In the waning days of summer, 1974, a man named Philippe Petit dared to do something beautiful. Petit, a professional funambulist, pulled off an undercover job tantamount to a heist, illegally securing a cable between the nearly completed World Trade Center Towers in New York City.
He had walked a wire between the towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral and the pylons of Sydney Harbor Bridge. As New Yorkers teemed below those gleaming edifices of exchange on that August morning, a clown began to dance a quarter of a mile above their heads, bringing joy and awe to those trapped in the rat race, overshadowed by the towers of commerce.
Petit dared to do something beautiful that August morning, an act of play opposed to pragmatism, a thing Catholics must dare, in their own way, to do.
So much of the stuff of life has been sacrificed on the altar of affluence, in homage to a god of relativism whose law of license promotes a materialist agenda.
“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” Wordsworth laments, “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Having a heart that leaps up for beauty is difficult to claim—and to proclaim—among people who are losing their hold on beauty, increasingly driven as they are toward the almighty dollar.
St. Thomas Aquinas writes of beauty as a proportion of perfection that can be rested in, making beauty a prerequisite for rest, for leisure. Catholics should dare to resist and reverse the crisis of “getting and spending” by resting boldly in the beautiful things that make life worth living—the things worth doing for their own sake.
“Life isn’t all beer and skittles,” wrote Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, “but beer and skittles, or something better of the same sort, must form a good part of every Englishman’s education.”
This was Hughes’s conclusion, given certain educational trends of the early 19th century; namely, the Mechanics Institutions, where clerks and workmen were trained through science, and Young Men’s Christian Societies, where improvement was measured by piety. These ended in what Hughes deemed “intellectual priggism” and “religious pharisaism”—the aberrations created by the absence of rustic sports and robust activities of leisure (such as walking a tightrope, as a certain Frenchman might add).
Often, what best defines a society are the things done when unconstrained by the necessities of society. Leisure is the basis of culture, to borrow from Josef Pieper, and what people do in their time off is central to self-identity and the quality of life.
“Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves,” Pieper writes, “We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.”
Thus, the “beer and skittles” of life have a serious part to play in a serious world—even if they are joyfully defiant of the pressures of capitalist society. The wonderful nonsense of Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers made more sense as an act of beauty than anything those giants of worldly commerce he danced between could claim—not incomparable, perhaps, to the Two Towers of worldly conquest from Tolkien’s trilogy.
Again, from Hughes:
Don’t let reformers of any sort think that they are going really to lay hold of the working boys and young men of England by any educational grapnel whatever, which isn’t some bona fide equivalent for the games of the old country… something to put in the place of the back-swording and wrestling and racing; something to try the muscles of men’s bodies, and the endurance of their hearts, and to make them rejoice in their strength. In all the new-fangled comprehensive plans which I see, this is all left out.
The reformers condemned by Hughes are still at work; their career-focused, money-making plans still shoulder out beautiful leisure.
The vigorous games of the good old country that Hughes praised, like wrestling and racing, have devolved into the languid games of a brave new world, like twerking and tweeting. Beer and skittles have been replaced with opioids and iPhones.
Leisure has become destructive instead of constructive and needs reclaiming as an important aspect and measure in forming human sensibility. Education must go on beyond the classroom in developing tastes and tendencies. One of these formative extracurricular ends is to give young people real experiences, the thrill of activity and community—of living in and belonging to something greater than themselves.
Many miners risk life and limb for the sake of just one comrade, to use an example from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand, and Stars. One can only imagine what leisure was like among such laborers. They who struggled and sacrificed for humanity and its intrinsic value so heroically must have celebrated it heroically, too.
Men were made to live in close-knit communities and share the joys of leisure, but they have never been more isolated or distracted. Catholics should experience that which transcends and ennobles the sum of its parts—be it a family, a parish, a team, a neighborhood, or a school. The leisure that breeds life, love, and labor flourishes from that sympathy.
They should dare to seize it and dare to share it, even when the world rejects it.
In a mercenary culture, even the best of communities and individuals face uphill battles, and even losing ones. But, still, they must walk the wire—like Don John dancing on his deck at Lepanto, or Ivo Taillefer juggling his sword at Hastings. We must dare to make what efforts we can to bring the beauty of leisure into the rush-hours of life.
St. John Bosco was a master at this—a great tightrope walker himself—who would turn boys away from the gutters and toward the realities that cultivate the soil of the soul and clear the air of the intellect. St. John Bosco dared to play with boys in the streets and squares. Their play would resound to the benefit of all who could not help but hear them and be edified by such a marvelous show of doing something beautiful for the sake of doing something beautiful.
It is difficult to stand up for beauty when beauty is actively and aggressively being recast after a graven image. It is even harder to run risks for beauty’s sake—to walk the wire for its sake. It is almost as dangerous as Philippe Petit’s feat.
In a world that continues to be dominated even destroyed by global struggle (as the now-fallen Towers testify), those who love beauty might look to Petit’s wild wire walk as an analogy. To do something beautiful, something transcendent, in this jaded age requires daring: to have a large family, to say grace in public, to engage in meaningful conversation, to get rid of your television, to sing songs, to dress well, to go on pilgrimage, to read the classical works, to look people in the eye and smile.
Petit danced on a high-wire for 45 minutes 45 years ago, the triumph of the clown over the rigid structures of worldly affairs. May we all dare to do the beautiful in defiance of the banal. Those who dare to play beautifully and purely—whether infants or ancients, whether on a flagship or a battlefield, whether in the streets or on a wire in the sky—are happy.
It’s to the happy that Catholics should look for inspiration in evangelization. They should dare to be so happy as they walk the wire for beauty’s sake.