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The Beauty Of Holiness

February 21, 2020 Frontpage No Comments


What is it that makes us stop and pause in wonder when we read a particularly moving anecdote about a saint? What is it about a particular painting or statue of our Lady that inflames us with love for her? Why is it that news of thousands turning out to venerate the visiting relic of a famed saint or the particular story of a miraculous cure wrought through a saint’s intercession affects us so deeply? In all these circumstances the human heart is responding to something to which it is so receptive — beauty.
One of the great insights of Dietrich von Hildebrand is his identification of the practice of the virtues and the carrying out of heroic, courageous, or deeply generous deeds as manifestations of beauty — that such actions are objectively beautiful and strike us as so when we witness them in others.
An encounter with beauty on this very deep level has the power to change the course of our lives, whether it be as we are quietly reading the biography of a saint or by the Providence of God we happen to be present to witness an extraordinarily noble deed.
Yet this is true also of simpler acts of virtue as well. Many of us can attest to having been deeply touched by simple acts of piety we have witnessed while in church. We see a person walk in who upon entering not only genuflects but even bows down to kiss the floor out of reverence for the infinitely sacred presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
We see in the subdued light of the church at the foot of the sanctuary the silhouette of a person wrapt in prayer, manifestly drawn into an intense, tender, and intimate conversation with God. We observe another soul kneeling before a statue of a saint reaching up to touch the foot of the image in earnest supplication for some pressing need. Or perhaps it is a young mother or father we notice explaining in hushed whispers to a small child who it is that we come to visit in the Tabernacle. The sight of such things strengthens our own faith. And these things are truly beautiful.
The acts of piety of a child particularly move us and are especially beautiful, for they are the effusions of a young soul still largely bathed in the unsullied sunlight of purity and innocence.
My late mother used to tell me the story of how on one occasion as she was praying in the front pew before the Blessed Sacrament a little girl came up to light votive candles before a side altar. When the little girl crossed the front aisle, she ducked low as she passed in front of my mother. It was obvious that she was making an effort not to “get between” my mother and God while my mother was “talking” to Him in the Tabernacle. By this simple gesture the child was expressing an understanding of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament far exceeding that of many of our modern theologians.
The biographies of the saints abound in anecdotes that are truly beautiful. Countless examples could be given, but I will cite just one from the life of the “native New Yorker” St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680). Among the Jesuit missionaries who came to know and understand this remarkable young woman most profoundly were Fr. Peter Cholenec (1641-1723) and Fr. Claude Chauchetiere (1645-1709).
Recalling Kateri’s unceasing hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, Fr. Chauchetiere observed that “the church was the place where one would most often find her.” Even the extremes of a Canadian winter at its worst did not deter her from getting to the church, having made the journey barefooted through the snow. On such occasions, fearful for her health, Fr. Cholenec sought to give her a respite she would not give herself — but to no avail:
“Often, seeing her whole body frozen, I was impelled to make her leave the church and enjoy the warmth of the fire with us; but a moment later she would escape me, saying with a smile that she was not cold, to return to the place where she had left her heart” (The Positio of the Historical Section of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on the Introduction of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization and on the Virtues of the Servant of God Katharine Tekakwitha. The Lily of the Mohawks, New York, Fordham University Press, 1940/2002, documents 8 and 10, pp. 188, 292).

