First and foremost, happy Feast of the Visitation! I particularly love this feast day because the mass reading includes the Magnificat, one of the most wondrous and beautiful of all the passages in the Bible. And if you haven’t heard (or haven’t heard lately!) Bach’s setting of the Magnificat, now’s the time:
While we’re on the topic of beauty, this week’s America magazine reprints a fine quote from Pope Francis on the very topic. In April, the Holy Father urged his audience to reject the thinking of ideologues in part because they cannot recognize beauty: “The ideologues falsify the gospel. Every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from—from (whatever side)—is a falsification of the Gospel. And these ideologues, as we have seen in the history of the Church, end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness—and let us not so much as mention beauty, of which they know nothing.” On this Feast day, when we can’t help but be floored by the sheer beauty of Mary’s joy, let us remember that we need beauty. For at the moment that we are not allowed to speak of the beautiful, the moment in which we cannot think in aesthetic as well as moral and philosophical terms, then we are left with a regime of thought that is ultimately cold and sterile.
Beauty has the power to arrest us, if we let it. I’m not a huge fan of Norman Rockwell, but the Pope’s comments reminded me of one Rockwell painting that I’ve always loved, one that seems to capture how the hustle and bustle of work and of thought, if it cannot see beyond itself, misses the point. Lift Up Thine Eyes [follow the link to see the painting; I’m not reprinting here since it’s not in the public domain] depicts St. Thomas’s Church in NYC—crowds of pedestrians, sketchy and flat, wander through the streets staring at the sidewalk as a church worker finishes setting the letters on the church sign. The title of the day’s sermon is, ironically, “Lift Up Thine Eyes.”
I had my own “arresting” moment of beauty this week. I often pu Classical music on in the background while I’m doing academic working. This was the case a couple of days ago; however, when Samuel Barber’s indescribably gorgeous setting of the Agnus Dei came on (if you’ve heard Barber’s Adagio for Strings then you’ll recognize the melody). At a certain point I couldn’t let it be background anymore—I had to stop and had to “lift up my ears” as it were. To let its beauty be both marginalized and instrumentalized into “background music” felt downright wrong.
I wrote in a previous Quick Takes about hoping to get my campus’s Catholic grad student reading group on board with Brideshead Revisited as our summer book. Well, Brideshead didn’t win, but another one of my recommendations—G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy—did and, frankly, I’m pleased as a peach. Heck, everyone ought to read Chesterton at some point! Meanwhile, Brideshead has officially become part of my own summer reading list.
Speaking of Chesterton, his 137th birthday was this past Wednesday. In celebration, here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about a conversation between (the heavyset) Chesterton and his friend (the rail-like) George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton says to Shaw: “To look at you, anyone would think that a famine had struck England.” To which Shaw retorts: “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”
I’ve always much admired the friendship of Chesterton and Shaw. In an age of ever-tightening ideological bubbles, it’s nice to remember that there was—and perhaps can be again—a time where people who harbor deep differences in their intellectual and spiritual commitments can nonetheless build lifelong friendships. And perhaps the “nonetheless” is unnecessary; perhaps it is the ability to disagree—to care about one’s ideas and the ideas of another enough to dispute with them—that builds those friendships in the first place.
In other literary news (albeit news that’s about 200 years old), I discovered today just how much Samuel Taylor Coleridge hated light reading and light readers. As part of my research, I’ve been reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and I just discovered, in one of Coleridge’s footnotes, this little gem of a rant about “circulating libraries” (whose readers would pool resources to buy and share books, usually popular fiction):
…as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement […] from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth and hatred of vacancy.
I can’t imagine that Coleridge approves of the things I’m reading when I’m not reading Coleridge . . .
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