In reading George Weigel’s concluding volume on John Paul II’s life, The End and the Beginning, I was struck yet again by the beauty of Polish culture. It strikes me whenever I read tales of Catholic Poles secretly and even dangerously protecting their identity through various cultural expressions. They would share poetry, act out Polish plays, enjoy a clandestine concert. And through their culture – poetry, music, plays, art – they were able to preserve a sense of their dignity and of their identity as Poles. In the face of horribly demeaning, dehumanizing behaviors surrounding them, they looked at the beauty of art and true culture and were raised to something higher.
But what do we have? I wonder if we were underground Catholics attempting to reinvigorate our sense of dignity and our American identity, what would we share? Would we reminisce over Shel Silverstein poetry, risk our heads over some Lady Gaga tunes, and illegally perform SNL skits? What “culture” have we cultivated in the last fifty or so years, and would it be worth risking our lives over? Is it even culture?
In his, “Letter to Artists,” John Paul II wrote about the importance of true art, even going so far as to say that “the Church needs art” (#12). Artists have a calling to represent the beautiful, and beauty has a key role in our lives. The late Holy Father wrote,
“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!’” (#16).
Do we surround ourselves with beauty? Our dear Polish brothers and sisters of yesteryear were willing to risk their lives for beauty. We have all legal freedom to visit the art museum, listen to Mozart or watch a Shakespearian play, but how often do we enjoy these things? Are we more likely to flip on reality TV, bob our heads to rap on the radio or spend our time reading chain e-mails? When do we have the opportunity to walk into breathtaking churches that truly raise our gaze heavenward? How often do we encounter true beauty?
I think true beauty is so foreign to us that many times we can’t appreciate it. True beauty requires the patience of taking time to appreciate it. For me, John Paul II’s poetic language is deeply beautiful, causing me to highlight, underline and asterisk much of his masterful imagery. Yet time and time again I hear people complain that John Paul’s writing style is too much for them. I hear variations of, “I mean, come on, John Paul, just get to the point!” But maybe the beauty and the poetry and the necessity of patience to receive it is part of the point. And we are missing it.
On that note, let me quote the Holy Father in his aforementioned “Letter to Artists” when he challenged, “Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy” (#16).
While these words are directed to artists, those of us on the receiving end of art and beauty can certainly pray to be led “to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” And in our pursuit of true beauty and authentic culture, may we be led to a deeper encounter with the Author of beauty.
Let’s make this a time of seeking true beauty, for as Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”