Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part VI: Behold Thou Art Fair

Go to these links for Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

Sorry this one's taken me so long! The last several days have been stuffed to the gills, and I think I bit off more than I could chew in trying to do full updates twice a week. I'm now planning to scale it back to a post on Mondays and link to something cool, &c., on Thursdays. Now then.

So I've been talking about my trek into the Catholic Church mostly from the perspective of philosophy. Except that one interlude about how bad it sucked to realize I was gay, growing up a Christian. So what's the connection?

I really think that the Catholic Church is the only place for a gay man who wants to be a Christian, personally. And that's only partly because I'm convinced that Catholicism is in fact true. I hinted, in the post that I mentioned, that the ritual flourish of Catholicism, and especially its more traditional forms, was something that would attract a gay man (and, not to put too fine a point on it, I have occasionally found this to be confirmed by experience). And this isn't a new thing. The association of LGBT persons, especially gay men, with the arts and with extreme sensitivity to beauty, is a cheap stereotype; but things become cheap stereotypes for a reason: the high availability keeps the price down, as it were.

As to why queer people should be highly aesthetically sensitive, I have no idea. I have one or two half-baked theories: I wonder whether some part of homoeroticism is a subconscious desire to experience oneself as beautiful, the same-sex aspect of the desire stemming partially from a desire to see an alternate self embrace one's own self. But I digress. Whatever the cause, what does seem true (to judge from my own experience and that of most of the queer people I've met) is that there is a high correlation between homosexual attractions and aesthetic receptivity; and among Christian traditions, there is no replacement for Catholicism when it comes to beauty. Catholic art, music, literature, architecture, sculpture, and ritual arguably contain a majority of the most glorious work in western history, from Dante's Divine Comedy to Bach's Mass In B-Minor, from Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa to Chartres Cathedral, from the splendor of the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to Michelangelo's Creation of Adam that graces the top of the Sistine.

I remember an occasion, before my conversion, when I was reading an article written by a noteworthy Calvinist about Rome Sweet Home, the popular, slightly syrupy testimony written by Scott and Kimberly Hahn about their transition from Presbyterianism to Catholicism. He made some remark about their having been seduced by the beauty of Catholicism, rather than attending to reason. (Actually anybody who reads the book can see that they provided a formidable body of reasoning for their conversion, but never mind.) What broke on me in that moment was the realization of what this said about the Reformed faith. Rightly or wrongly, people do talk about being drawn in by the beauty of Catholicism. Nobody ever talked about being drawn in by the beauty of Calvinism. The very phrase, entering my mind at that moment, made me burst out laughing. The only form of Protestantism that even pretended to have a beauty to rival, let alone surpass, that of the Catholic Church was Anglicanism; and of that, I had to agree with Chesterton's verdict when (years later) I read it in an essay in The Well and the Shallows: that Anglican beauty is consistently beautiful and indeed thrilling, because it says and does things that Protestants, Anglicans included, have all but ceased to do and say, and that only Catholics still preserve; and that Anglicanism's more modern attempts at compelling the soul have failed in direct proportion to their being modern rather than Catholic.*

It isn't simply that I was willing to put up with disagreements or uncertainties for the sake of ritual or artistic enchantment; I couldn't do that at all. I don't know how any self-respecting person could. It was that I thought, and think still, that, while other tests are necessary, beauty is one of the tests that confirms the objective rightness of an idea. Buckminster Fuller, an architect and engineer, once remarked, "When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But if when I have finished, the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." The sort of problems I tend to think about are very different, but I work on similar principles.

God made man for truth and beauty, and these two things are naturally allied to one another; Keats was right.** Now, in a broken world such as we live in, there is not a clear one-to-one correspondence between the true and the beautiful; yet to deny that our natural desires tell us anything about reality comes close to the risk that C. S. Lewis noted as his objection to the doctrine of total depravity: namely, that if we are so depraved that our minds and hearts have no relation to God's at all any longer, then we cannot even really mean anything by calling Him good, and Christianity runs the risk of becoming a form of devil-worship. And that risk has at times been actualized; Westboro Baptist Church springs to mind.

God's image in man has been obscured -- but not erased; the natural longings of the human heart may not tell us what they told Adam, but they tell us something. And it was my observation that whatever weight beauty had was firmly on the far side of the Tiber from me. The way to reach it was to swim across the Tiber.

*I have left Orthodoxy (another non-Protestant Christian tradition), which has a formidable and distinctive kind of beauty, to one side. This is partly because Orthodoxy has had little direct impact upon the West, and I am quite definitely a Western man, though I have drawn on some Orthodox sources (I have a particular taste for Eastern icons); it is also in part because, though I have a nodding acquaintance with it, I am not really competent to discuss Orthodoxy in any detail. And even some of what I know about the Christian East is filtered through friends who are Eastern Rite Catholics, rather than Orthodox proprement dit, so I would surely only make a fool of myself in trying to address its role in Christian aesthetics.
**"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." -- John Keats.


  1. Why the jump from 5 to 7?

    1. It's all part of my evil plan. And by "evil plan" I mean "I wrote the title wrong and didn't correct it till it had already been put up." Um ... release the hounds, I guess.

  2. Having spent last week walking along the Tiber, your Bernini, Michelangelo, and Keats references thrill me. My (catholic) travel buddy and I had conversations along these lines about the beauty of the church as well - she's convinced I'll convert.