Beauty Matters

I like the fact that Ordinary Time opens with the feast of St Benet Biscop. If you know nothing about him, this old post may help, but if you are familiar with his life and work, you will understand why his feast turns my mind to thoughts of beauty. Benet understood the value of beauty in worship, but he was no mere aesthete, lauding l’art pour l’art. He was a practical man, a very practical man, whose enchantment with beauty in all its forms had a profound pedagogic instinct. He wanted our English churches to be beautiful because the beauty of created things can lead us to deeper appreciation of the beauty of our Creator. And what a persuasive man he must have been! To get John the Cantor to travel from Rome to England so that English monks and nuns could sing the chant according to the Roman manner; to get the glaziers and masons to cross the Channel so that their skills could be learned and practised in these northern climes; to get the manuscript-makers to share their gifts with our native-born scribes; all this took persuasion as well as imagination and hard work. He is a wonderful antidote to those who think that to be poor with the poor Christ we must choose the cheap and ugly over the beautiful and sometimes costly. He understood the meaning of the breaking of the jar of nard.

This morning, however, I think we need to dwell more on the source of Benet’s inspiration than its effects. The strong Christian faith that led him to identify completely with his Master; the ready acceptance of suffering (he was bedridden for three years); the unseen hours of prayer that nourished all he did; these are what make him a saint, not the beauties he created or left behind. Benet understood the holiness of beauty, certainly, but I think that was because he understood the beauty of holiness comes first. Today, as we look round the world and see how much unnecessary suffering and death there is, the myriad ways in which human beings are destroyed, perhaps we could pause and take stock of our own lives. We may protest that we do not perpetrate the kind of horrors we have seen in Baga or in Paris, but every time we fail to accord others their dignity, every time we close our hearts to others’ needs, we chip away at something important. The most beautiful of all the beauties God created is the human person. May we never forget that.