“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
– Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring
It was a signature grace for me to teach for the first time this summer a new elective course for the Theology of the Body Institute; The Way of Beauty. This was a week long head and heart immersion into the great transcendental that’s synonymous for the God Who is Beauty. He, in His Trinitarian Splendor, first captivated me as a young man and drew me into this Way, through the sounds and scents of the pine woods and streams I’d walked in my youth, through the lives of the saints, the writings of authors like Thoreau, Plato, Anton Chekov and Fulton Sheen, in the music of Van Morrison and John Williams, and above all in the sacramental encounters with Christ in the sweet perfumed Presence of adoration. I’ve been longing to intentionally walk this Way of Beauty with others for decades, to shed light on its path and to reveal Beauty not as a decorative diversion but an essential need. With the release of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I’d been given papal orders to do so.
Pope Francis wrote in Joy of the Gospel that “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’… Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus…” (Evangelii Gaudium, 167). This way has been ackowledged and applauded by every modern pope back to Blessed Paul VI, who said to artists at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart… unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands… Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world.”
In teaching this course, however, in opening up this “school” of the contemplative gaze, of wonder and awe, of the listening heart, I didn’t quite realize that I’d be the one schooled the most. As it turns out, from the first pages of our meditations, pondering our own posture before Christ as either Martha or Mary, I discovered I was more the former. The whirlwind of work, the rollercoaster ride of family life, the splintered path that social media (even when intentionally used) can take you on, all of these were taking a toll on my heart. Those first few days, those initial steps on the Way of Beauty course turned out to be a kind of detox. So much more than gazing at beautiful paintings or sculpture, pondering poetry or story, this Way took us into the deep of our relationship with Beauty Himself. It asked the question “Is it enough for me to simply sit at His feet, or do I feel that incessant urge to be busy and anxious about ‘many things’?” We too often are distracted by the glitz and glam of gossip or the latest gadgetry, as our fingers nimbly flip through our newsfeeds on our smartphones like hands in a bowl of popcorn. Is there ever enough?
Beauty, we learned, is arresting. It holds you still, draws you in, heart first, through the senses, and Beauty wants to teach you something invaluable. Something essential, which is at the same time deeply disquieting; you are useless. You, and I, and this world in all of its varied intoxicating glory, is an extravagance, a superfluity.
The pure gratuity of the world can be a stumbling block for our pride. As we pondered in the course, it can even lead some (perhaps too full of a misdirected sense of their own importance) to despair. The atheist Satre said in one of his works “If man is terrified at the bosom of Nature, it is because he feels trapped in a huge amorphous and gratuitous existence which penetrates him completely with its gratuitousness: he has no place anywhere, he is just put on earth, aimless, without any reason to be there, like a briarbush or a clump of grass.” (Sartre, Jean-Paul, Baudelaire, Gallimard, Paris, 1947)
In our utilitarian age, where things only have worth if they have a use, beauty can not stand. But when one discovers that at the heart of the universe, of God’s plan for creation is pure gift, then this truth is a liberation. I don’t have to own, grasp, take, clutch at life, at goods, at others as if they are essentials. There is only one thing necessary; Him. And He is Gift. And He has made me to be gift, and to see all as gift.
In all honestly, since this course, I have stepped back into the Way of the Busy, but something’s a little different. I’ve caught the fragrance, I’ve literally stopped to smell the roses, and discovered that this seemingly wasteful act is in fact the entire point.
The Way of Beauty is above all an invitation. If one accepts, they are taken by the hand into a quiet place. It’s a place where one sits still, allowing the senses to slowly engage the reality that surrounds the heart. If one refuses, they quickly fill their senses with the busyness of the day, or with experiences that might please the senses, though only at the level of the senses.
In that epic story The Lord of the Rings (called by a Carmelite sister I know, an “epic of virtue”), it was believed that there was “only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.” (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 73). Rabbi Lawrence Kushner said just as much; “Entrances to holiness are everywhere. The possibility of ascent is all the time. Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.” (Mishkan T’filah, prayer book).
If we’ve stumbled on our way, allowed our gaze to fall into a nest of distractions, come, let us rise up. The Way is always present, this door is always open.
“The way of beauty replies to the intimate desire for happiness that resides in the heart of every person. Opening infinite horizons, it prompts the human person to push outside of himself, from the routine of the ephemeral passing instant, to the Transcendent and Mystery, and seek, as the final goal of the ultimate quest for wellbeing and total nostalgia, this original beauty which is God Himself, creator of all created beauty.” (Via Pulchritudinis, Plenary Assembly, 2006).
Bill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their three children.