Some time ago, I was walking with some students on a trail through a place where nature was particularly beautiful. Suddenly, a child next to us exclaimed, “That’s so ugly!” Obviously, he got everyone’s attention. He went on to say, “Look how much trash they left on the trail.”
The remark earned a lot of praise for the boy’s education, his attention to the environment, and the proper disposal of trash. However, there was also a problem there: Surrounded by the beauty of Creation, what captured everyone’s attention was the ugliness of human errors.
The episode came to my mind recently at a sacred music concert. When the presentation was over, the floor was given to a priest, a man of proven erudition and wisdom. After a quick compliment to the musicians, he went on to talk about the “cultural garbage” that is often considered art these days. Both the boy and the priest were focused on ugliness rather than beauty. Their remarks, both about the material trash on the trail and the immaterial trash in our artistic environment were fair. However, those comments acted as an obstacle that blocked their perception of the beauty that God was offering them, through nature or through human creativity.
What is growing in our hearts?
Jesus notes in his preaching, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.. […] it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…” (Mk 7:15,21) and “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34).
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines the devil teaching his apprentice that he doesn’t need to make people follow him; it is enough that they look more at their own wickedness than at the goodness of God. That way they end up becoming evil and turning away from the Father.
When we stop contemplating beauty, which is the fruit and manifestation of God’s love, ugliness and evil ferment and grow in our heart, occupying it and overflowing into our words. Many influencers and social media stars suffer from this problem. They are so focused on denouncing the evils of the world that they fail to announce the beauty given to us by God. Even if with good intentions, they keep us away from grace in their eagerness to protect us from misfortune.
We must always have our eyes fixed on goodness
Some will say that in a world like ours, we cannot remain naively focused on beauty and goodness. We need to be attentive to the evils that lurk in our surroundings, in ideologies, in the evil intentions of the powerful, in the exploitation and oppression that victimize the weak and helpless. This attention to the evils of the world is really necessary, but how can we overcome these problems without having just as clear a vision of the good? Without our eyes fixed on this goal, we end up getting lost in the many paths subtly plotted by those who are evil.
This is not an irrational belief in the power of positive thinking, an illusory escape from reality. How many marriages that could have been happy have become miserable because the couple stopped being fascinated by the good they originally found in each other, and started to see only their defects? How many dictatorships have flourished because the revolutionaries, in their eagerness to overthrow one wicked government, did not realize that they were sponsoring another similar one? In the small things and great, we need to contemplate beauty and love, which fills our heart and becomes intellectual insight.
True beauty comforts and enlightens the heart
Some will also say that the contemplation of beauty is not possible for those who suffer the most. They believe this would be an aesthetic exercise inaccessible to the poor, the excluded, the sick, and to sufferers of all kinds. Yet first of all, the contemplation of true beauty is not merely a matter of appearances and forms. We discover true beauty when we encounter something that fills our heart, that satisfies a deep desire that we cannot even understand before that encounter.
This beauty often shines through in the worst situations and in the most unlikely places. For this reason, suffering is no obstacle to finding it — even though its discovery may be more difficult in extreme situations. In this sense, there is a frequent paradox. The people who live with more comfort and resources, who would have more access to the knowledge of true beauty, are often the ones whose hearts are full of garbage, who have more difficulty understanding love.
If our brother suffers, we have an even greater duty to help him find love and beauty. This does not mean denying the difficulties or the many radical transformations that our society needs in order to eliminate so much suffering born out of human maladies. However, people who are suffering cannot wait for an ideal tomorrow to find beauty. It has to present itself even today, to give the aching heart the strength to fight for a better tomorrow.
“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks …” May our mouths never cease to condemn with indignation the evils of the world, but also be and above all to be heralds of the true beauty that comes from Love.