Beauty transformed my soul—waking it up from the depths of hibernation and shaking loose the layers of grief, bitterness, and resentment which had grown over time. My heart could not resist the lure of cobblestone streets, golden light cascading down narrow alleyways, or the shadows of the towering cathedral. I felt alive during those months abroad in a way I had hardly known was possible. Afternoon jogs on an ancient Roman bridge. Secret courtyards and hidden gardens overlooking the city. Tucked-away alcoves and incense emanating from ancient chapels. A croissant shop with an expansive menu that dared me to try them all.
I did, by the way, try them all. I had goals like that while I was studying abroad. For the first time in many years, the over-achiever A-student was not living for grades and recognition. She was living for experience, for delight, for beauty. And in this was a newfound freedom. I remember sitting in the cavernous cathedral of Salamanca for long stretches between classes breathing in the music that played softly between services and basking in the magnanimous splendor. Moments like this made me long for something outside and above myself, though I could not precisely say what or why. Only later would I come realize it was the Bridegroom Nicholas Cabasilas writes of in “The Life in Christ” calling me to glimpse the eternal I was created for.
Cabasilas explains, “When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound."
Beauty wounded me that semester in a delightful way. It awakened my heart with a longing to reach for what transcends human experience: the eternal. My experience living abroad enabled me to delight in creation and life in a way people seldom do or ever get the chance to. And this knowledge humbled me profoundly.
“I do not deserve this,” I thought many times throughout my studies abroad. What had I done to earn the experience of such majesty? The short answer: nothing. It was sheer, unmerited gift. I knew almost immediately who the gift givers were. First: my parents, who had spent their lives providing for their children and modeling servant leadership and sacrificial love. It was because of them and their contributions to my education that I was able to study abroad in the first place. The other gift giver: God himself—the author of beauty.
It was in this way that God revealed himself to me personally and began to bring me back to himself.
The famous line from Dostoevesky, “Beauty will save the world” started for me that fall in Spain. Beauty saved me. God, beauty itself, the author of beauty, created us with a desire to grasp at and experience beauty in order to draw us closer to himself.
Beauty is sheer gift—unnecessary by logical standards and not necessarily functional or efficient. It does more than just appeal to our senses: it awakens our soul. It is meant to draw us outside of ourselves with what Cardinal Ratzinger at the time called a “longing for the Ineffable, [a] readiness for sacrifice, [and lead to] the abandonment of self.” Furthermore, “Beauty does not end with us or with our experience, but calls us outward on mission. Artistic beauty provokes interior emotion, it silently arouses astonishment and leads to an ‘exit from self’, an ecstasy” (Pontifical Council for Culture, Plenary Assembly Final Document-The Way of Beauty. section III.2, The Beauty of the Arts).
This was my experience exactly. I came home a different person—one overflowing with gratitude and humility. It manifested in frequent phone calls to my family, much to their concern. The formerly independent, cold, aloof daughter was calling her parents each week to say thank you and to check in. After ascertaining that my mental health was still sound, my mother offered wise advice to her daughter now bubbling with gratitude: spend 5 to ten minutes a day thanking God.
Beauty was, therefore, God’s entry point into my heart. As a result, I turned back to him in praise and thanksgiving. My friends and family noticed the transformation, the newfound peace that overflowed, the eyes now on the lookout for glimpses of the Creator hidden among his creation.
Beauty resulted in action—slow and gradual, but intentional in my remaining college years. I entered the Campus Ministry office for the first time upon my return stateside. I began making use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation weekly and sitting in the beautiful mission church of my alma mater for daily Mass. I attended retreats, began participating in service opportunities, and mentored younger students. Beauty drew me outside of myself and into the other—I had received an unmerited gift and wanted to reciprocate the giving.
As Bishop James D. Conley said at an apologetics conference, “When we begin with beauty, this can then lead to a desire to want to know the truth of the thing that is drawing us, a desire to participate in it. And then the truth can inspire us to do the good, to strive after virtue.”
Almost a decade later, as a mother of small boys, often limited to the sphere of my domestic church, how and where can I experience beauty? How can each of us, in whatever vocation we find ourselves in, find and experience beauty?
After a year in which sin, division, sickness, and isolation threatened to obscure the beauty of life and our world, I believe we are called to reclaim this truth and open our eyes to the beauty and wonder of God once again.
Beauty is not reserved for a special place or time, but can be found all around us: in the newborn’s first cry, the child’s wonder, the cicada’s song, the family dinner, the work done well, the priest’s sacrifice, the nun’s contemplative prayer, the humor of a colleague, the glowing of the stars, the dawn of a new day.
Let us allow ourselves to believe and hope in the glimmers of beauty all around us that reveal a greater beauty we are called to. Let us strive to make the world more beautiful with our kind words and gestures, deeds done with love, hope, and joy, with the way we relish life as a gift and inspire laughter, with the way we live our lives authentically—in such a way that others are drawn to the joy of our Gospel message. Why? So that the world can see and come to know him. The ultimate purpose of beauty is redemption—knowing and experiencing Christ himself.
The then-Cardinal Ratzinger put it so well, “We must learn to see him. If we know him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”