Beauty is hopeful, because it points us toward something higher and better, a world different from our own, where standards of justice and right are always observed.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in one of his Gulag books tells of how he and other prisoners were kept in buildings without any windows, yet each day, when they were being marched from one prison bloc to another, they passed through a hallway with a small window opening to the sky. And they would pause and stare at that sliver of sky in wonderment, lingering there until the guards pushed them along.
One can similarly read, in many of the stories of unfortunate persons sent by the Nazis to concentration camps, that when they were transported from one camp to another they would stare in amazement at the beauty of the mountains or countryside they were passing through.
Here is another story: a mother who was born blind but gained her sight as an adult was asked what most affected her when she finally could see. "My children," she said, "I had no idea how beautiful they were." Before she could only hear their voices but could not see the beauty of their hair, visage, expression, complexion.
These stories and others like them teach us that beauty is something that we can hunger after, the way a famished person hungers after food. Also, that beauty is hopeful, because it points us toward something higher and better, a world different from our own, where standards of justice and right are always observed. Also, that beauty is nonetheless all around us -- "consider the lilies of the field" -- and we can take it for granted, because we have lost sensitivity, or have become coarse or uncaring. We are very often not recollected enough to receive it.
The night sky for millennia served as the standard for beauty in this sense for humanity. I saw a documentary recently about people who live in Antarctica, and one of the persons interviewed said that what she discovered when she moved there was what the night sky looks like. "No one knows what the sky looks like!" she said. People used to know: everyone used to know. At Christ's birth, for example, even cities were not very large, and night lights such as candles were weak and expensive to use. In the middle of the night it was completely dark. I don't know how it works with others, but I think I have seen the night sky in its glory, free of significant "light pollution," twice in my life.
"Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible," Pope Benedict said in an Easter Vigil homily a few years ago, "Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment? With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify." What the Holy Father said about city lights might even more aptly be applied today to the glowing screens of smart phones. Not that technology cannot be a conduit of beauty -- it obviously can in music and art -- but mindless fascination, distraction, indulgence of curiosity, the felt consolations of a glowing display -- these things are like the weeds and thistles of today which crowd out and choke the reception of beauty.
The crucial question here is what we are meant to be like and how we are meant to live. What is the human good in this matter, and how are we to achieve it? The Church has always taught that man is meant to be a contemplative, not necessarily, of course, a monk or a nun, or a star-gazer or nature-lover, but still, even in the midst of the world, living with our spiritual sight lovingly set upon God. "Mary has chosen the better part" -- as Our Lord taught in the gospel last week. It is possible to be in the world and serving others, like Martha, but interiorly to be conversing with Christ and contemplating divine things, like Mary.
Here is another fact about the love of beauty which we have so far not mentioned: that although it begins with sight, it wants to find consummation in touch, and that, when it does, it is fruitful. Plato made this observation in his famous dialogue, the Symposium. That general pattern is obviously true of the romantic love between a man and a woman which involves a yearning beauty of the body.
But it is found too at the very center of our faith. In the faith we contemplate mysteries, which cause us to admire and to wonder. Among mysteries, those which encapsulate the entire Credo, are the Incarnation and Passion. The second person of the Trinity took flesh and suffered on the Cross for our sake. "What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!" Yet Christ is not like the dinosaurs -- some kind of marvel which used to be on earth, and which we discover now and think about with the imagination of a scientist or historian. He is here and present with us, even until the end of the world. And our contemplation of those mysteries will not find fulfillment, and will not be fully fruitful, until we go beyond merely thinking about them but also go on to possess them, through contact -- which is why the Church calls the Eucharist "the summit and source of interior life."
Michael Pakaluk is professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America.