Beauty will save the world” has become a well-loved cliché. But precisely what beauty is and what it is meant to save the world from are usually things left unsaid. Often enough we get the sense that capital-b “Beauty” is like some itinerant knight returning to the realm, arriving to fanfare and in full regalia, while at the same time the hostile -ism’s of the age (relativism, materialism, nihilism—take your pick) are creatively recast as the mischievous hobgoblins of the modern world just waiting to be met in battle and overcome.
Is this not all a bit of wishful—and what’s worse, unclear—thinking? Do we not flirt with bloodless, and therefore feckless, abstraction when we reach too quickly for societal (that is, political) explanations to the problems that confront us?
The dry, tasteless fruit borne by such efforts is already well known to us. We need not be detained here, for instance, by detailing the increasingly tired fight between Catholic intellectuals on the right who think modern liberal society is essentially godless and depraved and those of the same group who defend unfettered capitalism or ever-purer democracy with a religious zeal. Both these impulses, of course, focus too much on the collective at the expense of the individual. Both seek political answers to what are not simply political questions. They judge the capitalist or the modern man as a capitalist or a modern man before they judge him as the person whom he actually is.
Vague “Beauty-speak” reads from the same tired script: In the ongoing Culture War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Beauty becomes the trump card—the thing that will allow “us” to finally “win” and move on. Of course, the thinly-veiled Pelagianism driving these strategies fails to appreciate that it is not first of all our world that needs saving, but our souls.
In his thirtieth sermon on the New Testament, Saint Augustine, who had more reason than most to try to blame the troubles of his age on the vague movements of political or social forces, says something essential here: “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. [But] let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.” Or if you prefer British Prime Ministers to Doctors of the Church, recall Margaret Thatcher’s much misunderstood dictum that, “There is no such thing as society.”
A community’s political or moral life is a reflection of the inner lives of its members. We must realize this when reading the signs of the times. Materialism will not send anyone to Hell, but when I become a materialist, then I ought to be concerned for the state of my soul. Then, and only as a consequence, might I also worry about the effect of my vice on our polity.
Our willingness to project our own moral development up to the level of an amorphous Culture War is dangerous, even deadly. Abstraction and politicization conspire to sabotage the genuine (which is to say particular) cultivation of virtue. Most Christians today live their lives by metaphor, trying to signal in the ways recognized by their fellow partisans that they love the Good and hate the Bad; but this extrinsicism is made absurd by Christ Himself, for whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” and who addresses His invitation to discipleship to each of us as we are, not according to our tribe, clan, or team. It is a Christian innovation that true individualisation need not be a stumbling block to our salvation, but rather the stepladder by which we rise above our native sinfulness. Christianity’s particularism, as Larry Siedentop recently showed in his magisterial Inventing the Individual, was one of its most distinctive—and therefore most dangerous—characteristics, especially when compared to Oriental fatalism or pagan honor-based hierarchism.
Our concepts of beauty sometimes fall captive to this same martial metaphor, and thus we risk blinding ourselves to the ways in which beauty can actually help us in the particular task of moral maturation. In realizing how beauty announces itself precisely by cutting through, not conforming itself to, our man-made categories of power and strategy, our patience for and participation in the corrosive Kulturkampf withers away.
Starting afresh with this perspective in mind, we might better recognize the wisdom of St. Irineaus’ saying that that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Each person’s journey to God constitutes its own story—sometimes epic, sometimes subtle, either tragic or heroic, but always reserved to that person. And only the person in question can take the necessary steps—can say “yes” to Christ’s call to love. What Hans Urs von Balthasar called the “theo-drama” finds constant re-expression in the course of every life narrative. No political community, however just, no family, however loving, and no friend or lover, however close, can live our spiritual lives for us.
