Building beautiful things

I’m on Amtrak heading to Richmond this morning for the March for Life Virginia. It’s early (so still darkish) and it’s overcast and raining.

If your experience of the world is exclusively or primarily in our cities and along routes like the one I’m traveling this morning (whether by car or train), you’ll tend to think we’re destroying the world because of the way we’re developing it. The sights from my Amtrak window are not exactly ugly, but what’s built along railroad tracks doesn’t tend to be beautiful. The same goes for our highways.

But we’re not destroying the world because we’re developing it. If we are destroying the world, it’s because we’re developing it in an ugly way—that is, we’re building things that degrade rather than elevate the natural landscape. And in turn that degrades our own experience of it and eventually our lived experience generally.

This isn’t a new or controversial idea, but if you survey folks across the political spectrum I suspect you’d find we’ve forgotten the principle behind building beautiful things—that aesthetics aren’t just how something looks but speak to what something is. And if we’re committed to the idea that form and function don’t have a meaningful relationship, we’ll keep building things that act as a spiritual corrosive.

There was the news recently that the White House might be considering an executive order instructing that future federal architecture be classical rather than brutalist, for instance. Why classical architecture matters isn’t simply because it’s “old,” but because its form and its age means it has been tested and that its form carries within it knowledge about what serves all of our needs as human beings—our need for beauty and symmetry and thoughtfulness as much as function.

If you’re inclined to say that “it’s all relative,” or especially that “beauty is relative,” ask yourself why we seek and conserve those things produced by craftsman (art, homes, public buildings, statues, etc.) and treat the pre-fabricated as basically disposable. It’s because crafted and beautiful things are in harmony with the world as we feel it should be, and we recognize the value in living amidst beauty if we can afford to do so.

Dumbarton home

There’s this house on Dumbarton Street. I walk past it a few times every week. It’s one of my favorites because it looks not just like a house, but a real home—with all the old thoughtfulness and attentions to little detail that seems so lacking in more contemporary architecture. And it has some of that country/Southern aura to it, ensconced in a little yard of greenery. In the warmer months the bushes by the fence flower and animals nest in the greenery.

IMG_4107

I think this is what a good home looks like.

Rock Creek Parkway motorcade

A small perk of the habit of walking to/from work in the winter came in the form of last night’s motorcade sighting, heading north up Rock Creek Parkway. We typically get at least one motorcade down Connecticut past our offices every day. I hope I never get so familiar with Washington that I’m anesthetized to how strange and impressive these are, in the way they communicate power and public priorities in this Federal City.

What’s the point of living in a place like this if you become blasé about it?

Sunny Rose Park

I got back to Washington yesterday in the early afternoon after visiting Philadelphia this weekend. This morning’s walk to work from Georgetown to Dupont Circle was beautiful, and the weather today is spring-like mid-60s:

That’s Rose Park, near the M Street Bridge.

Harder to make silence

Fr. George Rutler writes that it’s “harder to make silence than noise”:

One year ago in the Italian town of Cremona, there was an imposed silence by order of the local government for eight hours a day, six days of the week for five straight weeks. The purpose was to allow the pristine recording by highly technical equipment of sounds played on the 1700 Antonio Stradivari “Stauffer” cello, the 1727 Antonio Stradivari “Vesuvius” violin, a 1615 “Stauffer” viola by Girolamo Amati, and the 1734 “Prince Doria” violin by Guarneri del Gesù. Cremona’s most famous luthier, of course, was Stradivari, and no one knows how many centuries from now such instruments as the Stradivarius violins can survive.

It is harder to make silence than noise. Because of modern cacophony, especially in what passes for music in the form of amplified “rock” sounds, young people are growing increasingly deaf. In urban areas, silence is so uncommon that one becomes suspicious of silence, rather like the dog that did not bark in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze” detective story. Sherlock Holmes said that it was Dr. Watson’s “great gift for silence” that made him so useful.

Satan and his evil spirits are noisy. Jesus told an evil spirit to be silent (Mark 1:25). The Greek Φιμώθητι (Phimōthēti) simply means “Shut up!” Our Lord always was precise. So should we be, in order to hear God. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

The surrealist poet Dame Edith Sitwell said, “My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.” She might have benefitted arts and letters had she been silent more often. But, after all, she eventually made her Profession of Faith at the Farm Street Church in London with Evelyn Waugh as her sponsor. Neither was famous for reticence, but they did profit from moments of quietude. Those who do not think deeply will not understand how painful it is to those who have powers of concentration, to be interrupted by frivolous chatter.

Saint Anthony helped to change the world by isolating himself in a desert. This is why retreats in one form or another are crucial, for a retreat is actually a frontal attack on the noisy Anti-Christ. The pope himself recently said that folks should put down their iPhones and listen to silence, which has a sound of its own. When Barnabas and Paul spoke at the Council in Jerusalem, “All the people kept silent . . .” (Acts 15:12). We can be thankful that they did not have cell phones.

God will not have to shout at us if we do not “harden our hearts” (Hebrews 3:15). Instead, as with Elijah, “. . . the Lord wasnot in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lordwas not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, butthe Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

I have this image of Mary that reminds me of the spiritual importance of silence:

AE4CD4F2-7061-49FD-BAD4-2C269BEDC6AD

I don’t remember where the image comes from. But it’s a reminder that there’s no way to “ponder these things in our heart” if we can’t learn the value of silence. Not simply “quiet,” but silence—intentional, powerful, pregnant times when we can hear the whispers of our heart.

The beauty found on earth

Jessica Hooten Wilson writes:

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?

Lighter winter days

I took this photo as I was walking along K Street this morning. I had left the Catholic Information Center and was heading to Americans United for Life a few blocks away. It has felt like spring for the past week, and this morning it looked that way too.

5BD60146-9E3F-4E1A-B86D-044782BF9A03

The days are starting to be noticeably longer, too. It’s great to be able to leave the office past 5pm and still have some light while walking home.

The wind blows where it wills

It’s incredible in Washington this weekend. Beautiful early morning, and it’ll reach 70 degrees today and nearly as high tomorrow. It’s good to still be so early in the new year, and to make time for being with good people and doing good things. I headed to Arlington this morning for Borromeo Brothers at St. Charles in Clarendon.

41D3D84A-D029-4EA9-AF16-0B1EBFF40C47

We read John 3:1-21 today, which I’ve included below. Fr. Don, the pastor at St. Charles, visited with us this morning before Mass and gave a talk on the sacraments as “efficacious signs”—that the sacraments, starting with baptism, confer the grace they signify.

How difficult it can be to believe. But the same mystery is at the heart of the most everyday things of life and we do not wonder at what we witness: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes…” If we start from a posture of gratitude, it’s not so difficult to believe what Christ proposes—and to recognize the limited nature of our own will and power.

Nicodemus Visits Jesus

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can this be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

Motorcade on Wisconsin

I work on Connecticut Avenue and live off Wisconsin Avenue, and both frequently feature motorcades. The Naval Observatory, where the Vice President lives, lies north of Georgetown and so his or an affiliated party’s motorcade frequently comes down Wisconsin. That’s what I caught this morning, as I was about to cross the street to pick up a JUMP bike to get to work.