The Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Meditations for a Lenten Quiet Day
These meditations were given at St Stephen's Episcopal Church, Providence, Rhode Island on March 18, 2017. The handout for the meditations may be downloaded here.
Two weeks ago the whole world heard a speech that was delivered before two important bodies. This speech has been widely reported to have been full of “alternative facts,” deception, and unparalleled hubris. Clips from this speech are played over and over again and people are still talking about it. And if I had to guess, they will be talking about it for a long time. Of course I am referring to the First Sunday in Lent and the first lesson from Genesis. The serpent delivered the speech. The two bodies being Adam and Eve, and the alternative facts and hubris coming from the distortion of God’s command to Adam to not eat the fruit or touch the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Perhaps long relegated the domain of the quaint and childish in our memories, I think we oftentimes hear this story with images of cartoon drawings of Adam and Eve wading through lush vegetation with strategically placed locks of hair, Eve holding a Red Delicious Apple, while a suspicious looking green snake drops down from the branches, speaking through his forked tongue the lies about God, death, and wisdom. I think this story deserves and demands constant revisiting. My invitation today is that we work through those childhood memories, as formative as they might have been, and give this story perhaps more weight than it might have held for us. My invitation during this Quiet Day is that we listen to what happened, see how it informs our current plight as Christians, and finally, see how it is all brought together in the Liturgy for Good Friday.
I’ve given you a copy of Ruben and Breughal’s vision of the Garden of Eden. I like this version not only because it has just about every exotic animal you can think of in the foreground; peacocks, lions, tigers, monkeys, turtles, there’s even an alligator just under the cow on the right side, but I also like it because it shows the Garden of Eden on a much larger scale than our childhood Bible story books. The Garden stretches for miles and the tree tops go as far as we can see. I like this because it reminds us that the tree in the center of the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, wasn’t the only tree there. In fact, in this painting the tree is lovely, but we don’t get the impression that it is remarkably so. The trees around it are perhaps just as impressive.
This helps focus our attention as to what was really going on. It wasn’t as if Adam and Eve were famished and circled the forbidden tree like vultures waiting on a wounded animal to breathe its last. In fact, this tree apparently wasn’t an issue for Adam and Eve before Chapter 3. So it took the initiative of the serpent to call their attention to the tree and its fruit. The serpent changed their focus. Is this not the definition of temptation: the invitation to look away from heavenly things?
The serpent asked Eve to take another look at the fruit of the tree and when she did, she noticed that it was “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise.” It was good. It was beautiful. It offered truth.
The good, the beautiful, and the true are among the classic transcendentals of ancient philosophy. As transcendentals, they are universal forms that transcend categorization. They are objective realities that are not beholden to our subjective whims.
Plato focused on the good as the highest form. Aristotle elevated beauty. Demosthenes held a lantern and searched for an honest man; he elevated the true. The good, the beautiful, and the true are not simply philosophical ideas, they find their origin and their perfection in God. God alone is Goodness. God is Truth. God is Beauty. And if there is anything here in this life that we can call good or true or beautiful, it is only because it participates in the life and light of God.
Today I would like us to consider these transcendentals. I would like us to consider them in Eden, in our current context, and on Good Friday, which will be the roadmap of these Quiet Day reflections.
I started to think seriously about the good, the beautiful, and the true, after hearing Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron address the transcendentals in his call for renewed evangelism, especially as we see a rise in New Atheism. I think getting comfortable talking about God requires that we get comfortable thinking about God. We need to challenge ourselves and go deeper. We need to know our own story and lift it higher than the felt-board Sunday School class lesson and see the confidence the story has in itself, because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel isn’t afraid of the hard questions and challenges. The Gospel isn’t afraid because it isn’t threatened.
Bishop Barron, at least for me, has brought the good, the true, and the beautiful to a new time. I think meditation on these transcendentals will open up new avenues for our own faith and give us the intellectual confidence and good pastoral sense to engage others to invite them to know and love the Lord Jesus.
