July 13, 2024

By Katie Eskro

We can all picture in our mind a bride on her wedding day: the white dress, fresh flowers, joyful face, radiant glow. We can also think about the wedding vows made between bride and groom, promising a covenant to each other that will last their lifetime. 

St. Teresa of Calcutta

The marriage liturgy is filled with beauty—from the clothes to the rite to the virtuous relationship the union is built upon.

Now think of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s face.

Wrinkled, lined, leathery, tight. A face you wouldn’t expect to say is beautiful, and yet, her face is considered by many one of the most beautiful, because it is a face that we know loved well, served and sacrificed for others, and lived her whole life for God. Her body may have been frail and small, but because of the way she lived,
her life was beautiful. 

What is similar between these two examples of beauty? Is it our eyes and experiences that define these as beautiful, or is there something that unites both of them in beauty? 

The idea of beauty has been increasingly muddled in our modern times, and its nature has been a point of conflict and disagreement among philosophers for decades. It’s a conversation that’s easy to pass over and not think too much about, but it is something we, as Catholic Christians living in the 21st century, shouldn’t disregard. 

The basic philosophy surrounding beauty means a great deal to how we see the world, and a proper understanding of beauty draws us closer to God, each other and the Church. It could even lay the foundation for evangelizing and conversion. 

Beauty, along with truth and goodness, is one of the main transcendentals (a transcendental being something that draws the human heart beyond this world). “Reality and existence are distinguished by the transcendentals,” says Father Andrew Dickinson, vicar general for Set Ablaze and pastor of Pastorate 7. 

The more we experience the realities of truth, beauty and goodness, the more we deep dive into what is real. “Beauty is the transcendental that typically first draws us into the reality,” Father Dickinson says.

What is it?

Father Andrew Dickinson is vicar general for Set Ablaze and pastor of Pastorate 7.

The modern view of beauty is that it is subjective and based on a person’s taste. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is a modern maxim and summarizes the underlying philosophy of our culture and times. Ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and Catholic philosophers and theologians St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, disagree with this modern view of beauty.

The ancient philosophical and Catholic view of beauty is that it is an objective reality experienced by a person or a subject. “Beauty is objective insofar as it has objective and identifiable components,” says Father Dickinson. “It is subjective insofar as it is something a human person—a subject—receives.

“Making man the measure of all things is a fine definition of selfish pride that denies reality and has led us to the great evils of the past 100 years and more,” Father Dickinson continues. “When man becomes the measure, he is repeating the lie of the devil in the Garden of Eden: ‘If you eat this fruit, you will be like God, deciding for yourself what is good and evil.’”

Therefore, beauty is an objective reality that we encounter subjectively. Art, music, nature, goodness and truth are all realities that can be beautiful. In the example of the art form of poetry, a beautiful poem is going to follow the rules of poetry such as meter, language, grammar and punctuation. If it does not, it will not be beautiful. 

However, just because a poem follows form and is inspired by truth and therefore objectively beautiful, it does not mean that every person who reads that poem will see the beauty of it. A person may be in a hurry when they read it and not properly dig into the meaning. They also might not be learned in the rules of poetry and that could get in the way of perceiving it as beautiful. This is where the person, or “subject,” comes into play in experiencing beauty.

What is important to understand is that beauty has a definite existence based on reality, not chosen by people. “We cannot simplify this question by thinking of beauty as something that can only be known by individual persons,” Father Dickinson says. 

He also says that viewing beauty as individual preference or taste removes us from relationship and community. If beauty is relative, “We can not argue or discuss with one another about what aspects of beauty a particular work has,” Father Dickinson says. 

Beauty and us

Beauty is an objective reality, and yet it is perceived by people with different tastes, preferences and educational backgrounds. The person receiving or perceiving beauty matters greatly. Beauty doesn’t change, but since people are different, they will perceive beauty differently. And since even individuals change, our own views of beauty can change as well. 

My friends and I love to decorate and rearrange our houses. A lot of us prefer the mid-century modern style of design, while others prefer farmhouse, boho, eclectic or modern styles. None of these styles are objectively more beautiful than another. Rather, if you look closely, all of these styles share the same underlying design rules. Even though our personal preferences might be different, the same beauty laws attract us. 

“All people intuitively are attracted to beauty in the same way, particularly hallmarks which include but are not limited to order, harmony, glory and splendor,” Father Dickinson says. “In our day and age, this can be confusing, though, as there have been deliberate and concerted efforts to disrupt the meaning of beauty. Yet these hallmarks of beauty can be found across cultures and centuries.” 

Father Dickinson also stresses that beauty and goodness are intricately linked together. “These hallmarks are not enough,” he says. “They distinguish beauty, but beauty is not reducible to it. Beauty must also correspond to goodness.”

