The Fittingness of Beauty

Mass
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I ducked into the church for a weekday Mass taking place in the late afternoon. I was a visitor to the parish and have, since then, had no opportunity to return. The low ceilings and darkness were suffocating, and the slices of sun that shot through the oblong, rectangular windows did little but draw one’s focus to the dust flying here and there. Right angles were the framework through which this particular church had been designed, with the natural result being a very efficient and square aesthetic. Any effort to find God in and through the transcendentals would have been, if not for the crucifix, an almost impossible task. Surely, like many worshippers both with and before me, I was shot a reminder by a small voice: “Focus on what’s really important!”

The organ was struck, which surprised me for a weekday, but the voice that accompanied it was as out of tune as the instrument itself. This musician had been trained in playing the organ, that much was obvious, but his vocals did little in the way of harmonizing. “Oh no, you’re losing focus,” the little voice seemed to say. “What is actually happening here? That’s what matters!”

No doubt that voice is correct; there is something happening there, something beautiful, something important, beyond important, the archetype of importance: Someone. The voice is leaning upon, technically speaking, a deductive argument, and a strong one at that: the Eucharist is most important—that which is most important is all that matters—all that matters deserves sole focus—therefore, the Eucharist deserves sole focus. A conclusion like that is suffocating and difficult to argue with. If you try, you feel foolish, like Martha trying to justify her serving.

Having grown up in the 1990s and early 2000s, I had heard this refrain a thousand times from youth ministers, teachers, and others in the Faith who, doubtless, were trying to overcompensate for the inexcusable degradation of the Liturgy justified in large part by the haunting Spirit of Vatican II. At the Mass, the Heavenly Liturgy, only one thing matters: bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ; the Bread of Angels; New Manna from Heaven; the Most Blessed Sacrament. There is no aesthetic or sin, not even the mortal sin of the priest, that can lessen the truth, beauty, and goodness.

How can a Catholic, then, reconcile the fact that beauty (and goodness, for that matter) win hearts and souls as often as truth, however powerfulif not more so? Are hearts too fickle for notice, or is beauty a waste of funding to be put elsewhere? Should we cave to the secularist’s call for the Church to sell its art and give the money to the poor? As Matt Fradd has asked more than once in his popular podcast Pints with Aquinas, why is it that we prefer marble altars draped with a linen cloth to card tables swallowed by a bed sheet? If the former, does that make of us a picky, distracted bunch that has lost its way?

But here is another question worthy of asking: In the age of blossoming apologetics, why do deductive arguments, however valid or sound, fail to bring more souls to the Church, even for a curious peek? There is, however, another means to engage persons in both mind and heart; not a deduction, but an approach to liturgies and the human spirit that maintains the Eucharist as the Source and Summit.

The Argument from Fittingness is an argument from induction, in which various indications or suggestions lead to a general conclusion, such as when an inference is reached by scientific data or a guilty verdict is rendered by a jury based on bits of evidence. However, even that explanation is dry; it is more than that, particularly where the human spirit is concerned. Fittingness is like the puzzle piece that fits perfectly well, the round peg in a round hole, the molten center of a lava cake smothered in vanilla ice cream, the smile of a spouse and the hugs of children, or, to use a biblical example, the lavish pouring of perfumed nard over the head of Christ prior to His Passion. 

In theological terms, fittingness is when truth can’t leave beauty and goodness behind, or any other combination thereof; for all three are attached at the hip: no one can abandon the other two, and any effort to do so leaves the heart unsatisfied and restless. All three of these transcendentals can be traced to the Person of Christ through the centuries, like stepping stones, revealing that any effort to detangle their braid leaves one, truly, on the wrong side of history.

Beauty stretches from what appears to be the beginnings of a modern artistic resurgence (one can only hope) that is starving for continuity through Mozart and Michelangelo to the glory of Gothic architecture and the genius of Dante. Before that there was Gregorian chant and the conquering of iconoclasm and the deliberate and biblical art scribbled on the walls of the catacombs.

Goodness, similarly, is displayed in the countless examples of Catholic charity the world over. One need not research much to see the foundational role the Church has played in so many aspects of society today taken for granted, including classroom learning, the hospital system, and the dignity of women. This is due in large part to the glory of the saints, images of Christ that they are, who from the beginning have displayed an otherworldly love as witnesses of both white and red martyrdom, periodically shaking the foundations of the world like an earthquake.

Lastly, there is Truth, displayed simply and profoundly in the bookends of the Catechism and Sacred Scripture, with the writings of the Church Fathers, the saints, the popes, the philosophers, and ecumenical councils wedged between. Magisterial might has trounced the heresies of Arius and Jansen and the ever-present anthropological errors that split body from soul. However, even this distinction between these three transcendentals is, by their interwoven nature, an impossibility.

In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury, in defending the tradition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, wrote the following: “God was conceived from a just virgin—not out of necessity, as if He could not be conceived from a sinful virgin, but rather because such a conception was fitting” (emphasis added). Despite our age’s strong apologetics movement, one that has benefitted myself in (literally) life changing ways, I can find no stronger argument for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Doesn’t Our Lord (the most important, so concludes our deduction) deserve a fitting vessel? 

If so, let us think in the same terms about our churches, our liturgies, and our souls. Let the tapestry of the Eucharist be woven by the threads of truth, goodness, and beautynot for their sake, but for the sake of the truth of the little voice that says, indeed, the Eucharist is most important. For Christ, it is fitting. And as for His flock, rare indeed is the soul who crossed the Tiber absent the motive power of induction to charm the heart.

[Photo Credit: Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter Wigratzbad seminary blog]

By

Philip J. Martin is a graduate of both Auburn University and the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently residing in beautiful Daphne, AL with his family. He is an award-winning fiction author and has published numerous pieces of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry in various publications.

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