These days we are more likely to talk about the holiness of beauty than the beauty of holiness, but I think the old phrase still has value. St Benet Biscop, whose feast we keep today, is often lauded as the man who brought beauty to our English churches, but we forget at our peril the beauty of life that inspired and sustained his work. If I may quote an earlier post:
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.
. . . 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. . .
There’s the rub. How do we reconcile our desire to make the House of God beautiful with the scriptural imperative to meet needs of His children, especially those who are poor, sick and in want? Most of us would probably admit to muddling through as best we can, trying to be generous yet not neglecting the jar of nard. Those who know the history of our community are well aware, for example, how every item in our oratory has been painstakingly acquired through the generosity of others or some careful management on our part. The Tabernacle, for instance, was a gift but came to us in a very distressed state: we restored it ourselves, lined it with white silk and burnished it to a high degree of brilliance. When we go into the oratory to pray, we are reminded that its beauty is but a pale reflection of the Divine Beauty which shimmers and shines through all creation. At the same time, there is the constant reminder of the way in which the Divine Image is being disfigured by human brutality and violence and by our own failures to live according to the gospel. St Benet Biscop lived long ago, but he understood something we find difficult, as relevant today as it was then: how to serve God in the beauty of a holiness that seeks only what is pleasing to Him. Let us, like him, keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and do whatever He tells us.