The Body Beautiful and the Assumption of Mary

The age of the “body beautiful” will now become the age of the Assumption.  ∼ Ven. Fulton Sheen

“I am empowered by my body,” Kim Kardashian declared back on International Women’s Day, voicing triumph in an infamous nude selfie. In a society that worships the brazen sensuality of the body beautiful while eviscerating any link between beauty and metaphysics, brave cultural warriors quibbled over her spectacle’s egalitarian potential for other female bodies. Had Kardashian—“empowered” by her Eros, “empowered by feeling comfortable in [her] skin,” “empowered by showing the world [her] flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say”—“encourage[d] the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world,” in the words of an apologia that, they exclaimed, was “powerful”? Or was Lena Dunham, intrepidly undressing a less glamorous body on Girls, the true guarantor of ordinary women’s intrinsic beauty and erotic power?

It is logical that a materialist culture which spurns the Assumption—spurns the sublimity of a singularly pure, beautiful woman’s bodily ascent into heaven—should descend into the circus of celebratory nude images emblazoned online in response to Kardashian’s. Defined in 1950, the dogma of the Assumption, as Ven. Sheen reminds us, speaks emphatically about the body for an “Age of Carnality which loves the Body Beautiful.” According to Ven. Sheen, either the body is destined for an ecstatic lift of love that pulls it into heavenly glory—in Mary’s case, as the one in “the vanguard of humanity,” before even the General Resurrection and Final Judgment—or it is doomed by modern pagans to a hedonism that, with its disappointments, breeds despair and soul-death along the Styx.

Dislocating ideal beauty from God to self, brandishing her body’s potential for hedonistic use, the modern empowered beauty forgets Plato’s intuition that beautiful persons and objects evoke a nostalgia for eternal Beauty, forgets St. Augustine’s lament that, in the soul’s “unloveliness,” “lovely things” divert it from a God who is “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” She forgets that beauty is not a power to be grasped and wielded but is, at its deepest level, a divine ideal before which she must fall prostrate.

She forgets, especially, that she is not the cynosure, the sheeny center, of an admiring world. Aesthetics scholar Elaine Scarry argues that encountering beauty leads to a “radical decentering”: “It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.”

As the glittery creature of our age pursues the sublunary triumph of being beheld as a body beautiful—even if only, Narcissus-like, before her own social media mirror—the beauty of the one assumed into Heaven can coax her toward the supreme hope of the beatific vision. As she seeks rest in the achievement of the consummate selfie—haunted, however confusedly, by an Augustinian intuition that “the deepest desire of every human heart is to be seen and to see another in that same way”—Mary’s Assumption portends repose in the gaze of a divine Beauty who sings, in Solomon’s Song, “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come!”

As, in an age of Instagram anxiety, the emancipated female exposes her body with increasing desperation, Mary’s Assumption snatches her up into the ideal of an Agape that, whatever her vocation, transfigures Eros and so prepares her body for eternity’s pure radiance. The Assumption, explains Ven. Sheen, “does not say that love in a body is wrong, but it does hold that it can be so right, when it is Godward, that the beauty of the body itself is enhanced.”

St. Bernadette, who beheld the “Beautiful Lady” of Lourdes, fled worldly attention for the veil—even with her great beauty and the fame engendered by her apparitions, even with her understanding from the Lady that her happiness would be “not in this world,” only “in the next.” St. Bernadette—whose still-incorruptible body hints at the resplendent beauty of the glorified resurrected body, a beauty possessed by Mary even now—said that Mary was “so lovely that, when you have seen her once, you would willingly die to see her again.”

A woman at Lourdes told St. Zélie Martin—St. Thérèse’s mother, who had sojourned to the baths to seek healing for a body harrowed by breast cancer—that “[w]hen one has seen Bernadette in ecstasy as I saw her, one has seen enough for a lifetime.” Shortly after finding no cure at Lourdes, after penning a letter imagining Mary’s promise of happiness not “in this world but in the next” as directed at herself, after suffering “cruel” agony on the feast of the Assumption, St. Zélie died. Those with the “sleek” bodies described by the Psalmist—bodies that seemingly shield them from “men’s sorrows”—will despair at the prospect of such an end unless they believe, like St. Zélie, in the song that Ven. Sheen places on the Church’s lips: “You will come back alive, as Mary came back again after walking down the valley of Death.”

We who have not seen the Beautiful Lady may still be roused to soul-beauty by the Marian dogmas, may still dimly glimpse her splendor in G.K. Chesterton’s peerless lines:

When God turned back eternity and was young,
Ancient of Days, grown little for your mirth
(As under the low arch the land is bright)
Peered through you, gate of heaven—and saw the earth.

…Or found his mirror there; the only glass
That would not break with that unbearable light

…Star of his morning; that unfallen star
In that strange starry overturn of space
When earth and sky changed places for an hour
And heaven looked upwards in a human face.

“Beautiful because it is a Temple of God, a Gate through which the Word of Heaven passed to earth, a Tower of Ivory”—so Ven. Sheen describes the body whose Assumption can rouse us from our sybaritic spell. His bold 1952 prediction of a conversion to the age of the Assumption “within three decades” notwithstanding, Ven. Sheen did discern a unique source of hope for a culture in bathos. When the empowered erotic beauty can no longer sing Christina Aguilera’s meager poetry for the age—“I am beautiful / In every single way / Yes words can’t bring me down”—Mary’s Assumption promises her a better beauty, promises an eternal ecstasy with the body’s exquisite lift.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “Assumption” painted by Guido Reni in 1617.

Julia Meloni

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Julia Meloni writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Yale and a master's degree in English from Harvard.

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