Tag Archives: The Beautiful

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In our buildings and music, beauty was always present even if I didn’t notice. Orolo was on to something; when I saw any of those kinds of beauty I knew I was alive, and not just in the sense that when I hit my thumb with a hammer I knew I was alive, but rather in the sense that I was partaking of something–something was passing through me that it was in my nature to be a part of. This was both a good reason not to die and a hint that death might not be everything. I knew I was perilously close to Deolater territory now. But because people could be so beautiful it was hard not to think that there was something of people that came from the other world that Cnoüs had seen through the clouds.

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Re-charging one’s “batteries”

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One of my friends asked me the other day if I meditated. I asked for what purpose would I meditate? She said she didn’t know, if I ever needed some peace of mind or something. I said that if I need quiet time, I go someplace beautiful and spend time there. Pretty churches work best because then I’m surrounded by beauty and by God’s presence.

I discovered over this past year that I really, truly, desperately need to be regularly exposed to lots of beauty. The Catholic Center on campus is a little… well, it’s kind of drab and boring, like many Catholic Centers of secular universities. And while the Sacrifice is the same wherever you go, as a fallen human being, I often need external stimulation. My way of doing so is enjoying beauty.

For others, they may have different ways of “re-charging” and “re-focusing” whenever they need it. My theory is that so long as you’re within the Transcendentals–Goodness, Truth, or Beauty–you’re in good shape. So if your “thing” is working at a soup kitchen (Good) or reading up on apologetics (Truth) or spending time surrounded by icons (Beauty), or any variation thereof, you’ve found your way to talk to God.

A gorgeous German Gothic church from my home diocese

Coffee and Ritual

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

In virtually any country outside America where coffee is part of the culture, it is accompanied by a certain kind of ritual.

As part of the morning routine, the coffee is made–a process and ritual in and of itself, especially in places like Italy, where “coffee” means “espresso.”  As it brews, the aroma is savoured.  It is then poured and drunk slowly, with both the taste of the coffee and the beauty of the fresh new morning being enjoyed together.

In America, however, coffee is frequently reduced to a mere utilitarian tool: “I need my coffee or I won’t function.”  To-go cups are everywhere here (look for a travel coffee mug in Colombia.  Go on, I dare you) and it’s not remotely uncommon to see someone walking down the street holding a Starbucks cup in their hand (though the primary issue here is not so much moving with one’s coffee as clearly not understanding good coffee in the first place, but the issues with Starbucks are a whole ‘nother matter).  Caffeine is absorbed, not just in coffee, but in energy drinks as well–and even pill form.  (Caffeine pills can kill you, by the way.)  The drug of choice for many, caffeine has become divorced from its most intense natural source–coffee–and simply turned into a means to an end.

This cultural drift towards self-centered instant gratification and “grab-and-go” conveniences (along with the excuse of “I just don’t have the time for this!”), in our fast-paced, constantly-busy, work-obsessed society, has consequences for virtually every aspect of our lives: no-strings-attached sex, decline in Mass attendance, illicit general absolution services when not necessary, increased abortion rates, and so on.  Each of these points could be embellished further (and yes, they are all very important), but this post will focus on the liturgical repercussions of this tendency.

With the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which has been grossly and wildly misinterpreted time and again (just like the Bible), the reverence of the liturgy was compromised in many areas.  Granted, there had been some underlying issues in many parishes and dioceses, and certainly many of these issues were merely drawn to the fore after the Council was put into effect, but Vatican II became an excuse and justification for these abuses.  “The spirit of Vatican II” is now a progressive catchphrase, causing many Catholics to cringe.  Rather than a reverent focus on the Lord’s Ultimate Sacrifice, the focus is often on the people and their accomplishments and “how God works through them,” all too often leading to self-idolization (and if you don’t believe me, visit the Diocese of Rochester some time).  The Church’s tradition and ritual are treated as if obsolete in certain areas, replaced by feel-good quips and relativistic “everything’s good!” comments.