If I wanted to talk about the truth of God, or the story of the Fall of humanity and the realities of sin, I might have your attention, but I wouldn’t have the attention of someone outside the Church, of whom we are especially concerned. But if I give you a print of Ruben’s Garden of Eden and asked you to tell me what you see, then we have the beginnings of a real conversation. In doing this we make beauty the door for the good and the true. If we were to leave this church and go out on the campus of Brown and start telling people who walk by what was good, immediately their defenses will raise. “Who are you to tell me what is good?” The same thing would be, and perhaps to a greater rancor, if we dared to tell people what was true. “What is true for you is not true for me.” Shields are raised and there is no conversation and oftentimes there can be no conversation without an agreed point of reference, universals, and vocabulary. We shout past one another. But if we invited them to come into St Stephen’s and examine the art in this church, we might get some polite no-thank-yous, but we would get some takers. Some would come into the church and look out of curiosity or appreciation for what is beautiful.
I notice on social media when friends of mine, who I know for a fact are not religious, travel to Europe, they will visit churches. Not because they have a desire to pray, but because they are drawn by beauty. You can’t go to Barcelona and not see La Sagrada Familia. You can’t go to Rome and not visit St Peter’s Basilica. You can’t go to London and not visit Westminster Abbey. These are structures that are built with and on faith. They contain the Good, the True, and the invite with the Beautiful.
But what makes something good, beautiful, or true? On one hand, and I’m sympathetic to this position, we can borrow a line from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 and say with conviction, “I know it when I see it.” That may very well be the case, but meditation on and exploration of the meanings and definitions of the transcendentals not only raises our appreciation for them, but they invite us closer to Our Lord, which is, after all, their design.
I also think serious examination of the good, true, and beautiful is needed to counter what is giving our nation and world great anxiety at the moment. We can’t agree on what the truth is. As much as we may poke fun at terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news,” they do identify suspicions and tensions that certain pre-date the current political environment. We can’t agree on what is good. We can’t agree on what is good for the nation or good for individuals. And there’s not so much a disagreement about beauty as a rejection of it. Poetry has been replaced by Twitter. My 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son are not taught how to write in cursive. Churches that took generations and patience to build are thrown up in weeks with steel and stucco. The fabric of the building proclaims the genius of quick fabrication more than faith.
My claim is that redirection of Eden continues today. I’m not talking about the Fall in general, of course, that still continues today. Rather, I’m talking about the re-direction away from the good, the true, and the beautiful that leads us on a wild-goose chase away from our intended destination and purpose of beatitude into the emptiness of self-deceit.
Sir Ninian Comper, whom I love, once asked, “Is there such a supremacy of goodness, beauty, and truth in the present age as to mark it as distinct from the past, and demand that we invent a new expression of it?” He wrote that in 1939. He could not foresee what was to come. He could not the Second World War, with its assault on of the good, the true, and the beautiful. He could not see ISIS and their atrocities against human beings. Their casualties are not only human lives, but also literature, art, and hope in the goodness of humanity.
I don’t think I’m being too dramatic or overstating my case. The good, the true, and the beautiful are attributes of the Ever-living God. They are like God’s fingerprints, which are indelibly imprinted on our souls and all of creation. If we are looking for God, the good, the beautiful, and the true make up the powder that exposes the prints. The more we pursue what is good, true, and beautiful, the clearer God’s mark becomes for us. Likewise, the more we reject, rebel, or try to refine the good, the beautiful, and the true, the more we forget who and whose we are.
Think about the following petitions in the Litany of Penitence on Ash Wednesday:
Accept our repentance Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness of human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty. Put another way: accept our repentance for not doing good.
From all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us. Or: accept our repentance for not being true.
For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us. In other words: we have vandalized beauty.
The petitions continue: Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us…accomplish in us the work of your salvation…by the cross and passion of your Son our Lord.
Our anthropology is rooted in the corruption of the good, the true, and the beautiful through our redefinition. Our hope is the refocusing of the good, the true, and beautiful through the person of Jesus Christ. The first day of Lent not only describes the condition, but it looks toward the remedy – by the cross and passion of your Son our Lord.
