Ugliness is a spiritual problem. If beauty manifests the perfection and splendor of something, ugliness distorts it, corrupting what it is meant to be and blinding us to its true reality. A tree struck by lightning or blighted with disease is ugly. A building sculpted with cement, with little light or elegance, depresses us. The ugliness of most modern art disturbs us and does not uplift our sensibilities. And the greatest ugliness of all — sin — corrupts and distorts the beauty of our soul by grasping after pleasurable scraps, trying to force happiness even though this pleasure, cut off from higher goods, only makes us more miserable.
We long for beauty, yet we’re not always sure how to recognize it. There are things that immediately attract us: a stunning landscape, a Renaissance masterpiece, or a beautiful figure. Why do they grab our attention? The beauty of nature awes us and give us peace. Great art amazes us and inspires our imagination. The beauty of another person moves our heart and leads us to desire communion. That is what it should do, although a merely surface attraction can lead us back to ugliness — using the person for immediate gratification and pleasure. Exterior attraction might capture our eyes, yet it should always lead us to more.
Beauty calls us to commitment, not just to enjoy another but to give our lives in love. When we are taken by someone’s beauty, it generates a spark, a desire for something more than ourselves. Falling in love is the best example of this. We’re attracted to the good of the other — their looks, personality, and companionship — but the initial draw is meant for commitment, leading us to dedicate our lives to the good of the other. Beauty leads to love, moving us to sacrifice for the good of the other, to cultivate and protect their beauty. This love helps us to see beauty more deeply than we did before. After 50 years of marriage, a couple should be able to appreciate the other’s beauty beyond the initial attraction, even if the beauty of youth has passed, because they intimately know what is within.
True beauty is deeper than any outward attractiveness. It is the splendor of a soul rightly ordered that communicates what is good and true about life in the deepest sense. Beauty is spiritual in nature. The awe that we have in nature and even the depth of human love both provide a sign of divine love — of the one who is Beauty itself. Beauty is more than skin deep, as in its deepest expression, it radiates the essential goodness, purity, loveliness of God and his creation. When we recognize the deepest aspect of beauty, we are drawn into this good and want to commit our lives to it. In fact, falling in love with God makes us beautiful, as he cultivates and protects our beauty in our divine communion with him.
Beauty’s greatest power cannot be found in a beautiful object, but in a beautiful life, and there is one life in particular reveals this power to its fullest extent. The Cross expresses the power of beauty by showing us the supreme goodness of human life. The one who is beauty itself emptied himself and took on all the ugliness of the world, even to the point of disfigurement. And yet this love and sacrifice manifests the greatest beauty — the beauty of Christ’s love and also his desire to see our lives become beautiful through that love. The beauty of Cross cuts through all the noise, vanity, and lust by unmasking their ephemeralness.
In this relativistic age, it can be hard to engage people in conversations about truth or morality. And yet, beauty and art can cut through these barriers, catching people’s attention and drawing them toward the sacred. A beautiful church, like the great Gothic cathedrals of France, draw people inside like magnets. When they step inside, tourists are greeted by a silence and peace that speaks more powerfully than anything on social media. The candles flickering before the saints create a sacred atmosphere, as they flicker on the gold leaf along the seams of their garments. The stained glass radiates with brilliant color, calling the visitor to awaken his interior senses. The arches themselves lead the mind upward to wonder, “Is there anything more than this life?” In the center of it all, treasured in a tabernacle of gold, the Lord himself awaits them and invites them quietly to meet him in their hearts.
What is needed after this visit? More than any structure or image, faith must be instantiated through a living witness. Jesus becomes present in the flesh when the world sees a different kind of life, one marked by the same sacrificial charity of the Cross. Charity is the sign to the world that beauty truly exists and that it’s worth sacrificing for it. “By this,” Jesus said, “all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). The Christian life should be a sign of contradiction against the spiritual ugliness of sin and a sign of hope that true beauty is attainable.
Evangelization happens through beauty. Art provides an initial sign of the Christian vision, and Christian witness confirms its living reality in the world. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the connection between holiness and art: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.” The world needs to learn how to see again, to recover its ability to recognize the all-surpassing beauty of knowing Jesus and living in communion with him. And it starts with our own ability to recognize that beauty; only then can we truly share it with others, helping them to see as well.