Monday, April 09, 2012

Beauty and Virginity

The Video above is called "Why Beauty Matters." It is done by British philosopher, Roger Scruton. It is perhaps the best contemporary argument for beauty that I have ever encountered. Beware, however, it is PG-13. Many of the examples of ugly "art" have to do with bodily functions--nothing salacious, mostly just crude and offensive. Nevertheless, Scruton makes his point clear arguing that art is about beauty and the transformation of what is common, even tragic, into something sublime and even divine. He goes so far as to equate beauty with religion. I seem to remember him saying that he thought they both had the same function. I wouldn't go that far; however, certainly beauty and religion must be closely related. I think it is as though beauty gives wings to religion and religion gives context and content to beauty. But I am no philosopher, so don't push me too hard on this.

And speaking of beauty, tonight is the second of the Bridegroom Matins taking us through the week of Christ's passion. I find these services to be among the most beautiful in the Church year. The poetry of the hymnography is such that one can spend the whole year meditating on these hymns chanted only once a year. Tonight one of the foci is the parable of the ten virgins. The following is part of the synaxarion, the explanation of the meaning of the parable as it is applied in this service:

On this day we make remembrance of the Parable of the Ten Virgins which Jesus spake along with others as he was coming to the Passion. It teaches us not to rest as though safe in virginity, but to guard it whenever possible, and not to desist from any virtues and good deeds, especially deeds of mercy, which make the lamp of virginity shine brilliantly. It teaches us also to be ready for our end, not knowing when our hour is coming, as the wise virgins were ready to meet the bridegroom, lest death overtake us and close the door of the heavenly chamber in our face, and we hear the terrible judgment which the foolish virgins heard, Verily, verily, I know you not (Mt. 25:1-13).

What I find particularly poignant in this reading is the sentence, "It teaches us not to rest as though safe in virginity..." You might well ask, "How can this apply to married people or others who are not virgins?" The answer is simple: virginity does not refer most centrally to biology. Sure, virginity has a biological manifestation; but what the Church is talking about when it exhorts us to virginity is a state of pure devotion. Virginity is a devotion of the heart which manifests itself in behaviours that proceed out of a pure heart and are appropriate for one's state in life. Even great harlots can become virgin brides of God.

But this is not the point that is important. What is important is that even virginity is not enough. The parable says that all ten are virgins, yet five are wise and five are foolish. The wise brought extra oil. The Church teaches us that we must bring extra oil: that is, we must add to virginity "virtues and good deeds, especially deeds of mercy, which make the lamp of virginity shine brilliantly."

It is not enough merely to carefully guard your own life. It is not enough just to keep yourself pure. To purity must be added good deeds, especially deeds of mercy. Salvation is a matter of going out of yourself and mercifully attending to others. This is what Jesus does. You cannot find salvation by focusing only on purifying yourself. And perhaps this also ties into beauty. Beauty helps pull us out of ourselves. It stimulates an eros which--coming from a pure heart, or at least a heart that is seeking to be purified--can create a longing in us to care, to love, to show mercy. The effect of eros on an impure heart is the longing to possess and consume. And so we must be very careful, especially in our good deeds and acts of mercy, that we not at some deep level actually be seeking to possess and consume under the guise of charity.

Nevertheless, even if we cannot love perfectly, we must love. We must learn to be virgins. We must learn to appreciate beauty and from a heart that is being purified let that beauty draw us out in acts of compassion, mercy and good.


Barbara said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

I have been rereading some of my favourite Simone Weil essays. She writes specifically about beauty and religion and your post reminded me of her thoughts - quoted below.

"There are two kinds of "eating" for Simone Weil, the "eating" of beauty and the beloved here below, which is a grievous error, what one eats is destroyed, it is no longer real, and the miriaculous "eating" in Heaven, where one consumes and is consumed by his God. The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations. Only beyond the sky, in the country inhabited by God, are they one and the same operation....It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at. Here below we must be content to be eternally hungry; indeed we must welcome hunger, for it is the sole proof we have of the reality of God, who is the only sustenance that can satisfy us, but one which is "absent" in the created world. The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread (God), but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry. It can only persuade itself of this by lying, for the reality of its hunger is not a belief, it is a certainty.

Not to deny one's hunger and still not to eat what is forbidden, there is the miracle of salvation! It is true even on the level of human friendship, a miracle by which a person consents to view from a certain distance, and without coming any nearer, the very being who is necessary to him as food. And how much more true on the level of the divine....It is "looking" which saves and not "eating." It should also be publicly and officially recognized that religion is nothing else but a looking."

Weil,S. (1951) Waiting for God. HarperCollins Publishing: New York.

Fr. Michael said...

Amen! Amen!