Let’s go back to the garden. What was so wrong with Adam and Eve wanting to know the difference between good and evil? The answer is not that God wants to keep things from us but that God wants us to be free from the burden of having to discern what is good from evil. God himself is Goodness and if and when we dwell in him, we trust his words to be good and we trust that what is contrary to his words are evil.
God wanted Adam and Eve to enjoy him and to be freed from any burdens that would take their focus away from him. He wanted them to be more and to continue to grow in his presence and love. Adam and Eve choose freedom of indifference over freedom for excellence. Eve saw that the fruit was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desired to make one wise. She wanted the things of God on her terms.
They reached for what was good. But the goodness of God is given and not to be grabbed. They reached for what was true, but gave in to deception. They desired what was beautiful, but they ended sewing fig leaves to cover the most beautiful of God’s creation. They missed the mark of the good, the true, and the beautiful. “Missing the mark” is the definition of harmatia, the Greek word used nearly 200 times in the New Testament for sin. “For all have missed the mark and fallen short of the glory of God.”
All humanity desires the good, the true, and the beautiful, which is to say all of humanity desires God. But in our efforts to know the good, the true, and the beautiful, we miss the mark. We grab. We deceive. We cover up. Instead of embracing true freedom, the freedom we have in Christ, we enslave ourselves by demanding total autonomy.
If I may suggest, during the quiet time that follows, look again the painting by Rubens and ask yourself why is it, when we have everything we need and our cup overfloweth, that we insist on looking and reaching for what is forbidden. What voices ask us to change our focus?
When we come back, we’ll look closer at the good, the beautiful, and the true. Until then, ask yourself how you define those terms. What makes something good? How do we know what is true? What does it mean for something to be beautiful? And why would any of this matter?
Last Friday at Evening Prayer, the appointed psalms were 53-55. Psalm 53 famously begins “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.” This verse was the launching point for St Anselm as he worked out his so-called ontological argument for the existence of God. If the fool says in his heart there is no God, then the fool acknowledges what we mean by God. The fool understands what that word means. Otherwise, there could be no rejection of it.
Sometimes I wonder if we have an easier time understanding what is meant by God, as in the Creator of the Universe, the Ground of All Being, the Beginning and the End, than we do his nature. The first prayer I ever learned was at the dinner table. “God is good, God is great, let us thank him for our food.” I later learned that we said it wrong and messed up the rhyme, but that’s how I remember it. God is good. In the Black Church tradition, the ubiquitous call and response is God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.
What does it mean that God is good? What is good? The next line in Psalm 53 is “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good. God looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise, is there is one who seeks after God. Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; not, not one.”
God is good all the time, but we are corrupt and commit abominable acts. I think an important distinction needs to be made here. Notice the psalmist doesn’t say “there is no one who is good,” rather he says, “there is no one who does any good.”
Back to Genesis and the Creation story, we are told again and again that everything God made was good. The day, the night, the stars, the cattle, the creeping things, the flying birds, the vegetation, and the sea monsters, they were all good. And the pinnacle of creation, the finishing touch of creation, was man. And it was good. As created by God, we are in our nature good. Everything created by God is good, without exception. There is no Platonic dualism here. The material world is not inherently bad; it is good. Evil is not the presence of something, it is the absence of the good. So the psalmist is, course, absolutely correct when he makes the distinction between being good and doing good. We are good because we are. We do not do good because we fail to do what God made us to be.
Good is everywhere in the Bible. From the Creation story to Jesus identifying himself as the Good Shepherd. I used to think that the God was selling himself a bit short by saying creation was good, or when Jesus said he is the Good Shepherd. Shouldn’t he raise the bar just a bit? Wouldn’t it have been more accurate if God looked at creation and said this is great! Or this is superb! My 12-year-old daughter is learning the viola and she has an orchestra competition coming up soon. On the way to school the other day she was giving me the different categories of judgment for their performance. If I remember correctly, it was poor, fair, good, excellent, and superior. Good is in the middle. It seems and suggests average.
But that doesn’t work in the table blessing prayer, does it? God is average, God is better than average, let us thank him for our food (which depending on who prepared it might be poor, fair, good, excellent, or superior!).
