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Series on Beauty, Part III: A Life Marked by Barrenness and Utility

In Ecclesiastes we read that “there is a time appointed for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down and to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-5) and so forth.

Growing up in the northeast, I was blessed to experience four seasons a year: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Winter though was a time that was often marked by a barrenness. Whether it was the empty branches, the absence of heat, or simply the darkness that stretched longer throughout the day. It lacked the joy and light that often characterizes the summer months. Though that’s not to say that winter isn’t beautiful, anyone who has woken up to a snow-covered landscape knows that it not the case, but there is a barrenness, a void to the winter season with many longing for the hope of the spring.

When I lived in Washington, D.C. for college, I quickly learned in the winter to take an annual trip to the Botanical Gardens. Amidst the bustling of the city, in the center lie a lush, landscape filled with life. I still remember the Orchids that blossomed despite frost sitting just beyond the glass sheltering this beautiful life. I remember the joy that brief encounter with beauty brought to lighten the darkness that often characterized winter.

Our trouble is now as a society we often settle for barrenness in our culture in the art we produce, the music we consume, the architecture we surround ourselves with and so much more. We settle because along the way we have favored utility over aesthetics. John Mark Miravalle notes in his work, Beauty: What it is and Why it Matters, the effects of this. Referencing Roger Scruton’s term Miravalle writes that the “opponent of beauty [i]s the ‘cult of utility.’ It occurs when everything is governed by one simple principle - namely, achieving a material goal with as little expenditure of effort, time, and resources as possible.” The problem becomes we have shifted the meaning of what we consume. For many of us, the shift was not a conscious one; instead we simply have played into the narrative of the continuous need for more often at the sacrifice of the quality and beauty. We allow ourselves to become enslaved to the constant tug on our heart for more and often fail to realize exactly what, or who this tug is for.

Miravalle notes that “[t]he most influential work of twentieth - century English literature, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, describes the modern city as a soulless desert.” Is Eliot wrong? Within the city there is a constant rush and a constant drive for ambition which is not wrong in and of itself, but I would argue few can deny the quiet tug on their heart that recognizes there must be more. It is what Miravalle proposes when he writes that “if we can grasp the emptiness of modern life, this is because art points to another way of being.” It is a way of being where we are awakened to a life full of meaning. It is a meaning that shapes and informs how we see the world around us. The beauty around us transforms us to see the world through a different lens, “from a thing to be used to a thing to be witnessed” as Miravalle writes. It shifts our perspective and deepens our ability to reverence both the created world, and that which we create.

To look with reverence at each snowflake as if it were the first time we were seeing snow again. To look with reverence at the first bud of spring and the intricacy and delicacy of each new flower. To look with reverence at the waves crashing in on one another or the mountain that towers over you. To look with reverence at the changing leaves to see the depth and brilliance of the palette of God. To look with reverence at one another to see one another as a person made in the image and likeness of God rather than an object to be used. And ultimately to be trained to look with reverence at the One who animates and brings life – Christ especially hidden in the Eucharist.

If we simply settle for the barrenness, for the ease or convince of utility, we may never know just how beautiful this life could be or the beauty which God invites us to.


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