The sudden decay of the ritual in the Mass, as well as the gradual decrease in overall Mass attendance, are symptoms of the culture as a whole, of which grab-and-go coffee is merely another manifestation.  Relativism has replaced absolute truths in the minds of many, causing the reasons behind the instituted rituals to be widely considered “old-fashioned” or “obsolete” and exchanged for touchy-feely “anything-goes” rituals which mean little and change according to whim.  As for Mass attendance… well, Sunday Mass, on average, takes about an hour, though it can be shorter or longer depending upon the speed at which the priest speaks, the length of the homily, the length of the aisle, and whether or not there is a Sign of Peace, among many other factors.  However, many people–often young people who start this habit early and then allow it to follow them–skip even an hour on Sunday, claiming that they “don’t have the time.”  Like a diet or an exercise regime, once you’ve skipped it once, it’s easier to skip it again.  And so an overly-busy life “prevents” many from attending Mass (even though “being too busy” is not written into Canon Law as a legitimate excuse for missing Mass).

None of the points are intended to imply that Mass attendance is higher anywhere else just because they take the time to enjoy their coffee in the morning–in fact, Italy’s Mass attendance hasn’t been doing so well, and they are renowned for the ritual of the morning cappuccino.  In contrast, Poland’s Mass attendance rate is, allegedly, something like 80% (though I’m basing this upon hearsay and the fact that one of my high school teachers was in Poland relatively recently and informed us that on every corner is a Catholic church and at every single Mass every weekend, every single church is so packed with people that they have to have speakers outside), and they’re primarily known for their booze (are there any rituals which involve vodka which don’t include jello shots, blacking out, or both?).

In short, utilitarianism is killing us spiritually.  Coffee has no ritual around it; it is nothing more than a means to an end.  Mass doesn’t mean anything concrete; it is irrelevant.  I could be spending my time working instead of at Mass; I won’t waste a whole hour doing that.  And so on.  It expands easily into such horrors as, “I can’t have this child now, I have a career” and, “But it makes me feel good, and that’s what it’s for, right?”  Utilitarian coffee and neglect of the liturgy both manifest the same hollow spirit which eats away at so many aspects of our life and culture. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

The Truth of Fairy Tales

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

It may be a commonplace to call our age one that prides itself on freedom from the “miserable dark ages,” from obscurantism, superstition, and perhaps belief in anything beyond the inquiry of natural science; but while materialisms philosophical and commercial may seem to rule the day in much of the world, somehow the most popular stories remain those inspired by the visions of former ages: by thought-worlds too foreign and spacious for the physicalist or relativistic confinement cell.  Fairy tales continue to be retold– just think of Disney, the Shrek films, or the two Snow White films to be released next year–and new stories inspired by them emerge one after another.  How could stories like The Lord of the Rings receive such popularity and affection from an age that appears so thoroughly to despise all that comes from its world of origin?

Because fairy tales bear in their hearts something that satisfies our longings; they carry truths too obvious for the modernist to remember, and if we search them out we may learn something not only of them but of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

St. George and the Dragon (courtesy of Turrell Studio--click the image to see more)

“Fairy tales are more than true,” tells us G. K. Chesterton, “not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  In other words, the bad news– the real threat of dragons– is already apparent; the good news of their defeat is the surprise. The dragons we know about already, lurking as they are both in our imagination and in the world beyond, or else there would be no talk of evil, of suffering and death.  The pagans of old knew about the dragons– they knew the brokenness of the world before they had heard the Gospel preached.  Pandora knew of it; the Stoic philosopher in his calm despair knew of it.  The good news that follows, that the Dragon has been beaten decisively, that was what no human heart could have conceived, beyond what all hopes could dream.

But it is in the promise of this hope beyond human conception that lies so much of the attraction of fairy stories. Of the many truths which fairy tales might hold up to modern eyes the greatest is that good will triumph–that the dragons can be beaten.  J.R.R. Tolkien coined a term for the in-breaking of miraculous good which triumphs over insurmountable evil precisely in the good’s hour of greatest weakness, the most unlikely ending to modern readers but perhaps for that reason the most satisfying: eucatastrophe, or “a good down-turn.”  The eucatastrophe of the fairy tale is the Good News: the dragon is slain, the princess rescued, the day won, and all live happily ever after.

This is no pipe-dream’s perfect ending, as readers of the Lord of the Rings will remember. The eucatastrophe of fairy stories as Tolkien interprets them (and as they themselves echo the Gospel) truly embody the idea of “earning your happy ending”; not, of course, that in the end “earning” the final, miraculous victory has much to do with it– or else it would not be miraculous. For the very place where the Gospels and fairy tales touch is in rejecting any carnal hope of worldly success in favor of that far more fulfilling victory which comes as unexpected gift. Yet it is unmistakeable that if there is some unique power that fairy tales still hold over human hearts it is because in them can be traced something of the same pattern that lies in the Cross and Resurrection.