So we must assume God is not trying to be falsely humble and that “the good” implies something far more than average. Aristotle began his Nicomachean Ethics by asserting that everything is done for some good. Therefore the good is that which all things aim.
Since you are here today, you are here in hopes of some good. Maybe that good is a deeper connection to your Lenten disciplines. Maybe that good is deepening of your faith. Maybe that good is to get out of the house. Whatever it is, we do not do things to bring us closer to a greater evil, but to a greater good. Right? Even those things that end up being evil were initially begun with the hopes of the good. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Thomas Aquinas says that the good is perfection. It is the intended end of a thing. And the closer we get to perfection, the more we can say that something is good. So the reason why all things aim or point to some good is because we in our very nature are created to see our creator. I have three children and I’ve been blessed to be present and active at the birth of all three, an amazing and terrifying experience. Each time I am amazed at how unnecessary I really am during the event. As much as I would never want my wife to give birth without the doctors and nurses (my wife is a Labor and Delivery nurse herself), I am also amazed at how really unnecessary the medical staff is during a routine birth. That child is going to come out. The mother is going to push. No instructions are needed. And when the child comes in the daylight, she is hungry and she instinctively knows how to suck and swallow, even though she has never done it before. It is a short, but important journey up her mother’s body to gaze into the eyes of the one that gave her life in the womb and will give her life from her breast. We are created to know our Creator. We long for the good because God alone is truly good. God alone is perfect.
Aquinas said that for something to be perfect, it needs to exist, need no auxiliary attributes, and fulfill its purpose. Especially during Lent, I find myself craving steak. What is a good steak? It’s one that exists, for a steak that is on my plate is far better than one that only exists in my mind. A good steak needs nothing to help it. It doesn’t need to be heated up or cooked longer or A.1. Steak Sauce. And it fulfills its purpose, in this case, it fills me up. If we have those things present, we end the meal with great satisfaction saying that was a good meal.
God is the ultimate good because he alone is. He is existence itself (all things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being). He is wonderfully simple, in that nothing needs to be added. And he is the beginning and end of all things. He is perfect. He is good.
St Catherine of Sienna said, “Be who God meant for you to be and you will set the world on fire.” To be good is to exist and we exist by the grace of God. We are good when nothing else is required. This happens when we truly and completely rest in God, for we need nothing else. And we are good when we reach our end, to be happy in the love of God.
Being who God meant for us to be is to grow in goodness. That’s not a simple reduction into simply doing good works, but rather a journey toward beatitude, blessedness. Happiness that is only found when we rest in the love of God.
This, I think, is a helpful understanding of good. The good is always connected with the divine purpose in mind. Creation was good because it reflects the glory of God, that’s tis end. The same is true for us, as the crowning achievement of God’s creation. But our acts are good when they bring us to God and proclaim God’s love.
That gives us reason to pause and consider what we think is good. If I spend the night at the homeless shelter just so I can brag about it on social media, was that act good? It certainly helped the homeless, but did it help us? Am I brought closer to God and do I have a better understanding of beatitude? Or if I give ten percent of my income to St Stephen’s (and I thank you on behalf of your rector) only so I can write it off on my taxes, is that act good? St Stephen’s benefits, but do you?
Was this not what Our Lord rails against every Ash Wednesday in the Gospel? Surely he is not against giving alms or fasting, but if you are going to do it, do it so that it moves your closer to God – to the good.
In the Garden, Eve and Adam took the fruit. It was good for food, but it was not a good act. For instead of bringing them closer to God, it sent them into exile.
We tend to think of the good in regards to what is accomplished in the act and with the object. We are asked to think of the good in regards what it does to us and where it takes us.
No, no one does good on our own, the psalmist is right. But in Christ, he acts in us. Remember what St Paul said, “It is not longer I that lives, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2.20). The more we move closer to him and allow his acts to be ours, the more we live and act in the good.
