Growing up I remember visiting the homes of friends of our family, many of whom were (even in the 1980’s) off the boat Italian immigrants. There were so many characteristics to our visits. There were torrents of hugs and kisses from which you could not escape. There were heavy accents and unfamiliar terms thrown around in our Neapolitan dialect. There were mounds of brightly colored candies, tiny bottled fruit drinks and other imported delicacies fresh from the local salumeria (Italian deli). There were also, most amazing of all, TWO of every room in the house. There was the regular entrance through the garage or back door, and there was the formal entrance that no one ever seemed to use. There was the day-to-day kitchen, often in the basement, and there was the formal marble clad, top of the line equipped kitchen upstairs… that we never went to. There was the rickety dining table and well-worn couch downstairs in front of the TV, and there was the formal set upstairs… a wedding gift from years ago never to be sat on, wrapped (think “Everyone Loves Raymond”) in clear plastic slip covers to preserve the damasked cushions. As Ray Romano once quipped, “Everything in my mother’s house is for an event that will never happen. She’s waiting for either the Pope, Frank Sinatra, or Tony Danza to visit.”
Years later I learned that this wan’t the whole story. The formal rooms were used a few times a year: Christmas, Easter, family events like weddings, etc. They were aspirational rooms that proclaimed, “We have arrived, and on our best days this is who we are.” There is something strangely comfortable about the formal.
All this came flooding back as I walked the streets of Charleston two weeks ago. For those here in DC: Charleston is like a genetically enhanced version of Georgetown. Rambling cobblestone streets go on for blocks without end… beautiful waterfront vistas, and gardens that easily overflow their appointed boundaries… all these characterize this elegant place. So does this: formal classical architecture. Everywhere there are Greek columns, church steeples, fine wrought iron gates. If the Roman Forum ever moved to the South, it could be Charleston. For all the formality, though, Charleston is a very comfortable city to walk around. I’d even go so far as to say that it is a comforting city to explore. I found myself relaxing more and more with each step. How can the formal be comforting?
Basic Platonic philosophy tells us that the material world we inhabit draws its structure and being from a spiritual realm of “forms.” If I draw a circle on paper, my imperfect rendering is based on the perfect “form” of a circle that exists in the “formal” realm. There are no perfect dogs on earth, but all dogs participate in the common and perfect “form” of dog ever present in the “formal” realm. Any given thing on this earth will be happiest as it more and more deeply participates in its ideal form. So the more carefully I draw a circle, the better and the happier it will be. A strong, healthy, more perfect dog will be happier than a fat, lazy one.
Aristotle and Aquinas showed that Platonic philosophy has its limits, but from this topic of “forms,” I think we can all draw some useful wisdom. I’d propose that Charleston is a “happy,” comfortable and comforting city because it strives to incarnate forms. Charleston didn’t have to be built on neo-classical Greco-Roman forms. They could’ve built a city of gothic forms or Buddhist forms, but the great efforts of the city fathers to fulfill their chosen forms as perfectly as possible makes the buildings, streets, and maybe even the people happy as they bask in the reflected glow of the forms… a taste of heaven on earth. Likewise all those wonderful Italian families in their “formal” sitting rooms. On those special days when they worked extra hard at being the best versions of themselves they could be happiest, most at ease in “formality.”
Philippians 2:6 tells us that Jesus is the “form of God” (L. Forma Dei). Indeed we know from the whole Gospel that he is the fullness of the Revelation of the Father (Jn 14:9). Insofar as we are made in the image and likeness of God, Jesus is our form. Even Pilate stumbled on this truth when he proclaimed “behold the man.” (Ecce homo) (Jn 19:5). At Christmas all of Creation rejoiced as the perfection of human form took flesh and dwelt among us. What does all this teach us? It teaches us that for the Christian, formality doesn’t have to be about staid discomfort. It can be about a closer and closer resemblance to heaven, in which we revel in a deeper and deeper relationship with Jesus, thus becoming better, happier versions of ourselves until one day our bodies are raised with his, “in a more glorified form,” to be one with him forever. This we call conversion. This we call the beauty of the forms.