“This is the power of Beauty, to transform our souls, our spiritual nature, to the state God intended for us”
A Crisis of Beauty
The Church, and the world at large, is suffering a crisis of Beauty. We have lost the understanding of the power of Beauty to transform our souls.
Even so, on an intuitive level, the level of “poetic knowledge,” we still have a sense of this power of Beauty to transform. We remind ourselves of this in the stories we tell. We tell the same story over and over again but we dress it up in different ways. The settings may change, the characters, time and details may differ, but it is at heart the same story.
Beauty and the Beast
A merchant returning home after a long trip is lost in an unfamiliar forest. He chances upon a mysterious castle which opens its doors to him and offers him shelter. During his stay there, he is tended to by unseen servants. Before he leaves he takes a single rose from the garden to give to his daughter, “Beauty.”
But this theft of a single flower enrages the master of the castle, a fearsome beast who condemns the merchant to death for his crime. The merchant pleads for mercy and tells the Beast of his three daughters who will have no one to care for them if he does not return.
The Beast relents on the condition that the merchant send one of his daughters back to the Beast to take the merchant’s place as a prisoner. The merchant returns home with a heavy heart. When he tells his daughters of his encounter with the Beast, his youngest and most beautiful daughter, Beauty, offers to return as the Beast’s prisoner.
Beauty’s life at the castle is luxurious but lonely. All her needs are met by the unseen servants. She is given the finest food and clothing and allowed the freedom of the castle. Every night she has dinner with the Beast and every night the Beast asks Beauty to marry him. But she is repulsed by his appearance and his manner and every night she refuses.
Finally her loneliness overcomes her and she pleads with the Beast to allow her to visit her sisters. The Beast permits this provided she return exactly one week later. But Beauty’s sisters are jealous of her seemingly new found fortune, and conspire to make her delay beyond her permitted time. When she realizes this, Beauty hastens back to the castle and finds the Beast in the garden near the rose bush, dying from a broken heart.
Beauty tearfully proclaims her love for the Beast and her tears transform the creature into a handsome prince, the son of a king. The prince tells Beauty that he was cursed by an evil fairy for refusing her the simple hospitality of shelter from a storm. For the sin of pride he was cursed with the form of a monstrous beast, and doomed to remain so until he was loved for himself in spite of his appearance. But the love of Beauty has broken the curse.
A Christian Allegory
It is a familiar story, especially in light of recent major motion pictures. But there is a truth hidden in this simple fairy tale.
The Beast is a reflection of fallen man. Due to our transgression of Original Sin, we have been transformed into a parody of the creature God made us to be. But still we are drawn to Beauty, always seeking to be reunited with her. When we finally experience true Beauty, which is to say the love of God, our souls are transformed and we are once again sons and daughters of the King of Kings.
The Power of Beauty
This is the power of Beauty, to transform our souls, our spiritual nature, to the state God intended for us, before we turned away from him out of pride. Beauty transforms us by drawing us beyond herself and pointing us to the source of all Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Professor Joseph Campbell understood this. He understood the ability of story, mystery, and beauty to resonate with us. In 1949 Campbell published “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” in which he explored the story we tell ourselves in every age and every culture, the details change but the basic story remains. His book had tremendous influence on generations of writers, storytellers and filmmakers.
Joseph campbell was raised Catholic. But he left the Church in the 1960s over what he saw as a rejection of beauty. At a time when we most desperately needed to be reminded of the depth of the mystery and beauty of the Christian story, the Church went in a different direction. In an effort to be modern and “up to date” the Church suppressed thousands of years of art, music, and architecture, as old and irrelevant to the modern age.
As a result we have church buildings that do not lift our hearts and minds to God. Soulless structures and exercises in architecture, that are filled with art that does not draw us beyond its pretty surface to contemplate the eternal truths. And the music of our liturgy no longer connects us to the order and beauty of the Divine.
How have we fallen so far? More importantly how do we regain this ancient understanding of the power of Beauty to bring us closer to God?
© Lawrence Klimecki
Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org and can be reached at Lawrence@deaconlawrence.com