The true is a bit trickier and that is perhaps why we have such a difficult time with it. It would seem that the true would be the easiest of the three transcendentals. We’ve just seen how an act might be good in one way but bad in another, so it’s not always that straightforward. We can anticipate the ambiguity that beauty might bring, as we like to say its definition is in the eye of the beholder. But the true should be obvious. One would think it either is or it isn’t. But we are suspicious.
Think back to all the movies whose plots are built on the fleeting definition of truth. I think of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” The television show the X-Files was loved by fans wearing t-shirts that read “The truth is out there.” The Matrix movies of the late 90s and early 2000s grabbed our attention by challenging what our senses have told us to be true and that maybe we live in a computer-simulated reality. We could easily spend the whole day coming up with and recounting great movies, televisions shows, plays (The Music Man), and novels that tap into this.
We could take a break and walk over to Starbucks and grab a paper and read the headlines and see debates about the truth. Watergate in politics, Deflategate in Sports, Wikileaks, fake news, alternative facts, it depends on what is is, and so on and so on, we are well versed in the battle over the true.
Aquinas said there are two ways something can be true. Either the intellect conforms to the object or the object conforms to the intellect. I think the explanation is easier than the definition.
When the intellect or mind conforms to the object, Aquinas is simply saying that the mind sees the facts as they are. It is what it is. I see you sitting in the chair. My mind conforms – understands – what is in front of me. I know the truth when I conform to the facts. I speak truth when I correctly state the facts. This is known as the correspondence theory of truth; our minds correspond to the facts. I understand we can create some complexities to that, but for today don’t bring them up, after all, this is a Lenten Quiet Day. Let’s just focus on the facts and how our minds conform to them.
The other way for something to be true is when the object conforms to the intellect. Now, this one takes a bit of thought, and I’m going to do my best to make it simple, but I think it quickly makes sense. When I was writing these reflections, I did my best to rub the paint off the delete button. I did a lot of editing, mostly in the form of deleting words, sentences, and paragraphs. I did this because the words on the screen did not conform to the idea in my mind. These reflections existed in my mind before they were on the screen, before they were printed on paper, and before they were given here today. These reflections are true, not in the sense of facts, but of being, when they conform to what pre-existed in my mind.
Or the painter, who looks at the canvas and says, “this is not right.” How can she know it’s not right unless she already knows what it is supposed to be? It’s not true until it matches the form in her mind.
But what Aquinas really got at was that something is true if it conforms to the mind of God. A thing becomes its truest self when it does what God intended it to do and be. You see how the good and the true work together on this? The good is the desire to be perfect, to be what God intended. The closer to get to this, the more we are said to be true.
John Milbank suggests that, according to Aquinas, when we move toward our teleos, our end, we are copying in our own manner. As God is the beginning and end of all things, if we too, move toward our end, which is our perfection, we are conforming to the mind of God. And what is the mind of God but being itself?
Let’s go back to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, where we can see the subtlety and wiles of the devil in full display. When the serpent said to Eve that she would not die when eating of the fruit, there was a certain truth there in regards to the facts. When she touched the fruit and took a bite, her life did not end, at least certainly not in the sense that she and we imagined it could. The mind conforms to the facts; she did not die. That was true. But that statement was void of truth in that neither Eve nor the serpent were moving towards their end, their teleos. This was not what God intended, it did not conform to the mind of God and therefore there was no real truth.
So to search for and elevate what is true, we have to first understand our purpose. And we know our purpose by searching the mind of God.
This is where our Lenten self-examinations and visits to the confessional come in. They help correct the redirections from the times we’ve been spun around by sin. The philosopher Seneca said that a sailor without a destination cannot discern a good wind from a bad one. If we don’t know where we are supposed to be, then we can have no idea if we are moving in the right or wrong direction. Confession and self-examination bring us to the truth about ourselves and God when we are shown where we are in relation to where we are supposed to be.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the fulfillment of all things. He is the beginning and the end. He is goodness and he is truth.
Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free, Jesus said. Know who and whose we are, know where we are supposed to go, and burdens and shackles of life fall off. We are free.
In this next time of silence, might I suggest that you ponder your teleos; your intended end? And in doing so, think about your desires and your understanding of the good and how it compares to what Thomas Aquinas is offering. Think especially about your motivations.