By way of contrast, if the modernist carries his “real” beliefs to their logical conclusion, the ending to the story is dreadfully unsatisfactory and does not result in the cathartic “happy ending” characteristic of fairy tales.  An excellent and very real published example of this horrendous type of ending is the Series of Unfortunate Events.  Daniel Handler (pseudonym Lemony Snicket) is a self-proclaimed “secular humanist.”  Not to ruin the ending of the intriguing thirteen-book series, it will simply be mentioned that anyone who has read it can attest to the utter lack of catharsis and complete flop of the end of Book the Thirteenth.  Very few loose ends are tied up and even more are opened.  Unlike a story such as Heart of Darkness or 1984, where the ending leaves you uncomfortable and pondering, but you inevitably realize it could not end any other way, The End (Book the Thirteenth of A Series of Unfortunate Events) results in the reader wanting to rewrite the story to have… well, a fairy-tale ending.  An epic such as the Series of Unfortunate Events demands a fairy-tale ending–or at least one somewhat resembling it.

Like a dissonant conclusion to an otherwise harmonious melody, the lackluster ending to A Series of Unfortunate Events leaves with its impression of dissatisfaction a testament to the truth that gives fairy tales their enduring allure. What draws people to fairy tales is the promise of something more than disappointed expectations or the punishments of cruel vicissitude: the hope of a victory that breaks through from beyond the circles of this world and in reaching down to broken human beings offers them the guarantee of a new day more great and terrible than they can imagine.

It may be a commonplace to call our age one that prides itself on freedom from the “miserable dark ages,” from obscurantism, superstition, and perhaps belief in anything beyond the inquiry of natural science; but while materialisms philosophical and commercial may seem to rule the day in much of the world, somehow the most popular stories remain those inspired by the visions of former ages: by thought-worlds too foreign and spacious for the physicalist or relativistic confinement cell.  Fairy tales continue to be retold– just think of Disney, the Shrek films, or the two Snow White films to be released next year–and new stories inspired by them emerge one after another.  How could stories like The Lord of the Rings receive such popularity and affection from an age that appears so thoroughly to despise all that comes from its world of origin?

Because fairy tales bear in their hearts something that satisfies our longings; they carry truths too obvious for the modernist to remember, and if we search them out we may learn something not only of them but of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Welcome to the Third Edition of the Roman Missal!

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I’ve been going to the Latin Mass for a couple years now (I can’t remember exactly how long) and I must admit that these new English translations have made me ecstatic.  It reads almost exactly like the right-hand side of the Latin-English Missal!  It’s beautiful.  I admit that today was a little slow–all of us are adjusting, so we’re sort of stumbling through the Mass–but it will eventually be beautiful.  And maybe the chant will encourage churches to do more of the propers IN LATIN.  I’m such a sucker for a Latin Credo.  Or Sanctus.  Or Agnus Dei.  Or… you get the idea.  (Actually, my personal favourite–and my sister’s–sung Credo is Palestrina’s Credo from Missa O Magnum Mysterium.  Liturgical music nuts, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it is a polyphonic tune for… four voices?  I think four.  But can be done with more.  Don’t quote me on that, ask a liturgy nerd.  My normal go-to liturgy nerds are at Mass right now.)

I’m not going to post a whole list of the changes–you can find those online, or at your local Catholic church now that it’s Advent–but I would like to remind everyone to respond, “And with your spirit”!  (Maybe it would be easier if we just switched back to Latin?  I don’t know.)

Also, something lovely I noticed–I can still sing the Sanctus in Latin.  And the current English setting of the Holy, Holy, Holy is the plainchant for the Latin.  This makes me happy.  Now I need to learn the Credo…

Oh!  One more thing.  To anyone who says that changing “We believe” in the Creed to “I believe” ruins the community identity, a few things:

1. “Credo” is first person.  Looks like Spanish, doesn’t it?  “Tengo,” “hablo,” etc.  Spanish (like French, Portugese, Italian, and Romanian) is a Romance language–it is derived from Latin.  So the Latin is saying “I believe.”

2. I really don’t see how you can say that the community identity is ruined when a hundred voices all say the same words together.  The Pledge of Allegiance is in first-person too, and schoolchildren all over the nation say that in unison. “I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

3. It’s kind of pretentious, in this day and age of modernistic relativism, to assume that everyone believes what you believe–even at your own church.  I’ve run into too many dissenters in the past to say, “Well, WE believe X, Y and Z” and have switched to referring to myself alone for the simple fact that many “Catholics” don’t understand the True Presence.  (I know not all, but I’m from Rochester.  Sadly this kind of an experience can make a young Catholic a bit jaded, I’m afraid.)