So what, then, is beautiful and what sort of effect can it have upon us? Again it is Balthasar (though he is himself drawing on the fullness of the Christian tradition) who makes clear that for the believer in Christ, beauty is not a tool but an experience—not a maneuver but a new reality. It is the visible sign of reciprocal ekstasis; the divine reaching out to us and our own outstretching back towards him. A too-strong emphasis on aesthetics is distracting here, as the dynamics of beauty are at once epistemological and affective, exhortatory while revelatory, and may have nothing to do with classical or traditional conceptions of visual appeal. Beauty does not reside simply in seeing, but in coming to see (who can strictly say that any given artistic depiction of Christ’s Passion, for instance, will move them, but also who can say that truly grasping the depth of that event—the most beautiful scene in salvation history—does not move them?). One cannot un-see the image of divine love.
To describe what beauty is is to describe its effect upon us. Thus in such a conversation there are “no ‘bare facts,’” Balthasar tells us, “which . . . one can establish like any other worldly facts without oneself being (both objectively and subjectively) gripped as to participate in the divine nature.” Paul, in Corinthians, talks about how “beholding” God results in “being transformed into the same image” (2 Cor. 3:18).
The “Catholic novel” (admittedly a phrase as often abused as it is misunderstood) gives witness to this account. Its characters have their own experiences of coming to see, of breaking out of their constricting cultural deadlocks in order to live. Sometimes this requires that they die, but the Catholic novel is always about new life. Its focus is the inner lives of its characters, and it depicts the indirect and sometimes vivid movements of grace and salvation always struggling to find expression. This kind of literature does not start with its own agenda, forcing its characters awkwardly down predetermined paths—such books are rightly called didactic or propagandistic. Rather, Catholic literature shows before telling. It respects man’s freedom to accept or reject proffered love, while always remembering God’s prior freedom to act in love. Of course, by doing so it invites us to criticise and sympathise with its characters—to condemn or praise—but only after we’ve made the effort to get to know them. This is the sort of moral particularity that our Culture Wars are incapable of respecting and in which any genuine growth must take root.
The Christian’s sensitivity to beauty, then, is not an end, but a beginning, a way of proceeding.
Fiction is uniquely equipped to train us in this way of proceeding. While the best academic treatise or confessional polemic can furnish arguments for or against certain positions, while they can shed the light of reason on questions of fundamental importance, they necessarily encourage separation between the reader and the author; the essayist or scholar can assume very little goodwill on the part of his reader, and that whole interaction is somehow adversarial, or at least transactional. A novel, on the other hand, is relational; it depends on an upfront act of charity on the part of the reader. It was Benedict XVI who called charity “love received and given;” literature professors call this the suspension of disbelief, but it amounts to the same thing: a certain ‘yes’ to another—relationship with a character other than yourself. The reader’s participation in the inner lives of the characters of a novel becomes an exercise in the compassion necessary to appreciate whatever beauty their story might reveal.
Thus, incidentally, the tendency of many Christians to take a novel and immediately ask, “Well, what does it mean?” or, “Is it morally good or bad?” or, “How can we evangelize with this?” is to somehow violate the charity we ought to show both to the book’s characters and author. It’s to treat a novel like a treatise, like a piece of ammunition in the ongoing Culture War. Likewise the fetishisation by many Christians of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fantasies—wherein the forces of good assemble valiantly against the forces of evil—tempts many readers into easy politicisation. Though both Tolkien and Lewis considered their epics to be more than straightforward allegories, many readers today understand them as just that. Our efforts at discipleship need not make us into literary ostriches, finding solace from the noisy winds of a brash world in the warm darkness of supposed orthodoxy. The Catholic is under no obligation to only read about virtuous characters—indeed, such people are hard enough to find in real life! Rather, they should take seriously the fullness of any new encounter as an opportunity to give of themselves and to be received by another; this mutual self-gift exists in an almost mystical way in our interactions with fictional characters. These interactions both directs us inwards towards introspection and outwards towards bolder expressions of Christian mercy. By means unique among various written media, fiction can serve as a powerful incubator of Christian love and charity.
It is for these reasons perhaps that Dorothy Day adored Dostoevsky and encouraged the young people around her to read classic literature.
Beyond Day’s taste for Russian novelists, those Catholics searching for good fiction have plenty of material to choose from. The works of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Dante are frequently mentioned in these sorts of lists, and for good reason. The persistent popularity of Brideshead Revisited is similarly well deserved, as it is a book of subtle brilliance and deep love. Less popular works like Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard are masterful portraits of interesting, flawed characters living in extraordinary times, while towering masterpieces like Manzoni’s The Betrothed or Cervantes’ Don Quixote stand tall in the pantheon of humane literature. There are even those authors—like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hawthorne—who exhibit certain of the same characteristics as the best “Catholic fiction” but sit more in the realm of secular popularity.