Likewise, contemplate what is true. Not only how our minds conform to the facts, but more importantly how we and world conform to the mind of God. What is false? What is true?
What are the things given to us by the Church that helps us do good and know truth?
Cardinal Newman wrote: “It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection-short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones… We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic-not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings-but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound-we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.
He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.”
I think this is both good and true.
I think one of the reasons why the number of people seeking the sacrament of confession has declined is due to Facebook. While there is no absolution promised, people will share all of their thoughts and actions online; the good, the bad, and the ugly. As irritating as social media can be; and I’ve heard Facebook described as the return of ancient Egypt, everyone is putting writing things on walls and worshipping cats, and I’ve heard the Twitter is where you fall in love with people you’ve never met while Facebook is where you start to hate people you’ve known your entire life, people do tend to say what they think online.
For me as a parish priest, I learn a lot about my people. I learn what they are doing on Sunday mornings instead of being in church, I learn that they don’t abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent, and I know who they voted for. (I also discover wonderful things about them, too). The most helpful thing for me is to discover how they think and how they think about God.
A few years ago, a young lady was on vacation with her family. I think they were on a river cruise. During the vacation, the young woman kept posting pictures of exquisite churches on Facebook. Her friends, whom I gathered weren’t great church goers either, liked the pictures and commented on them. Under one of the pictures, a German cathedral I think, she said, “If churches looked like this back home, I’d never miss a Sunday.”
For 122 days a year, my parish runs an emergency overflow shelter for homeless women in our community. Our parish hall is transformed every night into one large bedroom. We are in our third season and we’ve developed powerful relationships with our guests. They arrive every night at 7:30 and they leave in the morning around 6. This past Christmas Eve, the guests were, of course, invited to attend Midnight Mass. Four of them made, I think. I don’t know for sure because they all left after the homily. Not because of the homily (at least that’s what I tell myself) but they were tired and they complained that there was too much smoke and they didn’t understand the church. There were no Bibles in the pews and they thought the baptismal font was a bird bath!
These two vignettes drive home the point that before we can hear anything about what is good and certainly before we can hear anything about what is true, our minds and souls have already looked to see what is beautiful. Beauty isn’t simply an opinion as to what is pleasing to the senses or not, even though there is that. Beauty, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar put it, “dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the good and the true and their inseparable relation to one another.”
Beauty is the universal translator that articulates to the scholar and the simple the true meaning of the good and the true. From the poor to the professor, beauty makes the good and the true intelligible. Aquinas understood the transcendentals to be convertible. Where you have beauty, there is also goodness. Where you have goodness, you have truth. The child or the childlike may not understand or have any desire to understand our previous discussion on teleology or conforming to the mind of God, but they know what is beautiful. They may not know why or even care, but they know what’s beautiful and what looks like an out of place bird bath.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar began his great work of theology by beginning with beauty. The philosopher always ends with beauty, he says, implying it is subordinate, if not in theory certainly in practice. “Beauty,” he said, “is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach…No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will now allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”
This was nearly 60 years ago. So if we are concerned about the ambiguity or lack of goodness and truth in the hearts and minds of men and women, perhaps that is because we have thumbed our nose at beauty and she has sabotaged the whole moral order until we come to senses and give her what is due.
I must admit a bit of insecurity in defining beauty. Here I completely take Justice Stewart’s approach and say “I know it when I see it.” But ultimately this is not helpful because what I may see as beautiful, someone else may see as ordinary or even grotesque. I may not like the bird bath font in my parish, just like our homeless guests, but I know for a fact there are many who think it is very beautiful. How can we take beauty seriously and talk about her in a way that moves beyond personal taste?
It’s a question that young Lynch asked Stephen in James Joyce’s, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. After describing the philosophical view of beauty, Stephen asks Lynch if that was all clear.
“But what is beauty,” asked Lynch impatiently. “Out with another definition. Something we see and like! Is that the best you and Aquinas can do?” “Let us take woman,” Stephen said. “Let us take her! Lynch said fervently.
