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Tell me who you are: Your role in saving the world

The Journey of the Magi by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art | Public Domain

The Journey of the Magi by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 01/07/24

Like the Magi, we each bear divine gifts. God made them and placed them in us, but it is our privilege to take those gifts and give them away.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously claimed that beauty will save the world. When I first heard the phrase, even though I’m a confirmed aesthete with no practical skills whatsoever, I thought it was a little overboard. I imagined someone throwing a Van Gogh painting over the rail of a ship to a person who had been swept off the deck. The person grabs the painting and they both immediately sink to the bottom of the sea. An oil painting with a heavy frame doesn’t exactly make a great life-preserver.

Dostoyevsky obviously didn’t mean to be taken so literally. What he means is something more along the lines of, “Man doesn’t live by bread alone.” We weren’t born merely to eat, sleep, make money, and survive. Human beings require more. We’re meant to thrive, to create beautiful lives. That includes the making and viewing of artwork, yes, and it means spending time on impractical pursuits we enjoy.

It’s more, though. It also means adorning our souls with beauty by living with kindness and generosity. In our own way, each of us is an artist and the span of our lives is the canvas.

Each work of art a unique door

Recently, I’ve been writing about artwork. I’m really enjoying the kind of writing the art has pulled out of me (I hope you do, too). In thinking about why I like meditating on art so much, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the unique story each artwork tells. Each one is like a door opening up onto a whole new world, and there is no other door to that world but this door. Only Monet can open this one. Only Antoni Gaudi has the key to that one. Every single artwork is made by a particular person with a specific skillset and insight. Each one I’ve encountered at a specific time in my life and a unique connection was made between me and it.

If I had seen any of those artworks at a different time, maybe the essays I’ve been writing about them would be completely different. Maybe they would’ve been better. Maybe worse. Who knows? All I know is a door has been opened.

The Journey of the Magi by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Detail
The Journey of the Magi by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Detail

Beauty and the Infinite

Beauty creates a relationship with the Infinite. Something new emerges from within me that didn’t exist previously, like a gift God placed in me I’m only now unwrapping. If the beauty of a painting or a building or a poem can accomplish so much, it’s mind-boggling to think how much more interactions with other people have influenced me and made me who I am. The beauty of those interactions had to arise with those specific people. No one else would do.

The beauty of their souls sparked a fire and called a new aspect of my being into existence. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that these interactions, in shaping me as they have, have saved me. God used beauty to reach into my heart and make a life-saving connection.

A discovery in a book

I’m reminded of an essay that Amy Welborn wrote over at Dappled Things Magazine about a scrap of handwritten paper and a photograph. She discovered them in a used book she’d bought. Amy didn’t know the previous owner of the book, but the two items got her thinking about the strangers in the picture and the hand that wrote the words on the paper. She says she doesn’t know why it felt like she’d made a connection with the previous owner of the book, she only knows that she did.

“I like the material reality of the paper and what’s printed on it,” Amy writes, “what’s dashed off by hand, surprising me, fluttering to the ground from the book that I bought in a garage in a real house from real people — the daughters, maybe, or granddaughters of the man in the picture — a mile or so from my real house – all of which somehow connects me sitting here in Alabama to those people…”

She feels a real connection to real people. Beauty is not a generalized abstraction. It’s not an idea. It makes a home in people and creatures and things.


Little gifts

On the Solemnity of the Epiphany, it’s striking how the little things truly matter. When the Magi arrive at the side of Christ, they present three gifts – gold, incense, and myrrh. The gifts seem small, but they’re important. The magi don’t merely tell Our Lord they think he’s the Messiah. They show him through gifts, real objects of beauty, which are the embodiment of their adoration and love.

In our lives, the things we care about and make and find beautiful, they’re invitations to meet God. If we are his greatest artwork, his masterpiece made in his image, it only stands to reason that he will work through us. The more beautiful we make our souls, the more he can work.

I suppose God could’ve shouted down from Heaven that he loves us and to just believe him about that, but instead he chose to be born on Christmas. He is a divine person who lived at a particular time and place, had friends and family, saw the sun rise on a specific morning over the Lake of Galilee. He took humanity to himself and made sacred and beautiful our time here on earth. It all matters to him.

A revelation of infinite love

God gratefully accepts our little gifts that we lay at his feet because, to him, they aren’t small. In fact, he reveals an infinite love through them. I suppose he could have saved the world without involving us, but he chooses instead to include us. This is why St. Augustine, when he wants to know more about God, turns to the flora and fauna around him. He says, “Tell me of my God.” Each creature has the same response, “He made us.” Their response arises from their beauty.

Like the Magi, we are, each and every one of us, bearers of divine gifts. God made them and placed them in us, but it is our privilege to take those gifts and give them away. In doing so, we not only create happiness and goodwill on earth, but we also place them at the feet of Our Lord.

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