Singling out books or stories is always a risky business, then, given this embarrassment of riches. But a short story from O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge entitled “Greenleaf” illustrates well some facts relevant to our theme. O’Connor tells of the conversion of an embittered old woman who comes to be made violently aware of her own pettiness. The story’s protagonist, Mrs. May, winds up dead, gored through the heart by a runaway bull, but death is in this story the beginning of Mrs. May’s life in the truth of love. It is a tic of our contemporary way of thinking—which at times is almost pagan—to mistake violence for defeat; “our age does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace,” O’Connor wrote elsewhere, because we fail to appreciate the “violences which precede and follow them.”
The violently penetrative power of Christian love is what ultimately comes to shatter Mrs. May’s illusion of self-sovereignty. By thrift and grit she clutches some kernel of supposed righteousness that she thinks will see her through what is in truth a hard life. But her faith is merely a tool; it is a sourceless symbol, more a sign of her own mania for order than of any true content. Reflecting upon the rantings of a fool for Christ—the eponymous Greenleaf woman who practices faith healings in the woods while shouting the name of Jesus—Mrs. May reassures herself that she would never do such a thing because “she [i.e. Mrs. May] was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, think any of it was true.” She tells Mrs. Greenleaf to keep the word “Jesus” inside the church, where it belongs, recognizing while evading the performative power of Greenleaf’s kenotic faith. This defensiveness against the unwanted intrusions of grace betrays a fundamental stinginess: Mrs. May feels safer in her own narrow categories than in the messy act of overflowing love. She fears losing herself by giving of herself. Her tragedy is that this guardedness in fact poisons her relationships—with her two spiteful sons, with herself, and with God. She has failed to grasp the basic anthropological truth spelled out in Caritas in Veritate that “the human being is made for gift.”
But later in the story, the wild bull that has been menacing Mrs. May’s farm—the bull is quite clearly associated with Christ in this story—charges at Mrs. May, stabbing her in the chest with its horn. In O’Connor’s deft hands this grim moment is actually a triumph, an acute instant of existential and moral clarity. Quite literally, Christ reaches in to Mrs. May’s well-regulated but feeble soul and breaks her heart of stone. We are told that the bull charges Mrs. May “at a slow gallop, a gay almost rocking gait as if he were overjoyed to find her again.” This can’t but remind us of how Pope Francis described his vocational discernment, which he said was “the astonishment of encountering someone who was waiting for you . . . God is the one who seeks us first.”
Here, finally, Mrs. May has lost control. Or, more accurately, she has made the decision to forfeit control, which is in some sense the definition of Christian conversion.
This scene has power because it so perfectly, beautifully, and horrifyingly captures what it is that awaits us as Christians. We will be reduced to rubble, decimated by the megatonic force of God’s love—a love that waits for us our whole lives if need be. And who among us has not been Mrs. May, keeping God at arm’s length, extracting from Christianity the stabilizing bourgeois virtues while leaving out the hard stuff about personal conversion and transformation? Are we willing to die to our old lives, to give up the sins we know for the grace we could never predict? These are the questions Mrs. May challenges us with by her example. As she lies slumped on the bull’s horn, slowly dying, the reader is told that Mrs. May seemed “to be bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear”—could this be her new beginning, her long-overdue act of seeing? Mrs. May’s death can only be beautiful for the Christian, but it is on that view the highest human hope.
A parallel example of this interruptive sacrifice comes from Salinger in a small gem of a book, Franny & Zooey.
