Noli me tangere: Mary Magdalene and Christ outside the tomb, by Fra Angelico.
We are surrounded on a daily basis by the physical world, by things, materials, objects which catch our attention. Most of them tend to be plain, even ugly. Physical beauty is in a fact a rare commodity, which makes its appearance even all the more stunning and important. Of course there are subtle moments of beauty all around us: a sunrise, the sound of warbling birds on a spring morning, the laughter and smile of a friend, but those great moments of powerful beauty are less common than I would like.
But then there is spiritual beauty which surrounds us. I have no real definition for this. What is this? Among other things, it is the beauty of love, or prayer, of God. Prayer for me is more of a meditative thing than anything else. Most people, I believe, think of prayer as little more than an abstract, formal use of words where we ask God for something or engage verbally with a divine force with as much inner depth as when we converse with a telemarketer. But prayer, at least for me, is in fact something much deeper, much more powerful, much more profound. And to be ecumenical here, I mean prayer for whatever religious background or belief system to which one may belong. As a Catholic I enjoy certain types of prayer: spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, and of course the Mass. But for other people of different religious or spiritual backgrounds there are many other ways to pray or meditate than these traditional methods. What I have found in my over twenty years of belief and prayer is that prayer yields benefits to one’s life that are in the end indescribable. It is pretty much a scientific fact that prayer, meditative and contemplative prayer, is good for one’s health. As just one person I can attest to the truth of this. Of course I have my questions and doubts about things too. I wonder if prayer is something truly external: am I actually touching and participating in something divine when I pray, is that sense of peace and calm and warmth something coming from another realm, or is it merely some chemical reaction in my mind to the act of praying. Of course I have to believe in the former.
But whatever the case it does something for me that makes me a better person, that brings a depth to me, that helps me to love others better, and I find there is a certain beauty in that. There is also a certain type of beauty in those who are spiritual in a genuine sense, not in the judgmental, let me tell you what’s wrong with you so you don’t go to hell sense, but in the sense of someone who has suffered and learned, deepened and developed their souls. You can sense these souls when you come across them. I think of the Popes of the twentieth century as the great examples of this, John XXIII or John-Paul II for instance. The Dali Lama is another example. I have visited monasteries and met people there who in their quiet obscurity possessed a grace and depth that is rarely found in the Darwinian world that surrounds us daily. It is really the beauty of the soul. The idea of the beauty of the soul goes back as far as Plato, if not further. Plato was the first though to write this down in a way that no one else before had.
If you believe in God, in a spiritual realm that surround us in different ways, then you must believe in the beauty of that realm. Of course I do believe in evil too, so there is another spiritual realm too that is not beautiful, but hideous in ways that I prefer not to describe in this post. But God has to be perfection, and perfection has to be beautiful.
The above fresco is of my favorite pieces of religious art by the Dominican friar Fra Angelico (1395-1455). He was an early Renaissance artist. I find his paintings depict so much of the spiritual world. His art is an interesting combination of the burgeoning classicism of Western art at the time and the older, medieval or even Byzantine art forms that had dominated for centuries. He captures though a certain kind of quiet, spiritual beauty in his works. I particularly enjoy the contrast between the harsh bareness of the tomb, and the lush, verdant garden into which Christ is walking, from the ultimate emptiness of our material world to the living abundance of the next world. Also, the contrast between the passionate red of Mary Magdalene and the glowing white of Christ is striking. In her passion she reaches out to him, an act of love, but it is not yet time for her to touch him. That will come eventually, but in a heavenly, and not “Da Vinci Code”, sense.
Again, I find so much of the modern world simply ugly, especially in art and literature or the general crassness of our society. But that is a subject for a future post. I believe though it has something to do with the loss of spirituality in the Western world. Even the ancients, in Greece and Rome, believed in the otherness of life in way that so many of us, especially so many of our leading writers and artists and intellectuals do not. As I mentioned above, Plato, to give one example, was greatly concerned about the nature of the soul. The great Roman poet Vergil was one of the most spiritual writers of the ancient world. The Aeneid is a epic poem in many ways about the spiritual journey of Aeneas, which is one of the reason’s Dante chose Vergil for his guide through the underworld in that greatest of Catholic poems, The Divine Comedy.
So I enjoy very much spiritual beauty whenever I come across it, whether in my own prayers, or in the people I meet, or in art, music and literature. So many of the “alpha gamers”, as I like to refer to them, are too obsessed with looks, aging, being able to maintain their sexual prowess for as long as possible so they can score as many women. And I feel a little sorry for the women who are sucked into this “game” mentality by trying to maintain the looks of a girl in her early twenties when they are past 35. Trust me, there are beautiful women over 35, but they are beautiful because they do not try to look anything but their age, and they have a depth, dignity, and maturity that no club hopping young chick can hope to possess. The first example that pops into my mind is Jacquelin Kennedy. There are many others. But the looks and beauty which are geared solely to sexual conquest or attraction will all fade away, for each and every one of us. But spiritual beauty will last your entire life, and even more so, it will grow deeper as you get older and hopefully wiser. Now that is something to look forward to.