IN DEFENCE OF BEAUTY

Mark Shea har skrevet denne fremragende atrtikel på OUR SUNDAY VISITOR
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– Why does the Church have all those gold cups and fancy paintings?” is a complaint that carries a lot of power because the founder of the Church has some very sharp words about the dangers of wealth, and Catholics have not always done a bang-up job when it comes to listening to them

As far as the words of Jesus go, the picture is not at all unclear. The Son of Man, who had no place to lay his head and who had to borrow a coin in order to make his point about rendering unto Caesar, radiates a deep distrust of and awareness of the dangers of riches:

“No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt 6:24).

“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:23-24).

And so forth. Smash cut to the High Middle Ages and the pope showing St. Dominic around Rome while boasting, “Peter can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold I do not have.’ To which the blunt saint replied, “Neither can he say, ‘Rise and walk.’”

Substance of charge

This remains the substance of the charge to this day: that the evangelical counsel of poverty is contradicted by the art, the gold, the finery, the gorgeousness of the Catholic artistic and cultural tradition and that the only true Christian is more or less walking barefoot in the snow like St. Francis. Its power was felt in Dominic’s time by the people in southern France, who compared the austere lives of the Cathars with those of the corrupt clergy and voted “Cathar” in droves. It retains an enormous amount of power today when, in addition to the gorgeousness, there is also the inevitable corruption that always afflicts any aggregation of homo sapiens, including ordained homo sapiens. In short, a bishop — living in a mansion with fine wines and premium cigars — who covers up the abuse of children is a powerful argument against the Faith

Catholics who seek to defend the Faith should not give that point short shrift. St. Dominic certainly didn’t. Instead, he founded an order of beggars and revived obedience to the evangelical counsels of chastity, obedience and poverty that had fallen on hard times in his day. Other Catholics from the Discalced Carmelites to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal have done the same over the centuries.

What they have not done, however, is demand that the Church sell off its artistic legacy or start celebrating Mass with paper plates and Styrofoam cups. Indeed, what is remarkable is that those who have most strongly embraced the evangelical counsels of poverty for themselves and urged them upon the faithful have also insisted on the gorgeousness of the Church in its work of worship to God. Servant of God Dorothy Day, who was not exactly a fan of Donald Trump-like opulence and who had a heart for the poor as big as any saints who ever lived, said, “For Christ himself, housed in the tabernacles in the Church, no magnificence is too great, but for the priest who serves Christ, and for the priesthood of the laity, no such magnificence, in the face of the hunger and homelessness of the world, can be understood.”

Christ’s example

This distinction between the gorgeousness that is properly devoted to God and the temperance we should practice toward ourselves should get our attention, because it raises a matter that is often overlooked in the popular conception of Jesus as a sort of folk guru who lived a purely ascetic life. In fact, Jesus seems to have been pretty fun at a party, judging by how often we find him invited to dinner in the Gospels. The wedding at Cana is a rather significant instance of Jesus being exceptionally fun at a party, and we find him invited to the homes of such figures as Matthew, Simon the leper, Mary and Martha, various tax collectors and sinners — notably Zacchaeus — and even a smattering of Pharisees. Indeed, so well known was Jesus’ reputation as somebody who enjoyed, temperately, the good things of this world that we find his enemies trying to maintain the contradictory complaints that his cousin John is a nutty ascetic, while he is an out-of-control party animal:

To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance; we sang a dirge, but you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works” (Mt 11:16-19).

This matters because at one of the most famous banquets of all — held to celebrate the raising of Lazarus from the dead — we see the old familiar charge of obscene waste leveled, not against corrupt Renaissance popes or negligent bishops, but against Jesus himself. And the prosecutor is, disconcertingly for the scold of the Catholic Church, none other than Judas Iscariot saying all the stuff that purveyors of moral panic about the Church still say today:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. … But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denari and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me’” (Jn 12:1-8).

Beauty in service to God

This gives us a clue about how reformers from St. Dominic to Dorothy Day could call for radical poverty, yet have no objection to lavish beauty in the service of God. For Jesus himself had no objections to the worshipper lavishing what she had on God. In this, he was acting in obedience to what his Father had revealed in the Old Testament.

Read the rest of this fabolous article at OUR SUNDAY VISITOR

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