certain point: What is the cause of inspiration?