Stephen does go on to say that Thomas Aquinas said that beauty includes three things: integritas, consonantia, and claritas. Integrity, harmony, and radiance. Integritas is the oneness of a thing, consonantia is the fact that it is a thing held in harmony, and claritas is the radiance of a thing.
We must remember that Aquinas was referring to Jesus when he was describing beauty. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man – he has integritas. Consonantia is the fact that the Jesus is the express image of the Father. Jesus has claritas because he is the light of the world.
I think this explains why a woman who has lived a long, long life and has all the lines and wrinkles to prove it is beautiful, while a middle-aged man who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery, ironically is not. Integrity, harmony, and radiance. The wrinkles of the old woman show the harmony of a life lived. Which makes her face true. Where there is truth there is also beauty.
That’s why the soldier who has returned from war with one leg or a patch over his eye is undeniably beautiful even though he is not the immediate image for a magazine cover. There is truth. His body perfectly expresses his life. There is no pretense. There are lies. It is true, good, and beautiful.
And finally, that is how Jesus Christ is beautiful of the cross. This is how Julian of Norwich can look at Jesus on the cross and say “I saw his sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with the pallor of dying, and then deadly pale, languishing, and then the pallor turning blue and then the blue turning brown, as death took more hold upon his flesh.”
She writes of his sufferings and his blood and pain and yet she longs to see it and to comprehend its everlasting beauty. How can this be beautiful? Yes, it has integritas, consonantia, and claritas, but it’s still a man dying.
Plato once said that to encounter beauty is to be shocked emotionally and therefore leave his shell to be attracted to something other than himself. Cardinal Ratzinger took this further and said to encounter beauty is to be wounded. Beauty is the arrow that wounds us that causes us to open our eyes and contemplate that which is beyond us. Beauty is the compunction of heart that opens us to the good and the true.
Jesus on the Cross wounds us with his own wounds. We are shocked out of ourselves because we cannot take our eyes off of him. He is integritas, consonantia, and claritas. He is integrity, harmony, and radiance. He is the good. He is the true. He is God.
The Beautiful will save us, Dostoyevsky wrote. The Beauty he was referring to, is the Beauty of Christ.
The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in Good Friday
Earlier this morning I asked that we think about the good, the beautiful, and the true. What makes something good? How do we know something is true? What does it mean for something to be beautiful? We looked at the Garden of Eden and how these three transcendentals were front and center at the Fall. Finally, I asked why any of this would matter. And just to add – what does this have to do with Lent?
I think the good, the beautiful, and the true give us the aesthetical framework to observe a Holy Lent.
In his Rule, St Benedict says that the life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. That is the ideal, but even for monks that is a tall order. So Quadragesima, Lent, should be the time to make up for all the failures throughout the rest of the year. To do this, he says that we should give up all vices, the read, to pray with tears, and have compunction of heart.
To give up vices – the good.
To read and pray with tears – the true.
To have compunction of heart – to be wounded with beauty.
The transcendentals help move us beyond a check-list of things that we should do and the things we should not do and instead help us to focus on our end. They help us to focus not so much on what we should be doing, but where we should be going. As we have (hopefully) seen, the think on the good, the true, and the beautiful in this way is to always think of our end, our purpose, which is the beatific vision, which is to rest in the love of God for ever. Therefore when Lent is over, the spirit shouldn’t be, as Benedict says.
My issue as a parish priest is that so often Lenten Disciplines are seen as spiritual punishments or even games that are completely removed once the Easter Feast arrives. They are not always viewed as intensified acts (which should be year round) during the season to move us further and further into Our Lord. We see this in the Prayer Book. All Fridays of the year are days of self-denial, not just the ones in Lent. But since we are fragile people, we make sure we do it in Lent which the hopes that we have the strength to also do it in June.
We can see Confession in a different light. We haven’t been caught passing notes in class and Confession is having the read the note to the teacher. Confession is the Church’s gift to help us understand where we went off the road and how to get back toward God. Confession helps us in a profound way understand the good, the true, and the beautiful.
