The past several years have not been void of darkness. Pandemics, political turmoil, economic wars, actual wars, isolation, depression — and I think there were murder hornets somewhere in between.
At the beginning of my faith journey, I learned that knowing the truth was the most important thing in regard to pursuing and growing in the Faith. If we educate ourselves and receive the proper intellectual formation, then we will have the resources to weather whatever storm comes our way.
For years my focus of the Faith was on apologetics. I devoured book after book about the teachings of the Church and the reasons behind our Catholic faith. Through this knowledge and education, I was able to participate in some riveting dialogues and defend the Faith in anti-Catholic environments such as while attending a public university, living in the Bible belt, as well as while spending a summer overseas in largely secular European society.
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About five years ago, before things got crazy societally, things started to go crazy for me personally. This began with a general sense of discontentment and dissatisfaction. I was “doing” all the “right” things for God. I was “following” all the “rules.” I was reading all the books, listening to all the podcasts, staying up to date with all the Catholic trends, joining all the groups and community events. Yet I couldn’t escape this feeling of isolation and loneliness. Soon after, some extremely difficult situations arose in my life. Everything that could get worse did get worse.
After spinning my wheels and exhausting all the typical ways of relating to God, I found myself at a loss for words and completely directionless. Reading the Bible didn’t make everything okay. Attending community nights didn’t make me feel any less alone. Devotionals did not help me better understand God in the midst of everything. This led me to start going to Eucharistic adoration daily to just sit with the Lord. Instead of bringing my usual tote bags of books, Bibles, devotionals, rosaries and every color of pen imaginable, I just brought myself and spent my time just looking at him.
I had in mind the words of the Curé d’Ars, St. John Vianney: “I look at him and he looks at me.” My prayer became an awkward time of staring at him and telling myself that he was looking at me. I’d like to say that after years of this practice, I am the master of sitting still and that every moment spent in the presence of Christ is silent serene bliss. Depending on the day and season, I am still just as restless in prayer as I was five years ago. Yet, I see the imperfections of my prayer as evidence of a real relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, who meets me where I am at, instead of a dramatized sublime experience with a distant god who cannot sympathize with my humanity.
In those initial times of simply beholding Christ and being conscious of his abiding presence, it was really helpful to pray at a physical church. We can pray anywhere, yet I was really blessed to live close to an exceptionally beautiful parish — a cruciform building that replicated aspects of Italian architecture and design, yet featured the most colorful and expressive stained-glass windows that reminded me of cathedrals in France. At the heart of the parish was a raised, white marble altar, yet the sides featured intricate carvings and gold leafed accents that glittered in the rays that shone from the multicolored windows. The ceiling was painted a deep royal blue, except right above the altar, where the inside of the dome depicted paintings of angels and saints who expressed joy from on high. The parish reeked of holiness — literally. The smell of burning prayer candles by the two side altars and various statues complemented the lingering aroma of the incense burning at the most recent Mass.
The sights and smells reflected the magnificence and majesty of God. Whenever my attention was led astray or my peace disturbed by all the things happening in my life, the surrounding beauty met me in the middle of the mess and connected me to splendor and light that inevitably lifted my soul to meet the almighty.
Beauty had the sort of spotlight effect, shining into the depths of my depravity, beckoning me onto the path of goodness and truth. Without any words at all, beauty was the way in which the Holy Spirit led me out of the weeds of all my intellectual wanderings and into the presence of the one my mind was trying to rationalize its way into meeting.
In terms of transcendentals — truth, beauty, and goodness — they are not silos that compete to lead the soul to the divine; rather they are a faithful team that works in unity to lead the soul to find complete union in the most holy Trinity. In this particular time and age, where we cannot seem to reason with one another nor find common ground, beauty enters the scene to speak in simplicity to the heart. Amid arguments and aggression, the presence of beauty brings a tender strength and assurance to the human heart of the authentic truth that will lead the soul to genuine goodness.
Beauty has been capitalized and hijacked to mean many different things, yet what I notice is that authentic beauty always leads to deeper communion and connection. Genuine beauty leads us to restored relationships — with ourselves and our story, our friends and our family, but ultimately Our Lord and Savior, Jesus. The things that are most beautiful are the things that shine light into the dark places we find ourselves and lead us into the fullness of light where we can be found by the Lord of love who never stops pursuing us in the depths of our heart.