Anyway, enjoy the beautiful new translations!  Maybe you want to invest in a new Roman Missal… or a Latin-English missal.  You never know when someone may decide to switch it up on you! 😉

Bad Monks

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Some time ago, I had the chance to meet Kevin, owner of Theatre of the Word, Inc.  I now consider him a friend (and hope he considers me the same, even with the age difference).  Something he said in one of our conversations stuck with me, and I will do my best to repeat it here:

“Actors are basically bad monks.  Monks devote themselves fully and completely to one subject–prayer.  Actors do the same thing for theatre, but they have strayed from their path along the way.  That’s why they’re all so messed-up.”

This is normal. Desks were made for naps.

I would like to make the same case for architects.  I am frequently here in studio till all hours of the night, working, talking, laughing–always in studio.  And many of my classmates are here with me.  We throw ourselves headlong into our work and only come up for air when a project is over, at which point in time we promptly fall asleep on the nearest horizontal surface.  This is entirely normal and expected of us.  We live like ascetics–cloistered in studio, often eating only one meal a day (and even then, only because we decided as a group that we ought to get out of studio and eat something real which didn’t come from the cafe downstairs).  All we talk or think about is architecture, or studio this, or studio that.  Dorms are like locker rooms for us–we use them to shower and change and then leave.  Our official roommates (“official” meaning it is on the housing record) consider our presence in our rooms an occurrence about as frequent as Christmas–or, sometimes, a mere myth, comparable to Bigfoot.  As a large group of 100+, we strive towards the same goal (becoming professional architects–though, right now, simply surviving project to project).  I have slept in studio.  (Not overnight–just a nap–but still.)  I frequently eat in studio.  My friends are in studio.  I chat with lots of people here.  And I work, and work, and work, late into the night.

So, Kevin–I think architects just might beat actors in terms of “bad monks.”  Minus the universally accepted norm of “messed-up is okay,” of course (though we still do have our weirdos).

Excerpt taken from Memoirs of a Bad Monk, a book as of yet unwritten by Ink.

Searching for Beauty

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So I’m in university now.  Fancy.  A big girl.  And my favourite building on campus is the fanciest one there.  It’s old, and beautiful.  Don’t get me wrong–I totally appreciate and respect the steel-and-glass structures of modern buildings.  But I have the biggest soft spot for anything old, tall, fancy, and imposing.  And stained-glass windows are even better.

I think I’m one of the few in my class who loves old stuff this way.  I’ve always loved vintage things–especially when they have good stories behind them.  I’m bad at history, but I love things with history.

Many people hear “old” and think “run-down,” “dysfunctional,” “outdated,” “impractical,” etc.  I hear “old” and I hear “antique,” “historical,” and “classic” (and yes, I do know that in terms of wooden boats, those are age categories).  “Vintage” doesn’t mean “retro” in my mind–it’s the real deal.

Frequently, I find it much easier to find beauty in old buildings or things or customs–or things which are “call-backs,” in a sense, to things of the past.  The details, symmetry, and elegance of old buildings always cause my face to brighten.  Some “antiquated” customs such as chivalry (which Quill can ramble insightfully about ad infinitum, if anyone lets him) are caring and thoughtful, even if they’re “in-bred” or whatever.  Old dances make me smile with their formalities and mannerisms–such a radical difference from the “dances” of today.

As I go around on my day-to-day life of drawing, erasing, re-drawing, and attempting to make my lines straight (still working on that), I try to find beauty wherever I look.  The small details and intricacies in older buildings (or buildings modeled after older styles) intrigue me.  However, things in the natural world are eye-catchingly beautiful, too–the latticework of tree branches, dappled lighting along a path, a wall covered in climbing ivies or flowering trumpet vines.

If I’m ever lucky enough to catch a sunset, it catches me off-guard with its loveliness.  Sunset is, quite possibly, my most favourite time of day.  The brilliant, dominant beauty of the star of the day is receding to allow for the subtle and mysterious beauty of the stars of the night.

I guess I’m just concluding this ramble with a point: in a world where “art” does not necessarily constitute beauty, and loveliness is often considered “cost-prohibitive,” the Big Man Upstairs still has the right idea.  He made flowers, which are beautiful.  And stars.  And sunsets.  And you know what?  They’re FREE.