In the case of decorating and maintaining a home therefore, it is not only the stuff (however tastefully placed) that makes it beautiful; it is the desire of the person creating the space to be enjoyed by their family, to be lived in and for relationships to grow and mature within. A house that follows the hallmarks of beauty but where keeping a sterile cleanliness is more important than maintaining the relationships within is not really a beautiful house at all.

“The beauty of the human heart is found through the demonstration of goodness, such as the sacrifice of one friend for another,” Father Dickinson says. “Rather than being an exception to the hallmarks of beauty mentioned above, the beauty of human action fulfills these hallmarks by action.”

There are four main steps to perceiving and taking in beauty for the human person: sensing, becoming aware, allowing wonder, and moving toward reality. 

Beauty attracts us through our senses. We might hear a beautiful piece of music or see a majestic view in nature. If this experience moves us enough and we pause, we become aware of the movement of this beauty within us. It might bring with it a sentimental feeling, and if we turn this feeling into an outward expression, it brings us to an experience of wonder and awe. Who is the cause of this beautiful landscape? Someone beyond us. And if we take the time to ponder this wonder, it leads us to reality and ultimately to God. 

Truly letting beauty sink in deeply takes all of these steps. If we stop and only appreciate beauty without going deeper, it stays as a nice moment or sentimental memory without turning us to a bigger, more full reality of who we are and who God is. If we allow beauty to penetrate us, it changes our hearts and directs our passions. “[Beauty] cannot just be subjective in our feelings but must have a correspondence in reality,” Father Dickinson says.

An education to beauty

If beauty is objective but relies on a subjective response to be perceived, then it is important for us to educate ourselves to beauty. “The world will never starve for want of wonders,” G.K. Chesterton wrote, “but only for want of wonder.” Beauty is all around us, but do we see it?

“Since we live in a fallen world … there is a need for an education in beauty,” Father Dickinson says. “What can often be intuitive can be later rejected due to the darkness of our senses and intellect caused by sin.” Father Dickinson thinks this need to be educated in beauty has grown in our modern times where “we have begun to divide goodness and beauty.” 

Though not a complete list, there are three steps that could be used to grow an awareness of beauty in our lives. 

The first is, be ready to be surprised. We often run our days at such a fast speed that we don’t have time to be surprised. One way to grow in this step is to observe a child and go at their pace for a few minutes. A 3-year-old child is adept at “stopping to smell the roses.” If we slow down for a moment to their pace, we will see more of the beauty around us. 

Being surprised also might look like a quick, unplanned pit stop in our day. Our lives don’t have to be constantly slow or snail-paced in order to see beauty. But when something strikes us, like a view or something someone says, do we have the awareness to stop and fully take in what is happening?

After the initial moment of something unexpected happening, the next step is to be aware of an interior response and to not dismiss it. Sometimes something might happen, and we might pause for a moment to appreciate it, but then we quickly throw it off as coincidental or unimportant. 

What if these sparks of beauty in our life aren’t just coincidence, but one of God’s ways of interacting with us? If we can stop for long enough to feel our insides moving toward consolation and wonder, we can recall that these moments are from God.

Once we have paused and are aware of our interior response to the beauty of the moment, we must go one step further and turn our wonder to contemplation. This final step turns us from enjoying the beauty within our own self to directing a response outward to God. It might begin a conversation with God, or might usher in a moment of wonder and awe, reminding us how great God is and how small we are. 

Beauty in the Church

An education to beauty can and should also happen from within our holy spaces, in particular Catholic churches. The sanctuary is meant to be a living catechism, and places like St. Peter’s Basilica continue to draw tourists because of the beauty of architecture and design. 

The liturgy of the Mass, with its symmetry of word and eucharistic feast, music, smells of incense and candles, and the bodily gestures we use to help us enter in and pray, all are beautiful ways that can draw us further into the sacrifice of the Mass. 

The sacraments are similar, with simple physical signs of an invisible reality. The sensory experiences of the sacraments, like seeing the waters of Baptism being generously poured over the head of an infant draws us into the beauty of being cleansed from sin and welcomed into the Christian family. 

We also should experience the goodness of the Church through the hospitality and holiness of her people—people who are merciful, striving for virtue, willing to be vulnerable, and risking themselves to grow in relationship with God and each other. 

The Church has always, and will forever, intricately connect beauty with the goodness and truths of our faith. For many, beauty is a catalyst for joining the Church and growing in relationship with Jesus. Every moment of beauty we receive is a gift from God reminding us of his goodness and faithfulness, even in the often ugliness and messiness of our lives.

From a bride on her wedding day to the wrinkled face of St. Teresa of Calcutta, we can begin to understand and appreciate what beauty is. It is written all over God’s creation. Everything he created is infused with his design of beauty, and this beauty is an invitation for us to embrace reality and enter further in relationship with our Creator. 

His glory is the ultimate beauty. 

Katie Eskro is a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Aberdeen, where she works as coordinator of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. She has a degree in journalism and is pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy.