The laxity of our own spiritual lives (the declaration of which should never be confused with virtue) produces in us a desire to burn for God’s peace. Catholics of sincere faith are probably very quick to recognize that the path to union with God resides in letting our mortal flesh keep silent before the majesty of the Sacred Mysteries. These same Catholics may also recognize that God, in his infinite mercy, has become incarnate, bending his knee to clothe himself in the very beauty of creation our feeble sense need to make heads or tails of literally anything. It follows then, that the beauty of creation and its subsequent contemplation functions as a doorway to an encounter with God who veils himself in blessed silence. In short, the rapture of the soul by the beautiful inspires us to keep silence long enough to hear the whispers of the source. Why then, in a world of beautiful images, sound, and experience do we fail in being brought to silence?
The truth is that beautiful things exist apart from our acknowledgement of them as such. Michelangelo’s Pieta would be a triumph of stonework even if one were to attempt to declare it not so. No amount of pomp could take that away, for we have no control. But it is the pride or humility of our souls which determine whether or not, by it, we are brought to greater union with the God-Man.
The prideful soul does not consider itself one thing among many. It views its very being as the arbiter of truth. Things to this soul, are considered not by the objectivity of their being, but by their relations and effects upon itself. In this view, something is only good, beautiful, true, or worthwhile insomuch as it gives the soul a greater sense of its own importance or actualization. How else should we explain the vitriol of the YouTube comment section, the endless barrage of videos on our feeds telling us to get angry or excited, the continuation of Michael Bay films, our tendency to binge-watch 9 seasons of HIMYM for the 10th time when there is work to be done, and the ever-worsening craziness of caricaturing our political opposites as people of mal-intent? Admittedly one of those things is not exactly like the others but I trust you see the point. These poisonous realities stem from a misguided view that what we have to say is actually important. It’s not. We work out our salvation in fear in trembling. We serve the poor and lost (NOT just vote for someone ELSE to set up a program, but ACTUALLY serve). Question whether or not the thing you are pissed about effects your ability to do those things. If they do, they are not important. ‡
The humble soul rejoices in it’s smallness. It sees itself as one thing among many, imbued at all moments with a grace it does not deserve. It sees every act of beauty as a paternal donation ready to rapture the beloved in its peaceful embrace. The whole of the universe becomes an icon of God’s benevolence. This soul, in its docility, receives beauty in such a way as to be molded and perfected by it. In this view, the true, good, beautiful, and worthwhile live, move, and have their very being in ineffable beauty of the source of life.
When our souls are are inclined towards pride, we tire of the demands of beauty and begin to perceive it as an imposition upon our autonomy. In our fatigue we settle for counterfeits which never truly satisfy our desires, or otherwise reduce the beautiful to what is understandable or makes us feel important or edified (There are many liturgical implications here). One may find herself sexually attracted to the strapping young buck she finds sitting next to her (be he stranger or boyfriend). She may be enthralled by the beauty of his masculinity. But we should find it a strange act of arrogance for her to suppose that she may consummate that attraction for sake of her own pleasure without ever inquiring as to whether the good of her pleasure and greater union (here I assume they are dating) is equivalent to the good of doing the one thing in the whole universe that makes human babies. We should find it an even greater act of arrogance if she is seeking the pleasure from his body without really inquiring about the person the body belongs to. In short, the beauty of the conjugal act, because of it’s high demands of fidelity and self-discipline, would be reduced to the very good scratching of an itch, if it were even good.
Pride is never satisfied because it needs external validation to sustain itself. Beauty is self-sustaining because it is self-diffusive. The more it gives of itself, the better it is. The soul which does not pray for its own humility is subject to its own pride. This pride will cause the soul to ever-eschew the fullness of the beauty which would sustain it. Pride makes of creation a real fake door. Humility allows creation to lead to God. The prideful soul, like the door man from the Rixty Minutes episode of Rick and Morty is only capable of asking “Hey, are you tired of real doors, cluttering up your house, where you open up and actually go somewhere, and you go into another room?”.
Icons are intended to function as doorways to the divine. It is why we hang them on the walls of our Churches and houses. They allow us to capture in color and form the radiance of the heavenly. Icons are not up to interpretation. Their worthiness and beauty does not depend on the “eye of the beholder”. Take an honest look at the Angel of Blessed Silence and pray with it. Notice that the form is familiar and somehow just beyond our complete comprehension? Notice the serenity of his countenance? Notice that the palms of his hands are facing upwards, ready to receive whatever is given? Notice that his posture allows the seraphim to bestow the heavenly gifts upon him. Allow the Icon to form you, to give you a glimpse of the heavenly reality, and to stir the mind and heart to a greater contemplation of God. As with all of the Church’s Sacred Art, you have an opportunity to walk away in pride, or in humility, submit and silently encounter the invisible clothed in the visible. What is the state of your soul?
Let us thank God for the mercy of his Incarnation, for allowing his tangible glory to become the barometer of the state of our souls, and for allowing us to give it The Ol’ Catholic Try.
‡The irony of me typing this very blog post because I think I have something worthwhile to say, and of me desiring that it would show on various feeds is not lost on me. I would submit that this blog is different in that I only intend to provide food for thought which may on any given day be backed with some theology or philosophy. I do not think you should change your life because I suggested you might be prideful if you dislike the Pieta. I realized I can be prideful, and thought it might be helpful to share my musings on that fact. If you like it, run with it. If you don’t, I at least hope I did not distract you from the fear and trembling bit. Comment below and maybe I can change some things. I’m always willing to amend ;).