The story’s protagonist Franny Glass flees home from college after a nervous breakdown, sparked by the dread she feels at the prospect of becoming as cynical and pedantic as those who surround her at her elite school. During this self-imposed exile, Franny camps out on her parents’ couch eating only broth soup and becomes fixated on an obscure novel about a Russian peasant who learns and repeats the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner—until he reaches a state of nirvanic peace. Franny’s pop spiritualism hides a deeper, more universal yearning: to get to that space beyond the chatter of idle men and reach a spot of real wisdom and peace. When her obnoxious boyfriend accuses her of quitting the theater troupe for fear of competition, she responds, “I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite . . . I’m afraid I will compete . . . I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values [and] I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”
The precocious Glass children are all geniuses of a sort and something of national celebrities for having grown up as regular panellists on a hit radio quiz show. Franny’s struggle against herself, her sense of being made to feel special, is one all the children in the family have known, and all have responded to in different ways. The beloved eldest brother Seymour killed himself over it; the second-oldest took up as a cynical writer living in a cabin in the woods; older sister Boo Boo traded it all for a life of quiet domesticity; and another brother became a Jesuit priest. Franny apparently seeks refuge in denying ego, even condemning it. It’s her brother Zooey who tries to explain to her that the path to flourishing lies rather through what he calls our “true ego”—that is, in taking seriously our own personhood and gifts.
Zooey realizes that our being is not something to be shunned or overcome, but to be cultivated and nurtured. This is the same faith that leads Catholics to dare to believe in the resurrection of the body—that each person matters in a particular way, and that we can, to greater or lesser degrees, become the person we are meant to be. But to do so we must make our choices, with all the risks of personal exposure inherent to them. We cannot opt out as Franny does, curled up on her couch fixated on some saccharine cartoon image of Christ. Christ cannot be, Zooey tells Franny, some “sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen . . . go away.” Rather, true Christ-consciousness emphasizes, not subsumes, our agency and potency.
The story finishes with Zooey sharing some advice that their late brother Seymour would give him before going on the family radio show: “Do it for the Fat Lady,” Seymour would say, though Zooey had no idea who this Fat Lady was supposed to be. Zooey came to imagine a disgusting, sickly old fat lady tuning into his show each night, “sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast [in the terrible] heat [and] she probably had cancer.” This imagined fan had seemingly no other joy in her life but listening to the brainy Glass children rattle off trivia. Franny reveals that Seymour had told her to “do it for the Fat Lady,” too (though Franny’s Fat Lady, in her imagining, had “veiny, thick legs” instead of cancer). Zooey responds by telling her the world’s big “secret:” “There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady.” We are all sickly souls aspiring towards a good we do not fully understand, dependent to some degree on the charity of strangers. The proper response to the world’s obvious brokenness is gift, not retreat. And, crucially, our gifts cannot be metered out only to the beautiful and the able, but to those for whom brokenness is an abiding fact. Franny, Zooey, and all of us are left to realize that we must “do it for the Fat Lady” because it is a dishonourable and vicious thing to bury our talents.
As Thomas Merton reminded us, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” Who among us hasn’t at times felt like Franny, disgusted by the inadequacy, stupidity, and sheer unworthiness of those around us? Who hasn’t at times sought refuge in the comforting narcotics of detachment and cynicism and vague humanitarianism? But Zooey’s message is Christ’s: that we must pour out our love into real people without thought as to who deserves it. Here again we have a short but sharp depiction of Christian beauty—blind obduracy followed by sight which brings new life.
Countless other and doubtless more satisfying examples could be picked out from the wide stretch of humane literature. These brief vignettes serve only to indicate a simple point: that Christian beauty is a supple thing. It eschews the iron-clad categories of our political presumptions and finds a way, like water through the cracks, to trickle through and soak us. In conveying this type of love, a good novel doesn’t convince us or persuade us or even really teach us, but it charms, attracts, invites, and above all shows us. The maturation of the characters and our own experience of having known them is always particular; it is patient and kind. This sort of book dares us to encounter another soul.
And the soul is where we should be looking first of all. For it is within our individual souls that we learn what love is, what freedom is, what fear and honor and virtue and hate and joy are.
Make no mistake: there is a battle raging. But it is not a battle of the ongoing Culture War, but the battle between grace and sin playing out inside each of us. The best fiction proves to be, if not a guide in this journey, a suitable travelling companion.
Travis LaCouter currently studies theology at the University of Oxford. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and has worked for various civil-society organizations in the United States and abroad.