But I also want us to see Lent and its culmination in Good Friday as part of the reversal of Eden. I pray that as you attend Good Friday this year, you will see how the good, the true, and the beautiful radiate through the liturgy.
For the name of the day itself speaks to our meditations today. The origin of the name “Good Friday” isn’t terribly clear. I’ve always heard that it was a corruption of God’s Friday, but just a little digging around yielded little evidence. I think we are allowed to take the name as it is. Good. Children always ask, and rightfully so, if this is the day Our Lord died and we mark this day with a somber, solemn ceremony, and if this is the day when all the altar are cold and we have communion only from the Reserved Sacrament, then why is it called good?
In East Coker, T.S. Eliot wrote:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
In the fruit, Eve saw that it was good for food. In the Holy Eucharist, the bloody flesh is our own food.
If the good is what all things desire, we see an even greater desire on the Cross. We see God’s desire for us which is far greater than our desire for Him. On the Cross, we see perfect love. We see perfect sacrifice. We see the end of the reign of sin and death. This perfection and completion is the good.
Indeed, Our Lord says it plainly at the moment of his death, “It is finished.” It is complete. It is good.
Every year on Good Friday, our lectionary cycle pauses and we hear the passion from St John. In our tradition, the Passion is sung in parts. I am always struck by the words of Pilate:
“Are you the king of the Jews?”
“I am not a Jew am I? What have you done?”
“So you are a king?”
“Here is the man!”
“What is truth?”
If the true is what conforms to the mind of God, we see the mind of God on the cross. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him may never perish but have everlasting life.”
The mind of God sees his creation reconciled in love and resting in his eternal happiness. In uniting ourselves with his Passion, we are restored with him and to each other. The fear of death has been destroyed and we are no longer enslaved by our fears of mortality. We imitate God by living into our end. We live into our end by dying to ourselves and beginning our new life in him, through water and the Spirit. In my end, is my beginning.
When Eve and Adam took the fruit, they desired wisdom, to know the difference of good and evil. On the cross we see both hanging on the wood. We see the evil of the world and the goodness of God. Knowing him, we know all.
In the first lesson from Isaiah on Good Friday, we hear
“Just as there were many who were astonished at him
--so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals--
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.”
The fruit in the Garden was pleasing to the eyes. But that pleasure led their eyes to be cast down and see their own form and to be ashamed and to cover it up. They were not moved, through compunction of heart, to seek to love something other than themselves.
Jesus is beautiful on the cross. Not because it is pleasurable to our eyes, but because it is both goodness and truth. His pain is difficult to watch, his agony is terrible to behold, but his love is captivating. Good Friday shows us a different kind of beauty, a kind that cuts through the glossy, plastic, fleeting, and destructive beauty we seek today.
This beauty is radiant through its ugliness. It has harmony as it holds the world’s salvation in one place, and it is the image of the Invisible God.
There is an old story that says when Adam was dying, his son Seth went to the entrance of Eden. He begged the angel to let him have some of the Oil of Mercy to anoint his fading father. The Archangel Michael denied his request, but instead gave him three seeds from the Tree of Life. When his father saw the seeds, a piece of Eden, he was so comforted he could die in peace, which he did. Seth buried the seeds in his father’s mouth, as instructed by the Archangel.
From those seeds a sapling grew, and then, a tree which absorbed the blood of Adam.
Before the Flood, Noah dug up the tree and found Adam’s skull. He put the tree and the skull on the Ark. After the waters subsided, Noah planted the tree at Mt. Hermon and the skull, he buried on a hill. That hill was later called Golgotha, the place of skull.
This, according to the tradition, is where the wood of the cross entered the ground. As the cross entered the earth, it reached the buried skull. As Our Lord died, his blood ran down the wood of the cross and onto and over the skull of Adam. The blood of Our Lord has covered all of humanity, going back to the beginning.
From John Donne’s:
We think that Paradise and Calvarie,
Christs Cross and Adams tree, stood in one place;
Looke, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adams sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adams blood my soule embrance.
This is the reason why in iconography, at the base of the cross, there is a skull. It reminds us of what was lost and what was won through the good, the true, and the beautiful.