Aching with desire – an encounter with beauty

At the request of my archbishop, and thanks to his generous financial support, I spent the better part of last week at Notre Dame University for the School Pastors Institute offered by the Alliance for Catholic Schools (ACE). More about that via the links, which I especially commend for priests entering into ministry with a Catholic school for the first time.

Apart from the conference, the main attraction for me was Notre Dame University itself. I must confess that my knowledge of Notre Dame is limited to what is conveyed in the movie Rudy, the various instances in which it has shown up in modern media, and from the reverent tones with which it is referenced within Catholic conversation.

Frankly, my regard for Notre Dame has wavered over the years between dismissing it as overhyped or, rather unfairly, internally regarding it as a ‘Catholic-in-name-only’ institution. I’m happy to report that that preconception did not last long in my encounter with the actual place.

I’m sure there are legitimate critiques of the culture, curriculum, and indeed even the catholicism of the university. I can not address those, but I can say this with great confidence: of the three transcendentals (truth, goodness, and beauty) it is the last one that shone through clearly at Notre Dame in my brief time there.

I’ve been catching up on The Liturgy Guys podcast (well worth your time!) and by happy coincidence happened to be listening to one of their season one episodes in which they make the point that of the transcendentals, beauty is what is most effective in today’s generation.

While modern man argues about truth and goodness as entirely subjective, beauty is still generally recognized to exist apart from individual definitions of it. I may recognize beauty or the lack thereof, but beauty makes itself known as beautiful simply by being. Not only do my subjective preferences fail to mar the beautiful or beautify the ugly, but beauty is recognizable across a diversity of subjective preferences.

So back to Notre Dame: it’s beautiful. The sprawling 1000+ acre property is simply extraordinary. Sidewalks cross and circle well-manicured lawns, tastefully placed trees, with open & shaded areas thoughtfully placed between the various buildings. And the building! I can’t speak to the specific architectural traits, but it is clear that thought went into even the simplest of buildings. Saints, seals, and symbolism in general are present everywhere.

The center of the campus is the administrative building – ‘the golden dome’ – atop of which is a gilt statue of Mary (sixteen feet tall, our guide told us), herself standing on a gilt dome. Originally the only building of the university, it is now the spot where you go to enroll there. By tradition, it is also where graduates go to celebrate by simply going up the stairs – often for the first time. And next to the golden dome is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart – where the beauty of Notre Dame truly makes itself known.

I can’t do this church justice. The tabernacle is its own sight to behold, the paintings (especially above and behind the altar) worthy of extended examination, the statues holding rich history and symbolism, the stained-glass windows deserving of in-depth reflection on the mysteries they make present. Even the decoration of the walls, the floor, the ambo, and elsewhere call for attention and prayer over what they convey.

Walking into this beautiful church, this making-present of Christ and His Church joined together in the heavenly Jerusalem to us still here anticipating that union, I was deeply moved. Of course, there was awe: everywhere one looks there is extraordinary, awesome, glorious, thoughtful, detailed beauty. Or more precisely expressed:  integritas, consonantia, and claritas  – as The Liturgy Guys regularly remind their listeners.

What surprised me were the movements of my heart following my awe. One was a longing to stay, to simply be here, both in presence and in belonging. If I had come to Notre Dame before visiting a seminary, I’m certain I would have enrolled right away.

Knowing that staying wasn’t possible, I found my delight in the church mixed with the sadness that I would have to eventually leave. The beauty that was inspiring and delighting me was not one that I could stay with nor take with me. No memento or photo would match up with the real presence of this church. I can only hope to return some day to this church, to pray here, perhaps even to join in the liturgy for which it was built.

The final movement I discerned within my heart is a resolve to do my part to make present this transcendental of beauty where ever I may be. I’m no creator of classical aesthetic beauty – making beautiful art and architecture are works I must entrust to others. But my actions can be more beautiful, my prayer more beautiful, my words more beautiful, my ministry more beautiful – my very person more beautifully as God created me to be, no matter where I am.

 

Intellectually, I know that the beauty of Notre Dame can not be without flaws. But my brief encounter with its imperfect beauty elicited something within me that I have rarely felt before – certainly not to this degree: I want to be joined to beauty. It is no exaggeration to say that I felt that my heart was literally aching with that desire.

The truth is that our parishes, our liturgy, our very people can themselves make present this beauty to each other and the world. How amazing would it be if our buildings, our celebrations of the Mass, our encounters with parishioners individually and as a whole more perfectly conveyed the beauty of Christ and His Church joined together in the heavenly Jerusalem?

If dead stones, dry paint, and silent figures can touch the hearts of those who behold them, what graces might be made present by the living stones of the Church brilliantly shining forth in all the colors of redeemed humanity, their very lives proclaiming Christ!

There’s an idea to make the heart of every Christian ache and through them, inspire the hearts of the whole world.