The Windows Of The Soul

Most of us can attest to the powerful role that images of our Lady and the saints have played in our spiritual lives. Here too, the actual beauty of an image can make a big difference. In his recent book, Beauty: What It Is and Why It Matters, John-Mark Miravalle makes a very insightful point in discussing the incomparable beauty of the Blessed Virgin that “the human form is the most beautiful of all physical objects because it expresses a spiritual person” (Beauty: What It Is and Why It Matters, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 2019, p. 142).
In other words, the human body is endowed by God with a unique beauty surpassing that of any other physical object in creation because unlike anything else in the physical universe it is the habitation of an immortal soul and as St. Paul tells us “the Temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). And even though the body is merely physical and the soul that inhabits it is spiritual and therefore invisible, the presence of the soul within and its virtues can be powerfully communicated even in a visible manner by the body and particularly the human face, “the mirandum, or wonder of bodily expression” (Aesthetics: Volume I, Steubenville, OH, Hildebrand Project, 2016, p. 106), as Dietrich von Hildebrand observes:
“How is it possible that we see the visible traits of someone’s face and say of him that he looks very excited, profoundly sad, or radiantly happy? Thanks to the face, we learn something about what is going on in his soul at this moment, whether a psychological event, or, as sometimes happens, an experience rooted in the spiritual person” (ibid., p. 170).
It is “the case of a virtue being expressed in a person’s face, when his face and his whole being bear witness to his kindness, his purity, his humility” (ibid., pp. 105-106). In the face, the eyes, the immortal soul makes its presence felt. Its existence, very much felt. Here we see why even from everyday experience it is so absurd to deny the existence of the human soul as some do.
How can anyone who has ever looked into the eyes of a loved one, or a friend, or even a total stranger not see that there is a whole lot more there than just a physical body, and that in the eyes of a man or woman there is something that incomparably surpasses anything that can be seen in the eyes of an animal?
Those who had the privilege of seeing or meeting the saints have often testified to seeing something beyond the ordinary in the faces of these holy men and women. With the saints who have lived in more recent times, photos have often captured this. Yet what is likewise amazing, a mirandum, is that over the centuries so many artists in their paintings and sculptures have succeeded in making visible the inner life of the saints, even if they have never seen the saint they are venturing to depict.
Such is particularly so in depictions of the Blessed Virgin. Great paintings and sculptures of Mary express in the lines of her face, in her hands and even in her posture that which cannot be seen — her love, her purity, her humility, her receptivity to the will of God, and her compassion. The artists who achieve this have achieved the seemingly impossible: They have given us a vision of her all-beautiful soul. And it is this vision, this “revelation” of her, that enraptures us.
In regard to artistic depictions of the saints, perhaps the most widely known and readily discernible example is Hans Holbein’s 1528 portrait of St. Thomas More. Citing this painting, Dietrich von Hildebrand observes that such portraits “represent in an incomparable manner the personality of the person depicted” (Aesthetics: Volume II, Steubenville, OH, Hildebrand Project, 2018, pp. 231-232). All the essential traits of More’s character are in Holbein’s rendering of his face.
Something quite similar was achieved by the Spanish master Bartolome Esteban Murillo when about the year 1650 he completed his Flight into Egypt, an altarpiece painting now in the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum. What is most remarkable about this work is Murillo’s depiction of St. Joseph — in my opinion, the finest depiction of Joseph ever painted.
Laying aside the centuries-old notion that Joseph was a very old man when he married Mary, Murillo depicts him as a vigorous and valiant young man, his eyes looking about intently, staff in hand, ready to brave and thwart any danger or threat to his two most precious charges, the Christ Child and the Blessed Virgin, with courage and the determination to do God’s will.
The beauty of nature has also been artistically invoked in cinematic depictions of the saints to amplify the nobility of their lives. The beauty of sunset on the River Thames sets the stage for Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 movie realization of Robert Bolt’s play on the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons.

Melting A Stony Heart

In the autumn of 2015, many of us in the eastern and central U.S. were privileged to witness the “Pilgrimage of Mercy” tour of the body of St. Maria Goretti (1890-1902). Countless photos recorded the intense devotion that this event elicited in the hearts of thousands who came to venerate the eleven-year-old virgin martyr.
One of the most striking pictures captured a young man pressing his head to the corner of the martyr’s casket, clinging to it with his right hand as he prayed with his eyes closed in earnest supplication. In another photo, a young woman struggles to muffle her quiet sobbing with her left hand, her fingers clutching her rosary beads, as she touches a holy card to the casket with her right hand. What is being made visible here is the profound and sacred beauty and nobility of the soul on Earth interacting with the saints of Heaven.
The beauty of holiness can melt even a stony heart. As the season of Lent draws near, may the beauty of holiness draw us all toward the Heavenly Jerusalem!

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On this painful Palm Sunday I pray that we can all cling to the joy that the Lord Jesus is keeping His Promise, He is still with us. It is excruciating not to receive Him in Communion but He awaits us “in the room next to us” May Spiritual Communion place us in His Real Presence

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