There are in life certain things which everyone agrees need to be paid for, even if sacrifices must be made in order to do so. Most will agree that even if something is not necessary but still useful, it is worth the money. However, far fewer willingly make sacrifices for things that are worthy in and of themselves–like beauty. Sometimes one needs to experience the joys of such a sacrifice, in order to understand its value. If ever you should happen to be in Jackson, Michigan, drop into St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, to help with that understanding. Look up at the magnificent high altar, and behind you at the rose window of St. Cecilia above the choir loft. Walk forward and turn to your left to view the World War I window in the transept. Then kneel at the altar rail and soak in all of this beauty in the presence of the King.
St. Mary’s has this year begun the costly and laborious process of repairing the windows for the first time since they were installed in 1926. Already one window has been painstakingly removed, piece by piece so that the glass can be cleaned, rusted steel supports removed and replaced, well anchored into the wood frame, fresh putty applied, and new protective glass installed. Once all this work is done to every single window, St. Mary’s will have invested about 1.5 million merely to retain her original beauty. Is this staggering number too much to pay for mere aesthetics? I propose that it is not. Beauty such as this merits great sacrifice to produce and maintain, for the simple reason that beauty nourishes the soul of every man, both present and to come. For beauty acts as a sign of hope for the future, not only of our children, but of our immortal souls.
Beauty is a gift to the future. Consider a masterpiece such as Chartres Cathedral, the construction of which spanned approximately 50 to 60 years (very fast, for construction in the middle ages). Many who began that work knew they would not live to see and enjoy its completion. But that did not stop them from lovingly laboring over every detail, that it might be done well, that it might last. In a similar way, a composer wishes his music to outlast himself. Such contributions to society hint at the desire for immortality innate in every soul, as each one carries the unique stamp owed to the creators. Masterpieces of beauty are made to last long after their creation, for those who are yet to come.
For this reason alone, that beauty is a gift to the future, it is a sign of hope for our children. Fine art in its many forms can only take place when there is relative peace, and where all basic needs are provided for. War torn, starving countries do not produce art, erect churches, or compose symphonies. Therefore, when a society invests in beauty, we provide for future children something which we hope they can appreciate in times of peace, or that will uplift them out of suffering. Beauty can remind those in suffering of better times in the past, and give the courage necessary to combat or endure present trials.
Beauty has many guises, finding expression through every bodily sense; but since sight has pride of place amongst the senses, visual beauty has pride of place as well. Because neither the eyes nor their object undergo any essential change during the process of seeing, St. Thomas Aquinas calls sight “the most spiritual, the most perfect, and the most universal of all the senses.” As the most spiritual of the senses, sight is most like the intellectual action of knowing the nature of another.
Considering beauty of sight in this way allows for a fascinating study in nature of man’s ultimate happiness, the Beatific Vision. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Beatific Vision in this way: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they ‘see him as he is,’ face to face”, referring to 1 John 3:2. St. Thomas concludes “Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.” Such a thought boggles the mind. Why describe the union of the human soul with the immaterial God in terms of sight, when sight, as we know it, must fail, due to its material nature?
However, not only does sight hearken to the intellect’s method of knowing, unlike other senses which grasp beauty gradually, sight takes beauty in at once. Eyes fall upon a stained glass window, and the window is seen. Furthermore, sight allows us to know faces, which more than any other physical aspect give knowledge of the individual person. God knows we are material beings, who need something to latch onto as we set out on our quest to pursue Him.
As material beings, we cannot possibly fathom the immaterial union of our immaterial souls with perfect Being in whom there is no potentiality, no materiality. Let alone imagine said activity lasting for all eternity and fulfilling every desire. No. But think of Michelangelo’s Delphic Sybil. Her face has the ability both to captivate the mind and move the heart. Anyone could sit and study her face for a long while. Think of the faces belonging to those you love most in all the world. Father, Mother, sisters, brothers. Your spouse. Your child’s smile, or the way their eyes earnestly study yours. Faces express a beauty that hearkens to eternity. Truly, Holy Mother Church was inspired to illustrate heaven as seeing God “face to face”. Human faces, even human faces in splendid art, can arrest our minds for a little while and give a foretaste of what our souls are made to do forever.
Good, beautiful, art has the power to snare the soul, whirl it up out of itself, and draw us to Him Who Is the truest Artist. As such, art will never be a waste of time, talent, or treasure. It will infinitely repay any such investment, for it has the ability to draw man’s thoughts away from himself to the future, to children, that they may enjoy the same or better than he has. But even more importantly, beauty speaks of the purpose of our existence, which is to find happiness gazing upon Beauty for all eternity. Such avenues of hope are indeed worth many and great sacrifices.
Editor’s note: learn more about the windows of St. Mary, Star of the Sea by watching this video.