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Custodians of Beauty


"This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands... Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world." 
-Pope Paul VI to artists (December, 1965)

I have begun reading Christopher West's "Fill these Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing" and this book has gotten me thinking about beauty. True beauty. Not the flawed perception of beauty that we are often inundated with whenever we look at a magazine rack. The beauty I am talking about is not emaciated and it does not require breast enhancements, gallons of make up, and clothing that are designed to make you look more naked than the young woman in "September Morn" by Paul Emile Chabas (a once-scandalous painting that is probably more tasteful than most of what we see on television today). I am talking about the beauty that serves as a reminder of eternity. I'm talking about the transcendent beauty that reminds us of how we are far more than just a collection of atoms. This is the beauty that has been defended time and time again by the Church. We have defended it against the Jansenist heresies of old...and we defend it today against those who wish to pass off their own distorted perceptions of beauty as true beauty. 

As difficult as it may be to defend true beauty in an age where so many people are willing to accept even the most shallow perceptions of beauty as the real deal...there are still plenty of people out there who can defend beauty. The artists of the world defend beauty whenever they use their God-given talent to propagate beauty and inspire others to see the beauty that's been revealed to them. Any artist that abuses their talents for the sake of making headlines with shocking pieces of "art" (I won't dignify any of these "artists" with a mention here), fails at protecting beauty. They also fail at defending the very thing that they were born to care for and protect. 

Fortunately for us, there are artists that understand the significance of beauty...and these artists will guard it, defend it, and allow it to flourish. They will use their talents to achieve great things...and I will forever be grateful for these artists. Why? Well, these are the artists that will help fulfill Dostoyevsky's prophecy that
"beauty will save the world." It is artists like these that inspire generations of people to look to the heavens when the world tries to get them down. These artists help remind us that we are more than just a number, more than just a collection of atoms, more than just sinners in the hands of an angry God. These artists create magnificent works that remind us of how God created us out of love. They remind us of how God loves us and how we are made in his image. They remind us of how we were created to appreciate the beauty of his works. They remind us how God created us to feel love, to feel longing, to feel wonder, to feel awe, and to feel JOY. These artists help evoke the longing that is in our hearts...the longing for beauty, love, wonder, awe. In short, they evoke our longing for God. As St. Augustine once put, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

I don't know about you, but the artists behind the following works have re-awoken a lot of the restlessness I have felt over the years: 

"The Second Coming" and "The Nativity"
Saints Anne and Joachim Catholic Church in Fargo, North Dakota
Stained glass by Conrad Pickel Studio
"Creation and Baptism"
"Abraham and Sarah"

"The Last Supper" and "The Wedding at Cana"
My friends and family, regardless of religion, can attest to the fact that I tend to bring back some pretty Catholic souvenirs whenever I go abroad. Why? Well, I am drawn to cathedrals and churches that have invested in beauty. I love the stained glass, the wisps of incense smoke that rise to the heavens, the cascades of wax dripping from candles, the statues that were made with love and care, the hard wooden pews, the intricately carved stones, the majestic arches, the powerful hymns, the reverberating echoes of organ music, and the list goes on. Don't get me wrong, God always comes first when I enter a church...so you won't catch me ever disrespecting the the holiness of a cathedral, etc. Regardless of where I go, this beauty beckons me and I am like a moth drawn to a flame. As a result, a good amount of my sightseeing adventures involve these amazing, holy places. I passed by the Eiffel tower, walked the Great Wall of China, watched ships cross the Panama Canal, and done quite a few other remarkable things in remarkable places. However, nothing has moved me like the artwork in these cathedrals. 

People tend to talk smack about the Church for having so many beautiful things.....but they don't realize that there is much more out there than material poverty. There is spiritual poverty. There is emotional poverty. You get the idea. No amount of melting down and pawning off will ever feed these forms of poverty. In the same way, you cannot replace awe-inspiring art with money. Doing so would only leave us in a bleak, artless world where money becomes a replacement for beauty. You cannot simply come up with a replacement for something so necessary and integral as beauty...because WE ARE WIRED FOR IT. We are meant to love it, be inspired by it, and pursue it....because it brings us that much closer to God and helps us keep grasping at eternity even during the bleakest times. Therefore, I think it is best that the Church continue to be custodian to these pieces of art...because they will continue to feed our hunger for beauty and wonder for centuries to come. Likewise, I think it is best that we continue to support and encourage artists all over the world to use their talents for good.

With that said, I cannot stress enough just how important it is for artists to respect their talents and to use their talents. I know I may not be the next Michelangelo, but I know I am a custodian of beauty in my own right...and I will keep trying to do what all artists are called to do.

"Dear artists, as I draw to a conclusion, I too would like to make a cordial, friendly and impassioned appeal to you, as did my Predecessor. You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty! Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful."

Now go forth and be worthy of your talents, be custodians of beauty!

Pax Vobiscum

For more examples of the BEAUTIFUL work by Conrad Pickel Studio, Inc...please refer to their site here. They also do mosaic and sculptures. If you know of anyone in need of great artwork for churches, cemeteries, etc. I would definitely refer these people...their work is simply AMAZING.

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