George Weigel, a Roman Catholic theologian and author, has written several extraordinary books. One of these marvelous works is titled “Letters to a Young Catholic.” In it, Weigel covers what it means to live a faith filled life for those of us who are curious, searching, or even doubtful. His account is remarkably lucid, and much of what he said resonates, leaving me with a distinct sense of gratefulness for my faith tradition, and hopefulness for the future. I recommend the book heartily to all.
Having just returned from a rather spectacular long weekend with my family in Arizona, I find that Letter 12 of this book rings particularly true. The title of this particular letter is “Chartres Cathedral, France—What Beauty Teaches Us.” The point that Weigel makes here while taking the reader on a tour of a place he cites as one of the most striking that exists is that beauty is a powerful antidote to self-absorption. Like Weigel upon visiting Chartres, there is for me something overwhelming and ethereal about the “Red Rock” area of Arizona that it renders me speechless. Like him, I had the sense as I spied for the second time the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona that I was praying without words simply being present. The chapel was created by artist and sculptor, Marguerite Brunswig Staude. She imagined it as “a monument to faith, a spiritual fortress so charged with God, that it spurs man’s spirit Godward!”
Oh, how she succeeded.
Beautiful places, in particular, draw me out of myself. Sky so blue there isn’t a bright enough crayon to capture it, surrounded by imposing red thousand foot high rock walls all around me, well, they help me realize that the master sculptor has created something so marvelous I simply could never grasp it. There’s no way to tire of this kind of magnificence. My 8 yr old son called it “crazy”. My 15 year old said “I think I took 50 pictures here, Mom.” My 12 year old simply sat with his jaw open the entire time we were in the Oak Creek Canyon area. Tom had me ask a stranger to get a photograph of the five of us in the midst of it all, and then, after a round of golf on a mountainside course with our kids he said, “I want to stay another day.” Says Weigel, “Beauty is something that even the most skeptical moderns can know. People know that they know what’s beautiful.”
All of this and experiences like these, of course, are God’s grace at work in my life and yours.
When I was a girl, my parish school was teaming with the smiles of Franciscan sisters. It seems truly ironic now how I thought they were the loveliest people with the most unfortunate and misguided beauty sensibilities. I wondered, quite frankly, who chose the brown? The irony is that I remember too walks outside this time of the year with Sister Julie Marie and my entire class at St. Lawrence. She would point out the many old trees lining the side streets near our school which were so brilliantly glowing red, orange and yellow. She didn’t have to tell us how beautiful they were, we couldn’t miss them. That would be like forgetting to notice the sunshine. When we arrived back in our classroom, she would always say, “God is beauty, huh?” Turns out those gals in brown knew everything about beauty.
In Weigel’s book, he reminds us of St. Augustine, who famously takes himself to task for taking so long to confront his doubts and conform his life to Christ. He “exults in his surrender to the God who is beauty itself” pens Weigel.
Late have I loved thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved thee! You were within, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unlovliness I plunged into lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance over me; I drew in my breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your embrace. –St. Augustine
If every day was a vacation day spent under the blue skies and sunshine near Phoenix, surrounded by smiling children and a peaceful husband, happily disconnected from his laptop………….well perhaps I would not feel as grateful for the lesson, or the need to recall it later. Maybe then beauty would simply be part of me.
Perhaps then, I wouldn’t need the Chapel of the Holy Cross, or Slide Rock State Park, or fall trees filled with bright leaves, or stained glass windows glowing in the sunshine, or Hail Holy Queen played by skillful hands on an old church organ, or sunset over lake Michigan.
I’m not sure about you, but this human soul has a knack for self-absorption, for getting lost in the everyday. There are countless antidotes, but since I even like my cough medicine to be cherry flavored, it won’t surprise anyone who knows me to learn the antidote I prefer is the one easiest to swallow. The next time I am lost in “Shellyville”–self-assertion, self-absorbed world with sentences that all begin “I am”– will someone please remind me to get out my photo album from the October break trip to Arizona? That should remind me who I am—and who God is.
“Like Augustine, we burn for the embrace of the Beauty that is always the same and always new. That burning, which God himself has built into us, is the beginning of every prayer.” –George Weigel
P.S. Did I mention I had a great vacation? Tom, Nick, Drew, and Zach…………you guys rock my socks off. Oh, and God? Yeah, you really seemed to find your groove artistically when you got busy with the state of Arizona. Just saying. Nice work there. Love you.